The Eyes Have It

When we meet someone new, we lock on to their eyes like a heat seeking missiles.  Why? The eyes can tell you lot about someone.  Eyes can convey moods, telegraph intentions and even give us insight to the soul. 

This is true with people as well as animals.  For wildlife photographers, eyes play an important part in our compositions.  Eyes can bring a photograph to life. 

“When an animal looks at you, there are all kinds of emotions that come from the eyes.  They tell you the animal is at ease or if you’ve scared the bejebbers out of it.  The eyes are the portals to what’s inside.  The eyes tell it all, “ Dad says.

Old Mescal Bronc | Beebower Productions

Dad’s photograph “Old Mescal Bronc” is a perfect example of the eyes conveying everything you need to know.  The horse in this photograph was just plain crazy. As soon as the cowboy slid into the saddle, the horse launched straight up in the air and began bucking its way down the dusty street and through a mesquite thicket near Dad.  Mesquite trees have some really nasty stickers on them.  The horse wasn’t phased at all.

When Dad studied the film back at his studio, the horse’s crazed eyes spoke volumes about its feelings regarding the whole situation.  Those eyes add an extra layer of interest and dimension to an already great photo.  (You can read the full story about this photograph here.)

By contrast “Harbor Seal Portrait” shows an animal that is more curious about the photographer than alarmed. The eyes are soft rather than panicked or distraught.  Since we were floating along in a boat, something it saw regularly in the slough, the seal knew we didn’t pose much of a danger.  So it watched us for a moment and then went back to sleep. The seal’s eyes in the photograph create a bond between the viewer and the seal.

Capturing the Eyes

If eye contact is so desirable, how do you make sure you capture it regularly?  Through the years we’ve found a few things that tip the scale in your favor.

  • Know your gear:  Understanding how your camera, lenses and flashes work is critical.  You don’t want to be in the animal’s environment frantically reading the camera manual while trying to figure out how to change your f-stop.  You’ll miss the shot.  Often animals only look at you once before they disappear.  You need to be able to adjust your shutter speed, compose a picture and know when to press the button all while the animal makes that one-time, often-brief eye contact.
  • Know your subject:  In the animal kingdom staring is often considered a challenge or something predators do before attacking.  So it pays to know your subject.  If you want to get close enough to take a photograph of a bird, avert your eyes and move very slowly.  Camouflage always helps too. 

Pelican Protrait | Beebower Productions

I was able to creep closer to this pelican simply by looking away and taking tiny, sideways steps with frequent stops.  The pelican certainly knew I was there, but it didn’t freak out.  In fact, I was able to take numerous photographs and the bird remained on the post after I finished, even as I backed away.

No matter what type of animal you plan to shoot, learn as much as you can about it’s natural environment, predators and normal behavior because those things will help you get the picture, especially a picture with good eye contact. 

  • Soulful Sea Lion | Beebower ProductionsGet on the animal’s eye level:  In this picture of the sea lion the eyes make direct contact with the viewer because I was right at the sea lion’s eye level.  The eyes draw the viewer into the photo and keep him engaged.  Shooting at the animal’s eye level can create a powerful connection.
  • Choose a high ISO:  Most wildlife moves quickly.  Such was the case with this osprey.  Dad chose a high ISO before the bird ever showed up because knew ospreys were fast.  In order to freeze the action and keep the eyes sharp, he needed a very high ISO of 4,000.   That ISO allowed him to choose an equally high shutter speed of 1/4,000 of a second.

You can do everything right by focusing on the eyes, but if you don’t have a fast enough shutter speed the animal’s movements will render your photo a blurry mess.  We recommend a minimum speed of 1/1,000 of a second for moving subjects. 

It’s important to note that you get what you pay for in digital camera purchases.  My husband attempted to photograph this same osprey, but was very disappointed with the results. 

Osprey in Full Flight | Beebower Productions

His Canon 60D allowed him to match Dad’s ISO, but the results were very grainy compared to the same image Dad shot with his Canon EOS ID Mark IV.  The culprit?  The Mark IV’s noise reduction capabilities far outpaced the 60D, making Dad’s photo flawless while my husband’s photo was a grainy mess.

  • Focus, Focus, Focus:  If you can see an animal’s eyes in the photo they have to be in focus.  Nailing the focus in a portrait is relatively easy.  But with a moving subject you’ll have to lock on to the subject’s eyes and hang on for the ride, constantly checking to make sure you’re still on target.

Catch Lights

Just capturing the eyes isn’t enough.  You want those eyes to sparkle.  Catch lights are the answer.  It’s that little bit of light that makes you believe this is a living animal. This is especially true in animals that have dark eyes.

“It’s all about the light,” Dad said.  “Photography has always been all about the light, including the catch lights.  If you haven’t got that dimensional quality to the eye, you fail.”

There are three ways to make sure you have a catch light in your subject’s eye.

  • Caracara Craziness | Beebower ProductionsCreate one naturally:  In many situations you can position your subject so the sun creates a natural catch light.  Dad’s photograph of a crested caracara demonstrates this beautifully.  The sun was behind Dad, shining directly into the birds’ faces.  You’ll notice the catch light in the left bird’s eye.  A natural catch light is, by far, the easiest way to bring a sparkle to your subject’s eye. 
  • Create one with reflected light:  This method is better suited to tame animals or human subjects, but under the right circumstances it could work in the field.  Have an assistant position a Flexfill collapsible reflector near the subject so you can utilize the reflected light in the image.  Of course, you have to find an enormously patient assistant to hold the reflector for hours at a time while wearing camouflage. 
  • Green Jay with Worm | Beebower ProductionsCreate one with fill flash:  The fill flash idea provides a reliable system for creating catch lights no matter what the sun is doing.  Most wildlife shots will be done with a long lens so using a Visual Echoes Better Beamer Flash Extender to carry the light far enough is an excellent idea.  (You can read all about this great tool here.)   Most of the time you don’t need the flash at full strength to provide a catch light.

So the next time you’re out shooting wildlife, focus on the eyes.  They’ve got it all: drama, emotion, intention and, with a little help, a certain sparkle.