The Eyes Have It

That all-important "spark" in wildlife photography



     Most experienced wildlife photographers already know the importance of "eye contact" when capturing wildlife photos, but it's a subject seldom talked about. Too many aspiring wildlife photographers seem unaware of the issue. I know I certainly was when starting out. It's understandable, since there is already a myriad of issues to keep track of when you're just beginning...... focus, exposure, framing and composition, learning the in's and out's of your camera and lens features, buttons, settings..... the list goes on and on. A small detail like the eyes of your subject may seem relatively unimportant compared to . . say. . . getting the exposure right. But the fact remains that getting the eyes right is, in the final analysis, just as important, if not more so. The most well-composed, perfectly exposed, once-in-a-lifetime action shot can be ruined if the subject's eye is blank, not visible, closed or out of focus compared to the rest of the scene. While this issue is mostly avoidable by using good practices, sometimes it is simply unavoidable. I will outline what can go wrong, and offer ideas on how to avoid it for the most part. For those times when it's unavoidable, I will offer ideas on how to fix the problem.
     There are several ways this problem can manifest itself, but each has a means to either avoid the problem in the first place, or to fix the problem after-the-fact. Though all my examples here are birds, this issue and it's fixes are the same no matter what you're photographing. Whether it's elephants, tigers, hunting dogs, the pet cat, horses, antelope, birds, frogs or wolves, the importance of eye contact and how to get it right is the same. Also note, my software adjustment instructions here are referencing Adobe Photoshop tools and terminology. If you use other software, your tool and function names may differ. Hopefully you can make the connection so you can do these adjustments with your chosen graphics or editing software.

Shadowed Eye from backlighting
and slight underexposure
Photoshop "shadow / highlight"
& "levels" adjustments can help
Additional improvement with
selective "levels" & "unsharp
mask" adjustments to the eye
Hidden Eye and Shadowed Eye - These are easily identifiable by the name. If the subject's head is turned so that the eyes are not even visible, there is nothing you can do except don't take the shot to begin with. Wait until the animal turns it's head for a good pose where the eye is visible. Shadowed Eye comes about by having a bad angle of lighting that puts the eye in shadow. This can be a cast shadow from another object or the shadow from the subject's head when turned away from the light. Wait out the subject until it turns its head so light hits the eye, or until it moves so it is no longer under the shadow of a nearby object. Frankly, it's just common sense . . .but being aware of the issue is key here. If you're not paying attention to it . . . too busy fussing with focus or exposure . . . and don't notice, it'll bite you.
Scoter hen eye in good light
     Both these issues are avoided the same way. You have to "see" what you're looking at, and have the presence of mind to realize there is a problem before shooting. Wait until you can see the eye and have good light on it. . . . then take the shot.
     You can often salvage a shot with Shadowed Eye with some software adjustments, especially when the image actually has some detail in the eye you can work with, like the hen Scoter duck examples above. Brightening the shadowed areas in Photoshop with the "shadow / highlight" controls can help, as seen on the middle example. Additionally, by isolating the eye with the "eliptical marquee tool" or "lasso tool", you can apply some selective adjustments to the eye alone to further improve the contrast and detail in the eye. But don't overdo this (more on that later).


Dead Eye - You might call this "zombie eye" because there seems to be no life in the eye at all. Some animals have eyes so dark they are virtually solid black, and no amount of sun or fill flash will bring out any detail. With Dead Eye, even if there is light hitting it, the most you can hope for is a glint on the eyeball called a "catch light". You can mostly avoid Dead Eye by, again, being vigilant when shooting, watching for that glint of light in the eye, and shoot only when you see it there . . . or . . . by skillful use of fill flash. If you have otherwise good shots, but there is no "catch light" at all, it usually can be added with software. Use a tiny soft-edged brush point and put a tiny dot of white on the eye. This is tricky, because it can look really fake if not done well. I recommend studying your photos that have a good "catch light" to see the size and location of a real natural "catch light" which you can mimic for best results.

Dead Eye on a
Marbled Godwit
Dead Eye carefully
fixed in Photoshop
Dead Eye fix done incorrectly -
too big & wrong position
A slight turn of the head
provides a natural catch light
Selective adjustment in Photoshop
accentuates the catch light

     In the first Marbled Godwit example above, the face has plenty of light, but the eye is not at an angle to catch the sun directly, resulting in a lifeless black hole. Skillful addition of a white dot in the correct location with a tiny soft-edged brush in Photoshop fixes this problem in the second example above. The third example shows how NOT to do it. If the fix is done wrong, it LOOKS wrong. In example four, just a slight turn of the head produces a natural catch light, which can be accentuated with a little selective adjustment (only to the eyeball). Adding some contrast with "levels" controls works well. In this instance, also using a little "unsharp mask" accentuated the catch light even more.

