The Eyes Have It

Talk to any experienced portrait photographer and they’ll explain the importance of the eyes in any close-up photograph. The best portraits display the subjects eyes clearly and distinctly. It is the eyes that attract the viewers gaze. An important aspect of those captivating eyes is the use of “catch light.”

Catch light is a specular highlight in the subjects eye(s) caused by a reflection of a bright light source.

Unlike a portrait studio where a light and reflectors can be positioned to enhance a human subject, photographic conditions for wildlife can be a bit more difficult to control. Absent the ability to control the light, one must consciously be aware of the possibility that natural light will produce a good result.

The most common technique I use is to position myself with the sun or bright sky to my 4 O’clock or 8 O’clock behind me.  By insuring I have a bright source of light at a suitable angle behind me, all I have to do is watch the animal’s movement and look for that reflection to appear in the eyes of the critter. Once the animal’s eyes are lit, I start firing shots. Once the animal moves and the specular highlight is no longer appearing, I stop shooting until I can see the animal’s eyes again. It’s an observational and reactionary technique called capturing the decisive moment.

For sunlight reflection, I’ve normally found the best conditions to be at sunrise and early morning after sunrise, or late afternoon, as the sun is low in the sky and beaming directly into the eyes of the animal. I try to position myself to get the sun at my 4 or 8 o’clock. Animals don’t normally like to look into the sun so they’ll often times reposition their head to minimize the glare and that can give you a nice angular field of view to their head, thus reducing the likelihood that the animal will be staring directly at the camera.

Bright blue sky can produce a very appealing catch light in the eyes as well. It will normally manifest itself as a half or partial reflection in the upper portion of the critter’s eyes. Again, one looks for the decisive moment. Simply ripping off shots may result in a frame or two with catch light, but waiting for it to happen and capturing it when it does is the secret here.

I’ve noticed a great reluctance on the part of wildlife photographers to use a flash when photographing animals. I’ve heard many reasons for not making use of a flash; I don’t have one, I’m afraid it will startle the animal and it will attack me, I don’t know how to use a flash, etc…

In my experience, firing a flash at an animal produces no response. I’ve never seen an animal react to a flash going off. They don’t know what it is and animals are more likely to react to something they identify as a potential threat. I believe that flash is just another bright light to critters and they are programed to deal with it the same as any other light they see. They react more to the sound of your camera shutter, and the beauty of a flash is that you aren’t likely to rip out a stream of shots, which can startle them. A rapid mechanical sound of a burst from your camera’s shutter is what they’ll react to. With the flash, you may get two or three frames off but that flash is going to have to recharge and this keeps the bursting down to a minimum while the camera waits for the flash to return to use.

Flash is particularly good with lighting the eyes of birds. The reflective properties of bird eyes are different from mammals and that flash can actually light up the eyes of the feathered creatures quite evenly and distinctly. I’ve never seen a bird react to a flash either.

Don’t be afraid to use your flash.

There are situations where you aren’t likely to get a good catch light and you’ll have no choice but to accept the light as it is. Backlit shots are what come to mind as being the mostly likely scenario. If there is no direct light to bounce of the animal’s eyes, you’ll get those deep shadows and you’ll have to rely on other composition techniques to make the photo stand out. Rim light, silhouettes, etc…

I continue to practice what I preach. and practice is where you’ll find the techniques and results that make compelling animal portraits. When you venture out into nature, take the time to concentrate on perfecting the techniques that work. The trick to getting good animal portraits is to be close to the animal and get those eyes lit up. Every animal has a different personality and it’s the portrait that gives us a look into the soul of the creature. It’s the catch light that draws the viewers eye into the photo and directly into the individual personality of the subject.

There’s more to getting an appealing catch light though. Post processing is always an option for enhancing the catch light.

For me, I never create an artificial catch light in Photoshop. A discerning viewer can tell when something is natural and creating a fake light in the eye, to me, is obvious and more often than not unnatural in appearance. I’m not suggesting you not try it or use it, but for me, I avoid faking something in post processing.

But, as with human portraits, you can and should enhance those eyes if it can be done with good effect. I have no qualms about zooming in on the eyes when editing and giving that specular highlight a little bump of brightness and contrast. I’ll sometimes do a little dodging and burning around the eyes to enhance the natural lines and details that grab the viewers attention. Sharpening the area around the eye ever so slightly improves the detail of the hairs, eyebrows and eyelids. Making those specular reflections just a touch brighter is quite effective too. I look at it as applying makeup to the subject, after the fact.

For me, the eyes have it.


This marmot head-shot was taken on top of Mt. Evans, Colorado. The critter was sitting on a rock and I had a bright, clear blue sky behind me.  The curious animal moved his head to an angle while I was framing him in the viewfinder. Once the catch light appeared, I ripped off a burst of shots.
Here’s an example of a moose with catch light. On this particular occasion, it was cloudy and the light was quite flat.  I was fairly close to this moose so I used an external flash to fill the face of the animal and the reflection of the flash gave me the catch light I wanted. The moose didn’t flinch.
Bison in Colorado
This bison photo was taken as a snow storm was clearing. The sky in the direction I pointed the camera was nearly totally white along with the snowy environment the bison was in. The clearing bright blue sky was directly behind me, so I had a nice flat light situation with a very bright blue sky to reflect in the eyes of the buffalo. I spot metered on the forehead of the bison to get the snow to saturate the exposure and give detail to the head of the animal. I let the sky do the rest of the talking. End result, a nice, high-key image with great catch light. Interestingly, this bison had blue eyes (yes, it happens in nature), so it gave me a nice positive reflective property that created an other-worldly appearance of this bison’s face.
Portrait of a mule deer doe with catch light and a neutral background.