Shoot for the Eye

I’ve given a few photography workshops lately, and have been helping our new Fellows, Kate and Sarah, with their photography skills as well. I always feel a little funny teaching photography workshops because so much of photography (like all art) is subjective. If you like a photo, it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else think, it’s a good photo. As a result, I spend most of my workshops helping people understand how their cameras see the world differently than our own eyes/brain and how to use that information to create images they like.

I do talk a little about composition, though, if only to help people explore their options. One piece of information seems to really resonate with a lot of people, so I thought I’d share it here, in case it’s helpful to anyone reading this. The suggestion I make is this: if you can see the eye of your subject, make sure that eye is in focus, even if nothing else is.

Juvenile snapping turtle. Note that very little of the photo is in focus because of a shallow depth of field, but the eye is sharp.
Black-tailed jackrabbit. While trying not to make sudden moves that would cause it to run, I very gently moved my camera back and forth, taking lots of photos and trying to find a position from which I could capture a clear and focused shot of the eye.

When we look at each other, without even thinking about it, we usually seek out the other person’s eyes first. Similarly, when people look at a photograph of an animal – of any kind – their eyes automatically gravitate first to the eye of the photographed creature. If that eye isn’t in focus, it’s a little unsettling to the viewer. Because of that, unless you’re intentionally trying to unsettle people who look at your photo, it’s important to make sure the eye(s) of your subject is/are sharply in focus.

Hover fly and dew on big bluestem
Northern leopard frog.

Chances are, when you looked a the leopard frog in the above photo, you didn’t notice right away that the tip of its nose was out of focus because your attention was first drawn to the eyes, which are nice and sharp. In fact, you might not have noticed the blurry nose at all until I just mentioned it. However, if the nose had been in focus and the eyes had been blurry, I bet you would have noticed.

Pearl crescent butterfly.

Sometimes, especially with close-up photography, it’s only possible to get a small area of a creature to be in focus at a time. In rare instances, as when the creature is facing away from you (or nearly so), it’s ok if the eyes aren’t the focal point. If you’re unsure, though, I’d suggest trying to aim for the eyes first and then once you think you’ve captured some images with sharp eyes, experiment with focusing on other parts of the body. In the butterfly photo above, the angle of the butterfly made it very difficult to get much of it in focus, but I made sure I focused on the eyes.

Below are three side-by-side comparisons of photos in which there is a nice sharp focus on part of a creature’s face, but only one of each pair has the eye in focus. Sometimes the difference is subtle, but I’m guessing you’ll prefer the choice with sharper eyes. None of these are extreme examples – the eye is nearly in focus in each image, but I still think the small differences are noticeable and important. You can click on each image (and all the images in this post) to see a larger and more clear version.

Grasshopper. The eye in the left photo is not well-focused.
Plains garter snake. The eye in the left photo is not in focus.
Long-horned bee. In the top image the eye is not in focus.

Making sure to get the eye of your subject in focus is, in some ways, a pretty small thing worry about when you’re trying to deal with a complex mix of camera settings as well as a subject that won’t HOLD STILL JUST FOR A SECOND. However, it’s a small thing that can be the difference between a photo you’ll be happy with and one you won’t. If you’re using a digital camera, I highly recommend taking lots of photos of each subject to make sure you capture at least one solid well-focused image before the subject flies, hops, or otherwise scurries away from you. All those photos don’t cost you anything other than the time it takes to browse through them and delete those that aren’t well-focused.

One last tip for anyone who photographs insects. Compound eyes are really tricky – especially on creatures like dragonflies or praying mantises that have enormous eyes. As you try to focus on the eye, it can be really hard to know when you’ve got it right because the eyes have depth to them and they can look in focus at various depths. I’m not sure how to explain it any better, but if you’ve tried to focus on an insects big compound eye, you might know what I mean. Usually, what I really want is for the surface of the eye to be in focus, but it’s amazing how many times I think I’ve got it right in the field, only to discover later that I missed it.

As a result, I go way overboard (if I’m given the opportunity) on the number of photos I take of each insect to make sure I get it right at least once. And I often marginally alter the focus of each one – sometimes by very slightly nudging my tripod forward and backward as I shoot. Now and then, one of the first tries turns out to be perfectly focused when I examine the images later, but that’s a rarity.

Anyway, I hope those are useful tips to at least a few of you. If you’re a photographer and don’t have a macro lens, I can’t recommend them highly enough – assuming you can afford one. Mine is a pretty cheap used Nikon 105mm lens (the older one without vibration reduction) and only cost a few hundred dollars. That’s not nothing, but if it’s within your budget, it might change your whole world. Just remember – shoot for the eye!

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

4 thoughts on “Shoot for the Eye

  1. There is a sweet camera gadget called Arsenal that coupled with your phone gives you the ability to do some really cool automation.

    One of the things is automating stacked focus. You need a solid tripod for this.

    You set it up on your phone. The phone talks to the device (about the size of your thumb) connected to the camera. So you can tell it, “Take 25 frames, advancing the focus point 1 mm for each frame.” It takes those, then takes the in focus bits of each image and combines it. It’s not perfect, you will need to do a bit of pixel tweeking in Photoshop.

  2. Any tips for those of us who photograph mainly plants? Maybe that’s the focus (ooops) of the next blog post?

  3. Believe me, I laughed at HOLD STILL FOR JUST A SECOND! I’ve said that to plants, too.

    Your tips about focusing on the eyes and taking multiple photos are on target. As for a macro lens, the day I swallowed hard and put out the $$$ for my Canon 100mm was one of the best days of my life. I didn’t know it then, but I’ve learned it over time.


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