The Eyes Have It

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A Simple Rule Transforms Images

Want to shoot great wildlife photographs all the time? It can be done by strict adherence to one hard and fast rule: “The eyes have it.” Photography is all about the eyes; specifically the eyes of the subject.
Eyes are much more than the windows to 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. 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 catchlight or highlight. These small telltale reflections of the photo’s light source give life to the subject and image. Flat dark eyes without a catchlight appear dead, and cause the viewer’s eye to lose interest in the entire subject.
No matter what focusing mechanism or method you use in your photography, the camera and your eye must constantly focus on the subject’s eyes and you must trip the shutter only at the moment the eye is completely in focus and a catchlight flashes on its surface. Forget about the rest of the subject and shoot it in the eyes. This rule always — always, always — applies no matter how large or small the subject, or how narrow the depth of field. 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 and we must force ourselves to observe the scene within the viewfinder with divided vision. What is that? Divided vision is the ability to observe and monitor the overall composition of the scene, while keeping the subject’s eye in constant focus by your eye and the camera lens. No 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 have a presentable photo.
Not only must you commit to focusing on the eyes, you must also select the proper eye to focus on. With animals such as deer, elk, moose and most birds, we often see only one eye at a time. But with owls, bears and humans, which have eyes located on the same plane and are observed simultaneously, it is vitally important to focus on the eye 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. Keep your attention and the focus sensor upon the nearest eye. Focusing on the more distant eye renders the closer eye in soft focus, imparting a bleary-eyed look to the subject.
Most of us are now using auto-focus cameras and lenses, and 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 modern high-end digital and film cameras feature focus sensors that can be selected at the will of the photographer. Even so, the location of the sensor in the view finder frame rarely falls directly on the subject’s eye as you compose the overall scene. 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 the head of a great-horned owl and its overly large eyes that contained a clearly visible scene of a suburban garage and driveway containing a car and several onlookers. Although perfectly composed and exposed, neither the photographer, nor the publication’s editor, had focused on those all-important eyes.
Of course, the appearance of the eyes can be manipulated in the computer, but we must strive to obtain the best quality photograph possible in the camera. Great images require little computer adjustment and result in images that please the eye of the beholder.♦
-Tim Flanigan is an award winning, Pennsylvania based, freelance outdoor writer/photographer and a proud member of OWAA since 1996. Two of his images earned OWAA EIC awards in the association’s 2013 awards program. Tim and his wife Debbie operate Nature Exposure, a freelance writing/photography business and Tim teaches digital photography at a local community college and other venues. You can view his work at

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