Nictitating membrane visible
on a drake Canvasback
Same Canvasback with
beautiful red eye visible
Ghost Eye (Nictitating membrane) - In the case of birds, sharks, some mammals and some reptiles, there is a "third" eyelid called a "nictitating membrane" (see Wikipedia) which protects and lubricates the eye. When this membrane flicks into action, it can cover the eye with a semi-translucent skin. It is very often seen in birds while preening, as in the first example at right of a drake Canvasback preening. I avoid shooting these whenever I can tell the eye is covered. But often in a series of rapid-fire shots, one or more of them captures the membrane over the eye while the rest are fine, as in this shot of the very same Canvasback caught with its brilliant red eye visible. It's obvious which shot in this set would be used. But, if you had this issue, and for whatever reason the shot with the covered eye was otherwise the best image, what could you do to fix it?
Original unprocessed image shows
dark band on membrane
The processed image with
dark band retouched
     In the examples at right, luckily one of them is an almost identical image with a good eye. It is possible in Photoshop to either copy and paste, or copy with the "clone tool" a good eye from one image to the other, replacing the bad eye. Obviously it must be correctly sized, and be at the correct angle to match, or it would look odd indeed.
     There is another type of nictitating membrane which is almost completely transparent, but has a dark band along the edge. This hen Scaup photo captures the membrane as it passes half way across the eye, showing the dark band. These can be fixed by using a very small "clone tool" and carefully copying some of the pupil color area over the dark band. Again, this must be done carefully. A sloppy job will look odd and attract attention.
     The important thing to remember is to pay attention to these issues when shooting, and when processing your images. Mastering such details will improve your images, and help you be more observant and thoughtful while shooting. Eventually you won't even have to think about it, and you will gain the confidence to deal with it effectively.

An otherwise sharp, detailed eye
is hard to see against dark
feathers in the original photo
Select the pupil and make "levels"
adjustments so it is easier
to see in the edited photo
Overadjustment will make
the eye look unnatural
Even a good eye sometimes needs improvement - Making eyes better is not limited to fixing problem images. Take the first sample image at the right of the American Wigeon drake as an example. The eye is visible, has a nice catch light, is sharply in focus, and has good detail. The only problem is that it's such a deep brown, it doesn't show up well against the surrounding dark feathers. It's not that you did anything wrong in taking the photo. The light source was coming from overhead, and did not illuminate the pupil very well. In cases like this a little selective touch-up can make the eye easier to see, and add appeal to the image.
     While doing your usual image processing, cropping, etc., select just the pupil with the "eliptical marquee tool" or "lasso tool" in Photoshop and adjust the "levels" sliders so the pupil is brightened just a little, while also increasing the contrast, just a little as well. The middle image at right shows the improvement. However, it is easy to overdo such adjustments if you're not careful, as in the far right example. If it does not look natural, it will detract from the image instead of enhancing it.

This is a test image
This is a test. It is only a test.
     Not every image is a close-up where details and catch lights are visible in the eyes. But that doesn't mean the eye is less important . . . it means the eye is even more important. Try this test. There is a thumbnail on the far right. Before clicking the thumbnail and looking at the image, I want to you be aware of, and consciously think about, what you do when the image comes up. Okay, now click on the thumbnail and view the image, then come back.
     Okay, now what did you do? Think about it. I'm betting that your eye went DIRECTLY to the eye on the duck and stared at it. Did you notice it is the ONLY eye in the photo? All the rest of those ducks' eyes were either hidden by a turned head, or so far out of focus they were indistinguishable. That single, sharp, crisp point . . . the eye . . . immediately grabbed your attention and held it. Even if you tried to look away at the other objects in the photo, it kept pulling you back.
     Go ahead and try it again. See if you can look at the rest of the image without coming back to that one eye. The number of pixels in that eye is a tiny fraction of all the pixels in the whole photo, yet they have the power to draw you in and hold your attention. That is the power of the eye. That is why it is so important to insure the eyes on your photography subjects are in focus and as detailed and interesting as you can make them.

Completely unadjusted
original image
Same image with no adjustments
except sharpening the eyes
The rest of the
image adjusted
     Check out the first flying duck image at right. The far left duck is in best focus. The top duck is next best in focus, while the central duck is noticeably least in focus. The eyes on these ducks clearly show this to be true, each slightly fuzzier than the previous. But in the second image the left and top ducks' eyes have been individually sharpened by selecting them with the "eliptical marque tool" and applying an equal "unsharp mask" adjustment. The least in focus central duck had its eye replaced from the left duck with the "clone tool". With no other adjustments at all but sharper eyes, the brain is fooled into thinking the ducks are in better focus than they really are. In the third image, applying post processing to the rest of the image improves it greatly, but having the eyes sharp and clear is the most important adjustment.