Structural complexity strongly influences biodiversity and ecosystem productivity. On coral reefs, structural complexity is typically measured using a single and small-scale metric ('rugosity') that represents multiple spatial attributes differentially exploited by species, thus limiting a complete understanding of how fish associate with reef structure. We used a novel approach to compare relationships between fishes and previously unavailable components of reef complexity, and contrasted the results against the traditional rugosity index. This study focused on damselfish to explore relationships between fishes and reef structure. Three territorial species, with contrasting trophic habits and expected use of the reef structure, were examined to infer the potential species-specific mechanisms associated with how complexity influences habitat selection. Three-dimensional reef reconstructions from photogrammetry quantified the following metrics of habitat quality: 1) visual exposure to predators and competitors, 2) density of predation refuges and 3) substrate-related food availability. These metrics explained the species distribution better than the traditional measure of rugosity, and each species responded to different complexity components. Given that a critical effect of reef degradation is loss of structure, adopting three-dimensional technologies potentially offers a new tool to both understand species-habitat association and help forecast how fishes will be affected by the flattening of reefs.