By Sastry Karra
It is often said that the eyes are a window to the soul. The face of any living creature is usually the first thing that catches our attention, and the eyes are where we instinctively and immediately go. The eye figures prominently when it comes to conceptions of beauty. Sight (looking at others) is also a form of communication, an instinct that we inherit at birth, similar to art and music. Sometimes, poets emphasize that eyes speak what lips can’t. So, the eyes of a subject can mean many things and it makes perfect sense that one of the first rules of wildlife photography is to make sure the eyes are sharp.
As a nature photographer, I spend a lot of time photographing different animals, and pay particular attention to their eyes. Yes, I work to get the eyes properly focused but I also think that these animals are saying something to me through their eyes. I realize this is anthropomorphizing, but it’s fun to attribute emotions and intentions to the eyes and expressions of the animals we photograph, so please give me a little leeway here. And, after all, aren’t we trying to convey emotions with our photos and create emotional reactions in viewers? Here are some examples of what I mean.
In this photo, which I took in February, 2020, at the Meadowlands, in New Jersey, the song sparrow’s eyes are looking directly at me. When an animal’s eyes are facing the camera, there is implied non-verbal communication between the animal and the viewer. What is it trying to say to us? Here, the eyes make it look as if the bird is angry that a human is in its territory. Despite giving it plenty of space, shooting with a 500mm lens, and being careful not to disturb the bird, it still looks almost as if it’s shooting daggers at me from its eyes.
The last time I visited Cattus Island Park in South Jersey, in January 2020, I came across these two sparrows facing each other, as if they were having a conversation. They seemed to endlessly stare into each other’s eyes. While it was really just few seconds that they looked at each other this intently, talking eyes don’t need much time to speak in any language or species. I believe that, once another person understands what was communicated with my eyes, something magical happens. I feel the same way about animals, so I like to take photos showing two birds interacting with each other through their eyes.
In February 2020, when I visited New Jersey’s Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge to see the snow geese before they started heading back to Canada, I noticed this male and female. It looked like the male was flirting with the female. Though she was keeping her distance, the female goose stayed close to the male and she was keeping tabs on him out of the corner of her eye. Meanwhile, the male spread his wings and splashed the water. Was it love at first sight? Perhaps, these initial looks sparked some sort of mutual attraction.
Hawk-eyed. Eagle-eyed. When it comes to birds of prey, eyes are critical for finding food, for surviving. Raptors must have a precise sense of the distance between them and their prey. So, unlike some birds, their eyes can face front. Like humans, they have binocular vision. Both eyes can focus on the same subject and the brain receives two signals which, in turn, are converted into a 3D image, giving depth perception. Raptor eyesight is also many times better than that of humans. Here in this Cooper Hawk picture (taken at Cattus Island State Park in January of 2020), the bird is on the top of a tree, looking for prey on the ground. Raptors like hawks and eagles have a brow ridge that makes their eyes look mean and frightening. I don’t want to be its target!
In contrast, this great blue heron in in Delaware Raritan Canal in Amwell, New Jersey, is looking for a fish or crab in the water. For both predators, the deep concentration and wide eyes show them on the hunt. Without the hawk’s menacing brow ridge, the heron looks more curious and less frightening.
When it comes to prey animals, the design of their eyes is completely different. They need to have a greater angle of view to sense the movements of predators and save themselves. The ability to look up, left, right, and forward gives this amphibian some extra time to recognize danger and take a counteraction to escape. Here a frog resting on a log in Raritan River Greenway in New Jersey, is looking me over to determine if I’m a predator. He seems skeptical.
Taken in May, at Duke Island Park, this blue jay is busy looking for some food or, perhaps a mate. Jays are aggressive and territorial. When they’re angry or agitated the crest on their head stands up. When they’re relaxed and calm, it stays down, as it is here. It looks kind of chill but I could see the concentration in its eyes as it focused in on a target. I was careful not to intrude.
I found these sand pipers in May, when I visited Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge to see shorebirds. I noticed this one looking for some food as it walked down the beach, and I noticed the concentration in its eyes. Its entire attention seemed to be on the hunt, zoned into the search, and it reminded me of the focus required to solve some of the complex problems I face in my job.
With the eye autofocus modes of many newer cameras, getting tack sharp photos of the eyes of animals is easier than it’s ever been. Still, that requires an aperture that give you enough depth of field to have a little wiggle room if the bird moves, along with a fast enough shutter speed to freeze any action. A good lens with image stabilization and proper technique holding the camera matter, too. All of these images were taken with a 500mm lens to give the birds and frog some space. Check NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices for more information on sensitive and respectful nature photography.
And, while you’re out there composing your photo and concentrating on getting the animal’s eye sharp, don’t forget to ask yourself what is the animal telling you with those beautiful eyes.
Jaganadha Karra (also know as Sastry – pronounced “sas three”) was born in India, but left when he was 24 years old. For the past 27 years, he’s worked as an IT professional, and has been living in NJ since 2004. During his spare time, he goes outdoors and takes nature photos, especially waterfalls. With his wife (who loves hiking), they go to many nearby state parks where he can experiment with different compositions. In the summer, when his friends play cricket, he’s been trying his hand at sports photography. Find him on instagram at @sastrykarra, where he posts most of his pictures. On Facebook, he’s active in some photography forums, like NANPA. “Maybe I’ll see you there!” he says.