Whether it’s a bird or a person, eye contact in a photo engages and draws the viewer into the photo. It creates a connection between the viewer and the subject. As easy as it sounds to take a photograph of the critter looking at you, we are rarely lucky enough to just walk up to our subject and snap an instant photograph.
Getting that special photo and capturing the right type of eye contact for your composition requires thought and a careful approach, paying attention not only to the subject, but everything going on around you.
These wildlife photography tips will help you get eye-to-eye with your subject and capture the perfect photo.
Tip 1 – Know the Difference Between Eye Contact and Eye Level
While certainly connected, eye contact and eye level are not the same things. When getting to eye level, you are using fieldcraft to change your position relative to the subject, the light, and the environment.
Eye contact is capturing where the subject’s gaze is directed, whether it is looking straight at you or off the frame towards something else.
Tip 2 – Understand the Types of Eye Contact
The types of eye contact in a photo can alter the mood and impact of the shot. We view eye contact as a way to create a connection with other creatures. By including it in your image, you help create and strengthen a connection between the viewer and the subject, or you allow the viewer to see the connection between different subjects in the scene. There are 3 types of eye contact:
- Direct – This is usually what comes to mind first, which is when the subject is looking straight into the lens of your camera and your eyes. This type of eye contact connects you with the animal, helps put you into their world, makes you wonder what they are thinking or feeling, and makes the connection personal. As a photographer, you are setting the stage for the story, making the viewer feel as if they are the subject of the animal’s attention as well as letting them imagine what the animal is feeling.
- In Frame – This is a type of eye contact that the main subject has toward a secondary subject in the scene. An example of this would be a mama wolf looking at her pup or a couple looking at the sunset. As a viewer, you don’t have as personal of a connection with the subjects, as you shift from being the focus of their attention to an observer watching them. As a photographer, you are capturing a story playing out, and presenting this narrative to the viewer. The viewer’s emotions, memories, and perceptions decide how they feel about the subjects and story. Viewer’s emotions can be carefully guided by the photographer’s choices in light and composition to create a specific mood and elicit feelings in the viewer.
- Off Frame – One of the more potentially challenging forms of eye contact to include successfully is when the subject is looking out of the frame toward something unseen by the viewer. An off frame eye contact lets the viewer imagine the story for this photo and create their version of what is happening. As a photographer you can guide and suggest the story they imagine through subtle cues, like the placement of the subject in the frame, angles, composition, leading lines, etc. These types of images are the most easily misinterpreted by the viewer, as their imagination is involved in creating the story of the shot.
Tip 3 – Go Low or Go High
Wildlife comes in all shapes and sizes. To capture impactful eye contact, you have to get to eye level with the animal. The angle of eye contact can invoke different moods, such as how looking down at an animal can give the viewer a sense of power over them, or make the creature appear weaker and smaller than they truly are.
When you get eye level with an animal, you are in their world. This often serves to create the deepest connection between the viewer and the subject, allowing them to feel more empathy and interest for the animal.
If your subject is up in a tree or flying around, you will have to change your altitude or change your angle. For ground subjects, the smaller they are, the lower you have to go!
Tip 4 – Level Your Background
While adjusting your eye level makes your images more intimate and engaging, as with everything in photography, you may have to make compromises. You can use the viewing angle to draw your viewer into the shot, and you can also use it to compose your image and remove distracting items from the background or foreground.
Sometimes going too low may pull things into the background which you do not want, so find the right height that gives you a nice background, but still gives you that eye level feel.
Tip 5 – The Lowdown on Getting Down Low
Humans tend to be taller than many creatures we encounter. While there are plenty of animals that live in trees or are taller than us, many are ground dwellers. If you want to capture eye level images, a best practice would be to get down on the ground with them.
I tend to get many funny looks when I venture on Florida beaches in search of wildlife photos. While beachgoers are in their swimsuits and flip-flops; I’m dressed in fishing waders, knee and elbow pads, and a utility belt full of gear.
You will quickly learn two things. First, as the animal moves around, if you jump up to move to a new spot you will only stress the animal and scare them off. Crawling slowly, while pushing your camera along ahead of you, causes the least amount of stress and will get you to the right angles for your images.
The best technique is the leopard or military crawl. There are plenty of YouTube videos demonstrating how to crawl properly if you are not an expert crawler (it’s an art and a science, speaking from experience as part of the 1972 Olympic Speed Crawling Team). It is important to wear knee and elbow pads to protect yourself from getting torn up by whatever you are crawling over.
Second, pushing your camera in front of you while crawling is not that easy when it’s on a tripod. You definitely want to use a support of some kind, especially when working with a large telephoto lense. Utilizing a support will give you sharper images, cut down on fatigue from holding it, and allow you to use your hands to maneuver. This is where ground supports like the Platypod Max and Ultra are extremely useful. You can push them along in front of you, across the ground surface, instead of having to pick up and leapfrog your tripod forward one foot at a time.
Tip 6 – Ground Gear
When on the ground, select gear and settings that give you the most flexibility for any wild animal you may encounter. You never know who may suddenly show up, or what action may occur. Because you are lying down, it becomes more cumbersome to carry gear or try to switch up lenses.
