For the beginners entering into the realm of photography, wildlife photography can be one of the toughest fields to master. Together with all the normal challenges of general photography and getting your head around your camera, you also have to deal with subjects that generally have no interest in cooperating, don’t take orders and pretty much do as they please.
As an experienced photographer, there is so much advice you would love to pass on to someone getting started in wildlife photography in order to help them get started. Good lighting is always a major role player. Timing and composition are subtleties that will develop as you hone your photographic eye, but also comes with lots of patience, persistence and experience. But there is one golden rule of wildlife photography that for me is one of the most important!!
It’s all in the eyes!!
Photographing wildlife is very different to photographing say a landscape or just any old object like a car. Your wildlife subject has eyes, and our natural tendency as humans is to make eye contact. As a result, if you can capture the eyes effectively in a wildlife photograph, you have achieved one of the main ingredients of a great image, this is where the saying “Eyes are the window to the soul” holds true. Eyes that are captured in a compelling way create a bond between the subject and the viewer, even images of subjects that are half hidden behind a bush or lost in the shadows can still be striking if the eyes have that connection.
Now what’s just as important is to note, is that the eyes do not necessarily have to be looking at the camera to have impact on the image. With our natural instinct to try and make eye contact, we are inclined to look first at the eyes of a subject and as a result of this we follow its gaze. So if the subject is looking to the left, our eyes tend to wander in that direction. The power this can have now when it comes to things composition is astronomical, by using the position of the subject and the direction of its gaze, you can actually influence the way your viewer looks at your image.
For example, imagine a scene with a leopard lying on a branch of a tree and a few meters away in the main trunk of the tree is the leopards kill. Position yourself so the leopard is on the right and the kill is on the left. If you take your shot when the leopard is looking to the left (towards the kill), you will have created a composition that brings the two elements of the image together. People will first notice the leopard, then follow its gaze to the kill, the result a well balanced image.
This is a great method to create storytelling compositions and images, but it also adds a little bit of pressure on you to get it right.
Two simple tips can help you make the most of the impact of the eyes in your wildlife image.
Photograph your subjects when the light is soft and even, to eliminate harsh shadows across the face of the subject. Shoot early morning or late evening when the sun is low, or on cloudy days when shadows are not a problem.
Make sure the subject is facing toward the centre of the Image. Remember that just as the eyes can lead the viewer into the image, they can also lead the viewer out of the image. When your animal subject is on the right, try to catch it facing left (and vice-versa).
These are just simple guidelines or rules you could call them, but as with all the other rules you may come across regarding any form of photography, rules are made to be broken!! You will sometimes find situations where these tips just don’t work for your image, you may even find times where it’s impossible to capture the eyes or may decide to break the rule from time to time, just to create a different kind of impact. Does this mean that the image will have less impact?? Not necessarily, it may just create exactly what you want, a different kind of impact. An example is the image below.
Even when you decide to try something different, never forget the power of the eyes in your wildlife photography. In most cases, it means the difference between a snapshot and something really special.