This is not a detailed or in-depth post. It is a simple tip on getting your photographs of animals or birds to come to life. Get the animal’s eye(s) to come to life, and your photograph’s made.
I may be oversimplifying things dramatically here, and of course there are an enormous number of factors that can go into creating a wonderful image. Composition, lighting, animal movement, camera settings, positioning, background and a hundred and one other things need to be considered when trying to capture the perfect photo. But even if all of these fall into place in the beautiful dance of nature, yet your subject has its eyes closed, you can throw the photo away.
Ok not quite, you can still capture amazing images, but the difference between sparkly eyes and dark or even closed eyes is immeasurable.
Fortunately in this digital age, one can take hundreds of pictures in a sighting and not bat an eyelid. When trying to get the right lighting in an animals eyes, it often comes down to a single moment, and this means timing. A leopard glancing up and catching a glint of sunlight, an elephant twisting its head at just the right angle or a cheetah peering out from under hooded brows; you may only have one chance in a sighting to get it right, so be ready for it, and don’t be afraid to take more photos than you may think are necessary to maximise your chances of capturing the right moment.
This means a couple of things:
I have been caught out many times, not ready for when my subject does exactly the thing I was expecting it to do. If you are trying to capture that ideal image, be aware of what factors need to combine for it to work, and be ready to capture the moment when they do. Having your camera switched off on the seat next to you just won’t cut it. Have it on and at hand. Ideally mounted or on a beanbag and already positioned for the shot. When the animal lifts its head, or glances into that single patch of sunlight, you are ready to nail the shot.
2. Get your settings right.
Know what the conditions require you to set your camera to. Ask your guide if you are not sure, and take a few practice shots before hand. If I want to photograph a leopard walking towards me but know that it is generally keeping its eyelids lowered, I will probably choose the highest frame rate my camera has to offer and shoot a number of frames in a row as the animal approaches. When reviewing the images, I instantly delete the ones that don’t have both pupils showing.
3. The Golden Hour helps.
The golden light around sunset and sunrise certainly can add a lovely soft warm feel to your photographs, but the fact that the sun is low to the horizon at these times also means it is more likely to angle into an animals eye and cause it to sparkle. It also means the sun isn’t so bright as to cause an animal to try and avoid looking towards it, reducing your chance of catching that eye sparkle.
4. Focus on the eye.
Timing everything perfectly and capturing that eye sparkle won’t help you one jot if you are focused elsewhere on the animal and the eyes are blurry. To help with this, choose a single point focus mode on your camera, and focus specifically on the eye. This is more important if you are shooting a portrait with a small depth of field, but is nevertheless something to be aware of even in a wider angled image. If your subject is moving and you can’t be sure of a stable or predictable point of focus, opt for a wider depth of field.
Have a look at the following photographs to see what effect the eyes of your subject can have on the picture:
I don’t want to imply that your subject’s eyes are the be-all and end-all of capturing a great photo, because there are more factors at play. I do want to stress, though, that they (or sometimes it, as you are often only focusing on a single eye) can add tremendous impact to what would otherwise be a mediocre image.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell