Those Beautiful Eyes: How a Photographer Uses Sharp Eyes to Convey Emotions

Photo of a sparrow perched on a tre limb looking at the viewer. The Eyes Have It, 500 mm, 1/800 second, f/6.3, ISO 800 © Sastry Karra
The Eyes Have It, 500 mm, 1/800 second, f/6.3, ISO 800 © Sastry Karra

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.

Photo of a bird that is perched on a limb and looking right at the viewer. Song Sparrow’s Glare, 500 mm, 1/500 second , f/6.3 , ISO-800 © Sastry Karra
Song Sparrow’s Glare, 500 mm, 1/500 second , f/6.3 , ISO-800 © Sastry Karra

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.

Photo of two small birds facing each other on the ground. Sparrow Conversation, 500 mm, 1/250 second, f/6.3, ISO 2800, © Sastry Karra
Sparrow Conversation, 500 mm, 1/250 second, f/6.3, ISO 2800, © Sastry Karra

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.

Photo of two geese on the water. One is flapping its wings, the other is just floating and looking at the other. Courting Geese, 500 mm, 1/2000 second, f/6.3 , ISO 380, © Sastry Karra
Courting Geese, 500 mm, 1/2000 second, f/6.3 , ISO 380, © Sastry Karra

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.

Photo of a hawk, perched on a tree branch, looking down. Cooper's Hawk, 500mm, 1/250 second, f/6.3 , ISO 2000 © Sastry Karra
Cooper’s Hawk, 500mm, 1/250 second, f/6.3 , ISO 2000 © Sastry Karra

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!

Photo of a great blue heron in the water near a grassy bank.  Heron Hunting, 500 mm, 1/500 second, f/6.3, ISO 1250, © Sastry Karra
Heron Hunting, 500 mm, 1/500 second, f/6.3, ISO 1250, © Sastry Karra

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.

Photo of a frog in water looking up at the viewer. Skeptical Frog, 500 mm, 1/500 second, f/6.3 , ISO 800, © Sastry Karra
Skeptical Frog, 500 mm, 1/500 second, f/6.3 , ISO 800, © Sastry Karra

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.

Photo of a blue jay perched on a branch, looking down. Blue Jay, 460 mm, 1/20 second, f/6.3, ISO 100 © Sastry Karr
Blue Jay, 460 mm, 1/20 second, f/6.3, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra

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.

Photo of a sand piper walking across a beach. Scouting Sand Piper, 500 mm, 1/320 second, f/6.3, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra
Scouting Sand Piper, 500 mm, 1/320 second, f/6.3, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra

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.

Photo of Sastry KarraJaganadha 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.