The eyes have it

Want to shoot great wildlife photographs all the time? It can be done by strict adherence to one hard, fast rule: “The eyes have it.” Photography is all about the eyes, especially the eyes of the subject. Eyes are much more than the windows of the soul. So much so that the manner in which they are rendered in a photograph or painting is of the greatest importance to the quality of the work. From the moment you read this sentence, your photography will immediately improve if you always focus your attention and your lens on the eye of the subject and nothing else. To produce high-quality images of living things, from elk to mayflies, you must capture at least one of the subject’s eyes in sharp focus, and it must contain a catch light or highlight. These small telltale reflections of the photo’s light source convey the impression of life. Flat, dark eyes, without the enhancement of a catch light appear dead, and the entire subject loses interest to the viewer’s eye. No matter what focusing mechanism or method you use in your photography, the camera and your eye must be constantly focused on the subject’s eyes and the shutter tripped only at the moment the eye is in completely sharp focus and a catch light flashes on its surface. Forget about the rest of the subject and shoot it in the eyes! This rule applies always, always, always; no matter how large or small the subject or how narrow the depth of field may be. Shoot the elk or buck in the eyes and let the rest of the subject be rendered as it may. We can, of course, influence the depth of field by selecting various f-stops (lens aperture sizes), but even the narrowest band of sharp focus will produce great wildlife photos if the eye is located within the sharpest portion of the photo. We’ve all heard about the deer hunter who focused on the antlers of the buck of a lifetime and missed the shot. This same division of attention afflicts photographers. We must force ourselves to observe the scene within the viewfinder with divided vision. What is divided vision? It is the ability to observe and monitor the overall composition of the scene, while keeping the subject’s eye in constant focus. It doesn’t matter how the subject is oriented to the camera, or how long or broad the subject may be, if the eye is captured properly, you will have a presentable photo. So vital is this rule that we must also select the proper eye to focus upon. With animals such as deer, elk, moose and most birds, we often see only one eye at a time, but when shooting subjects such as owls, bears and, of course, humans, with eyes located on the same plane and observed simultaneously, it is vitally important to focus on the eye that is closest to the camera. A slight turn of the subject’s head can shift one eye a few millimeters farther from your lens and slightly out of the focal plane. No problem; keep your attention and the focus sensor on the nearest eye. Focusing on the more distant eye renders the closer eye in soft focus, imparting a bleary-eyed look.  Most of us are now using autofocus cameras and lens. Although auto-focus capability is a wonderful aid, it must be applied with precise purpose to render a living thing’s eyes as sharp as possible. Nearly all high-end digital and film cameras feature selective-focus sensors that enable precise spot-focusing. Even so, the location of the sensor in the viewfinder frame rarely falls directly on the subject’s eye as you compose the overall scene. When this occurs, simply place the focus sensor on the eye and depress the shutter release until it snaps into sharp focus. Maintain that focus setting with steady pressure on the shutter release, move the lens to the desired composition and trip the shutter. We must also remember that the eye’s surface is highly reflective and often produces mirror images that may include the photographer and the area behind him or her. This is especially true with close-up photography. I once saw a full-page photograph of a great-horned owl’s head with a clearly visible scene of a garage, driveway, auto and several human onlookers in its large and highly reflective eyes. Although perfectly composed and exposed, neither the photographer nor the publication’s editor had focused their attention on those all-important eyes. Of course, the appearance of the subject’s eyes can be manipulated in the computer, but we must strive to obtain the best quality photograph possible in the camera. Great images require very little computer manipulation and result in images that please the eye of the beholder. Remember: The eyes have it!   Tim Flanigan, of Bedford, Pa., is a freelance writer and photographer and a field editor for Pennsylvania Outdoor Times. His Web site is This article is reprinted with permission from Powwow, the newsletter of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. [print_link]

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