Retinoic acid (RA) is a signaling molecule important for photoreceptor development in vertebrates. The purpose of this study was to examine the mechanisms of the effects of RA upon developing rod and cone photoreceptors in the embryonic zebrafish. Exposure to exogenous RA increased the number of photoreceptors expressing rod opsin and red cone opsin, and decreased the number of photoreceptors expressing the blue and UV cone opsins, suggesting targeted effects of RA on photoreceptor development. RA exposure also increased opsin expression in individual rods and red cones, but decreased opsin expression in individual blue and UV cones, as indicated by differences in the strength of opsin hybridization in identified photoreceptors. RA exposure did not, however, significantly alter quantitative measures of photoreceptor pattern in a manner expected for changes in photoreceptor fate. These observations collectively indicate that RA treatment does not affect photoreceptor fate, but rather differentially influences opsin transcription in determined photoreceptors. An enzyme involved in RA synthesis, RALDH2, was immunocytochemically localized to retinal progenitor cells and the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE), suggesting the presence of RA in the vicinity of developing photoreceptors. However, expression of an RA response element-driven transgene was restricted to the RPE, retinal progenitors, and a small population of neurons in ventral retina, suggesting that the endogenous RA signaling system is spatially limited within the eye.