Why and How Photographing the Expression of a Wild Animal – Part 2
Breaking the Rule of Thirds
Creating contact with the eyes of an animal immediately catches the attention of the viewer of a photograph. Nevertheless, the eyes will not necessarily be on one focus point in the photo. This should not be a concern, since the rules used in the moment of shooting, once they are mastered, can be forgotten voluntarily for a specific reason.
The important thing one must remember is that the photographer must direct the line of sight between the photographed eyes and the viewer’s eyes.
To accomplish this expertly, we recommend trying different positions or tests to determine how you as the photographer prefer to direct attention to the animal's eyes.
If you are trying to photograph an animal looking down, do not hesitate to make a noise to get his attention and raise his head. If he is alert, the gaze will appear strongly focused at the viewer.
Photographing at Eye Level
Whether in terrestrial or underwater animal photography, I always try to photograph at eye level; the photographs have more impact because the line of sight is strong.
It is obvious that for birds flying, you will have to photograph low angle. But in this case, it is quite rare that you manage to capture the eyes of the birds.
This is also the case in underwater photography. Low-angle photography is a technique I use a lot for fish or marine mammals.
It makes it possible to show my subjects in a more imposing way and to give them volume. But I do not make it an absolute rule. For photography of small crustaceans or fish, I arrange myself to always photograph at eye level.
From my point of view, a photograph of an underwater or terrestrial animal at high angle has no interest in artistic photography. I can conceive it in illustrative photography because it can show a behavior. But a high-angle photograph crushes the subject. You lose the notion of volume and size.
To photograph terrestrial animals, depending on the size of the animals, I arrange to find the best position. For monkeys like geladas or vervet monkeys for example, I'm always lying or sitting. It is certain that in nature it is not always appetizing because I drag myself in the excrement all day long, but the results are absolutely extraordinary.
When I photograph mammals from a blind, the height of my seat depends on the size of the animals. In Africa, I never photograph from the 4x4 roof: only from the windows.
For wetland bird photography, I only photograph from a floating blind.
This is the only way to create photographs with a strong look besides the fact that it allows me to approach very close the animals.
Photographing a terrestrial or underwater animal at eye level allows contextualizing the animal in its environment. You can show his universe from his point of view and not only from yours.
Whenever possible, try to always put yourself at the height of the animal. Avoid as much as possible high-angle photography.
Focus on the Eyes
I think that in wildlife photography, eyes are the most important elements to highlight. They are the ones who will determine the intensity and impact of your photography.
It is for this reason that it is absolutely necessary to focus your camera on the eyes. If the eyes are blurry or are not quite sharp, the photograph is missed. Indeed, the viewer will not be able to connect to the main point of interest of the photo.
Of course, this rule does not apply in the case of a photograph that uses the creative technique of motion blur. For example, a herd of buffaloes photographed blurry during the crossing of the Mara River will give an unreal effect.
As always, every rule has its exceptions.
If you are taking a picture an animal, the focus point should in most cases be on the eyes.
Show the Catchlight in the Eye
The catchlight in the eye is a small white spot of light in the black pupil. It is created by reflected light. This small brightness has a huge impact. He brings life to a photograph.
I often call this light "the shine of life”. I think it's also very cultural. When we learned to look at and analyze painted portraits, painters always add this spot of light to catch the eye of the viewer. When we look at a living being, we seek it systematically.
Much more than sharp eyes, we seek the shine of life to identify ourselves with a living being.
There is no real trick to add it to an animal's gaze because you cannot change the position of the sun or the subject for obvious reasons. But anyway, it is absolutely necessary to avoid having the head of an animal in the shade if you want to see this small light appear.
For me, if the day light or the sun is present in a photograph, the catchlight in the eye is an indispensable element. Otherwise the picture is missed.
In post-development, I accentuate its effect to make it even more visible.
If you are a little curious, try using a development software to remove this spot of light. Immediately you will see that your photography does not have any impact. You have black eyes. You can no longer identify yourself with the living being photography. I assure you that this is a test to be done to understand the interest of the catchlight.
I am so obsessed with this shine of life that when I take a photograph of an animal and my eye is looking thru the viewfinder of the camera, I always wait for the right moment to detect it. Only then do I trigger.
Some Examples of Looks of Underwater Animals
One or Two Eyes: Everything Depends on the Scene
Must you show one or both eyes of an animal? This is a question to which I have no definitive answer. It all depends on the scene and the message you want to convey.
For an off-camera photograph, seeing only one eye is perfectly justified. You will follow the line of gaze that is directed line. It is this virtual line that guides the photo. If the animal is facing you, it is essential to have both eyes to create the connection immediately.
Tight or Large Plan
There is no absolute rule for choosing the plan. It is above all a question of style and personal approach.
I rarely photograph tight shots because I really like to breathe in the pictures. I like freedom, movement, wind, space. The tight shots enclose me and compel me a lot. I created collections on African felines in tight plan, but it was mostly because of the environment that was not adequate.
If you choose a tight shot, place your eyes in the middle of the photo to ensure a perfect balance of masses. The animal must be well centered.
Whether in underwater or terrestrial photography, for mammals or birds, I prefer wide shots because they allow me to highlight the attitude of the animal and enhance the message transmitted in the photo.
Everything will depend on what you want to transmit and create through your photography.
Natural Light or Flash
The use of flash is a necessity in underwater photography. It allows you to easily create the catchlight in the eye and revive the colors of your subjects.
In terrestrial photography, the use of flash is interesting in the case of the photo of passerines. By using a Fresnel system in front of the flash, you can easily create the spot of light in the eye. The birds are often distant, and the catchlight is difficult to capture. By adding an artificial light that will bring to 50 or 60 meters (150 to 180 feet) with the Fresnel system, it is the guarantee to obtain a photo that will have impact.
Some Examples of Looks of Birds
Photographing the eyes of animals is an extraordinary technique for making interesting animal photos because it allows the viewer to create a link directly with the main subject of your shot.
There is no miracle solution, no magic formula to succeed in creating inspiring photos because you do not have control over the position of the animal and the light.
You have to experiment again and again. By developing your own style and technique you will apply some of these points.