Visual ecology or the relationship between the visual system of an animal and its environment has proven to be a crucial research field for establishing general concepts of adaptation, specialization and evolution. The visual neuroscientist is indeed confronted with a plethora of different visual characteristics, each seemingly optimised for each species' ecological niche, but often without a clear understanding of the evolutionary constraints at play. However, before we are able to fully understand the influence(s) of ecology and phylogeny on visual system design in vertebrates, it is first necessary to understand the basic bauplan of key representatives of each taxa. This review examines photoreception in hagfishes, lampreys, cartilaginous fishes and lungfishes with an eye to their ecology using a range of neurobiological methods including anatomy, microspectrophotometry and molecular genetics. These early vertebrates represent critical stages in evolution and surprisingly possess a level of visual complexity that is almost unrivalled in other vertebrates.