My preferred support for ground-level wildlife photography is the Platypod Max or Ultra, with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head and a Wimberley Sidekick. Adding the Sidekick provides more height and flexibility in adjusting your sight angle. Sometimes going too low may pull things into the background that distract the viewer from the subject of your photo. You may also suddenly find that you can no longer see your subject due to foreground objects getting in the way. The Sidekick helps you see your subject through any foreground elements, adjusts your background composition, and still has that eye level feel.
When sliding your Platypod forward, check that the front edge is not digging into the dirt. As you push it ahead, also pull back and push down slightly on the back of your camera, so it shifts the center of balance toward the back of your Platypod, and lifts the front edge of the Platypod slightly off the ground. Also, don’t use the screw-in foot pegs for this type of photo exercise because it will keep you from being able to slide it at all.
Tip 7 – Big Zoom Lens vs. Prime Lens
For lenses, I opt to go with a big zoom over a prime. In my case, I use the Tamron 150-600mm. As beautiful as my 500mm prime is, it’s much heavier and is less flexible in terms of positioning and composition. With a zoom, you can roll your focal length in and out to adjust and capture what is right in front of you. When using a prime, you have to move if the action is too close or too far away. Because you move much slower on the ground, when using a prime you will at times sacrifice the great shot you have in your head for the limits of your focal length. The newest generation of these big zooms offer an exceptional image quality and flexibility, at lower weight and cost.
Tip 8 – Leave Your Lens Collar Loose
With any of these lenses, use the lens collar to attach it to your Sidekick or ballhead. Keep the collar loose so you can quickly change between vertical and horizontal compositions. Locking the collar and dropping the camera over into the “notch” on your ballhead for portraits can result in a change in the camera’s center of gravity, causing it to tip over.
The additional advantage of a gimbal stabilizer is that it makes the camera feel almost weightless, allowing you not only to pan left and right, but also adjust up and down, and roll your orientation from portrait to landscape effortlessly.
Tip 9 – Keep it Clean
While you are on the ground, don’t open your hand and use it to “push-off” the ground to move or stand up. Otherwise, your palm will be covered in dirt, sand, or whatever you were crawling around in to get your shot. You will likely get that all over your gear, and cleaning sand off your camera is not fun!
Use a closed fist to push yourself up. Using this closed fist technique keeps the dirt on the outside of your hand and away from the camera when you grab it. I also recommend carrying a large soft-bristled paintbrush, using that to knock the excess dirt off yourself and your equipment.
Tip 10 – When it’s Time to Leave
Just because you got all the shots you wanted, doesn’t mean you should jump up and leave. Taking care in the way you disengage is just as important as your care in approaching an animal.
Patience is key to great wildlife photography, and no photo is worth harming the animal or environment you are photographing! Wait for them to leave, or ease out slowly and calmly the same way you came in, causing as little disturbance as possible.
Take this extra time to observe and learn. Every moment can teach you something new about the creature you are photographing.
Wildlife Photography Tips: Conclusion – Slow Down and Enjoy!
One of the best parts of ground-level wildlife photography is that it causes you to slow down. Take a few moments to watch the animals, paying attention to what they are doing, and how they react to their environment.
I hope these wildlife photography tips help you meet and photograph some amazing creatures. Enjoy the moment in their world, see things from their point of view, embrace this different perspective, and have fun.
After all, that’s why we are out there as wildlife photographers!
Jason Hahn is a nature and adventure photographer who has been photographing all the amazing creatures and places this planet has to offer for over a decade. Also a Florida Master Naturalist, he enjoys teaching about photography and the natural world. He currently calls Florida home, with his wife, son, and more cats than he would like to admit. When not writing about himself in the third person, he enjoys sunsets and long walks on the beach while carrying 40 pounds of camera gear. He can most often be found wading through a swamp, hunting down a good burger joint, or enjoying time with his family. You can find out more about Jason, including his photo workshops, at HahnNaturePhotography.com.
A version of this post by Jason Hahn originally appeared on Photofocus and included a gear list.
This post by Jason really caught our eye. Wildlife photography speaks to an intimacy and connection that must be hard to achieve. We asked wildlife photographer Lewis Marroquin for his thoughts.
“I believe an image of an animal should be intimate and personal. Our images reflect our feelings with hopes to move people to perceive what we feel about a living creature. It should be a striving goal to capture at eye level, to emphasize an animal’s importance and its strong sense of belonging, just as us humans desire in life; not at high level to show them as inferior or of lesser value in their own habitats. Both should be equal in our eyes. This is how I strive to capture my visual story as a wildlife photographer.”
Lewis Marroquin, TruLife Feature Photographer
If you enjoyed this post, sign up to receive additional information from TruLife® Acrylic and a promotion from one of our print partners.
Purchasing as a gift? Please note that processing your TruLife Acrylic print can take up to two weeks, so check with your fabricator, and get your holiday orders in soon.
Share this Article:
This article is intended for educational purposes only and does not replace independent professional judgment. Statements of fact and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) individually and, unless expressly stated to the contrary, are not the opinion or position of Tru Vue or its employees. Tru Vue does not endorse or approve, and assumes no responsibility for, the content, accuracy or completeness of the information presented.