Remember the cliché expression the eyes are the window to the soul? They aren’t kidding around with that one, and when you capture a piercing look, you can instantly and easily grab the viewer’s attention.
Recently, I’ve been pursuing more wildlife photography than I have in the past, and thus far, I’ve been having a really good time. Truth be told, my lens selection isn’t ideal (I definitely need to look into some longer focal length options than what I have), but I’m learning while making the best of what I have access to. Without question, I am by no means a authority on photographing wildlife, and like a lot of folks out there as we test something new, it’s a trial and error process. One of the things that I’ve found to be true right away is the connection with the eyes hold true regardless of whether you’re looking into the eyes of a person or into the eyes of an animal. If you’re able to get yourself in a position where you can lock eyes or at least capture a degree of catchlight in the eyes, the impact of the image is instantly stronger than you might guess.
For me, when I look at a photograph, I want to feel something. An emotional connection or investment on some level is what’s going to grab my attention. Whether it’s a portrait, a landscape, wildlife, architecture, weddings, or any other genre if I feel emotion in the shot, then in my mind, it’s a great shot. With wildlife, if I can see the light in the subjects eye’s, I feel something. On one hand, I’m definitely assigning the animal human characteristics, anthropomorphizing the critter. On the other hand, is that such a bad thing, though? It’s certainly something that’s worth thinking about. The way I see it, if I take the time to wonder what the animal might be thinking about (whether they are indeed thinking anything at all) because the eyes have made me curious, then that’s more time I’ve spent captivated by the image, and I’d call that a successful photograph.
The thing I’ve learned thus far that runs parallel to the importance of capturing the eyes is patience. If I were to offer one and only one tip it would be the need for patience. If you find yourself in a position to shoot photos of animals (whether you’re trying something at the local zoo or you spot something out in the forest), you are going to have to be patient if you’re hoping to get their eyes. Let the animal do their thing and just sit, watch, and wait. Be ready with your camera, have your settings on point, but be prepared to just wait and watch. They may look your way and they may not; the thing to understand is that’s out of your control. You’re just an observer waiting for the right moment. To get the images of these raccoons, I probably stood watching them for over 45 minutes. Sometimes, I felt like they were looking right at me, sometimes right through me, and sometimes not at all, but those are the moments that I was willing to wait for.
Every animal is different, but if they have eyes, then there’s an opportunity to connect with them through an image. Think about the images you’ve encountered that stop your scrolling. The catchlight in hummingbird’s eye shot at thousandths of a second? The texture of the surface of a spider’s many eyes via macro imagery? The look a predator has as it chows down on its prey? The look a raccoon gives you that makes you wonder what it’s thinking about? Those all sound like things that would grab my attention and keep me looking at and thinking about a photograph.
If you’ve shot wildlife before, you probably know a lot more than me, and I’d love to get your thoughts on this subject. When you’re out in the field and there is an animal in front of your lens, what are you looking for? Do you want to feel like they are looking back at you or would you rather capture the whole scene, an animal in its habitat regardless of eye contact? How do you feel about the subject of anthropomorphizing animals? Is it a slippery slope if we say the raccoon looks happy or thoughtful?
If you’ve never really put serious effort into photographing wildlife, I would strongly recommend that you give it a try if only for the learning experience. A fantastic place to start is your local zoo or wildlife sanctuary if there’s one nearby, which will be filled with educational opportunities as well as provide you a platform to practice in a slightly more controlled setting. This way, the next time you’re out for a hike in the woods and you see an elk or owl in a tree, you might be more ready to get the shot. Be prepared to be patient and remember to try and enjoy the experience whether you get the shot or not.
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