Why Photographing the Look of a Wild Animal – Part 1

You want to create interesting wildlife photographs that have an impact on the viewers?

Enter the look of an animal whether terrestrial or submarine is one of the techniques that I use.

In this article, I'm going to explain a few things that I use to create photos that have impact when viewed.

The look of this young ibex with the catchlight in the eye is very evocative.
The look of this young ibex with the catchlight in the eye is very evocative.


All the points I am going to discuss are not rules in the strict sense of the term. They are the result of many years of photography and especially of experience in the creation of photos that interest my art collectors or my buyers of beautiful prints of art.

These recipes actually work even if they are empirical. You may not agree with certain points stated. I understand it perfectly. I do not intend to hold the absolute truth.

The Eyes are the Reflection of The Soul

It is often said about human beings that the eyes are the reflection or the mirror of the soul. I think that's true for the animal world in general whether it's terrestrial or underwater.

The eyes or the look of an animal say much more than the attitude that it adopts.

I learned with time to understand the look of animals. I think they convey feelings very different from those of human beings, but I have often been able to decipher curiosity, anger, fear or even tenderness.

It may seem a little exaggerated but believe me that when you have the chance to look out and see deer or birds, you better understand the animal world. I do not count the times I've seen the eyes of a doe when look at her fawn with tenderness. It is a feeling that cannot be wrong.

The eyes of a red deer stag, who discovers you, hidden a few meters away from him, often translate into an astonishing disbelief that gives way to curiosity and ends with fear because he knows you can be a hunter.

If you had the chance to photograph from a floating blind, you could observe the look of a grebe that has enough to carry on its back its offspring that are able to swim alone on the surface of the water. Like all parents, he wants the little ones to leave the house. I assure you that we see it in the viewfinder.

Similarly, the look of a cat in the great African plains says a lot about his state of mind.

For me, it is important to always observe and understand the look of an animal before taking a photograph because I can understand his state of mind. I often wait for the right moment to start. It is a moment that we learn to detect with the time and the hours spent on the field.

Analyzing the look of an animal also allows me to know if I can take a photo.

Lately, I had a moment of great loneliness during which I left without a murmur.

During a trip to the Yellowstone in the United States where I left to create a collection of artistic photographs of the bison in the snow, I found myself in a snowy plain with a group of 20 bison standing and facing me at 100 meters (300 feet) distance. Before installing my tripod, I analyzed the group with my binoculars. Despite the wind and snow, I watched the bison look. It was absolutely eloquent. Their eyes told me clearly that I was not welcome on their territory. Body language confirmed what I read in the looks. I left without further ado. I went back on my steps.

I often analyze the eyes of animals before triggering my camera because it says very long. I apply different analyzes that I learned with humans:

  • When the eyes of a mammal fold a little, it is the translation of happiness, relaxation. In this case, the animal feels particularly well. I could observe these looks in deer or fallow deer.
  • When a mammal's eyes are wide open, it is attracted to something or to you. In this case, it is essential to analyze body language to see if it is curiosity or fear.
  • When a mammal with eyes that start to bow, it means that the animal is angry. If I observe this type of look in a boar, I hurry out of his danger zone. If I stay, he may charge me.

The number of expressions of the gaze is limited in animals or it is difficult to detect them, but I really think that their eyes communicate truths that do not cheat.

The Strength of the Gaze to Create an Anchor

For me, photographing an animal is above all to catch his look. Over time I learned that it was absolutely necessary to integrate the eye (s) in an animal into an artistic photograph to be interesting to a viewer or a client.

During photo workshops, I often tell trainees that the eye can make the connection between the viewer and the main point of interest.

Without the eyes of an animal, the viewer cannot hang on the photo. I think it's probably due to our education. Since our youngest age, we have been used to school watching paintings or photos with very strong looks. In magazines, the eyes of photographed human beings are apparent. I think that as soon as we look at a human being photographed or painted; we automatically look for the eyes.

This is what I often call the anchor. This is the first point that we will look to start reading the photograph that it proposed to us. It is a cultural behavior that we have acquired.

Creating a wildlife photography that has impact is very difficult. Many animal photographers are content with an attitude or just the animal in its environment. We look at this type of photography once and we do not return because it lacks a catch for our eyes.

In the world of illustrative photography for magazines or for identification books, the capture of the gaze is less fundamental because often it is the attitude or behavior that prevails such as a fight or a flight.

When I create an artistic or meaningful animal photography, I always try to capture the animal's eyes. It is an essential condition to create an interesting photograph.

Control of the Line of Sight

In my opinion, it is necessary to master the concept of "The line of sight” to create different and high impact photos. It allows you to create powerful photos.

The line of sight is an imaginary line that starts from the eyes of the animal whether it is underwater or terrestrial. This is an important guideline because this line will guide the viewer's gaze.

Two cases may arise.

The first case is that of a line of sight is directed to the viewer. In this case, there is a very strong exchange between the main interest and the viewer. During this moment, the spectator begins to question himself. It's a very strong interaction because there is an exchange.

But this technique of the line of direct gaze has a disadvantage. The interaction between the main interest and the viewer is so strong that nothing else exists like décor, attitude. Often for this kind of photo, I choose a tight and square framing.

The second case is that of the line of sight that goes to one direction of the photograph.

  • Either this line stops on a particular point of the photograph. In this case, you create a second point of interest in the photo with a secondary point of interest. It's very interesting to create connection points between the different interests of a photo.

    This is for example the look of a doe that is directed to his fawn. The message sent by the maternal gaze of the doe is that of protection, peace and comfort.

    This is for example the case of a lioness who looks at an antelope. In this case, the message transmitted is much more primary: it is that of survival in the species (to be eaten by stronger than oneself and to eat to survive).
  • Either this line of sight does not point to any other point in the photograph. This is called the off-camera in photography. I really like this technique because the spectator asks questions and wonders what the animal can look at. This technique allows to induce the dream, the imagination. This is the field of dream photography. In this case, it is the attitude of the animal that will determine the nature of the scene. If the animal has a defensive attitude with the protruding muscles, it is because he saw a danger. If, on the contrary, body language is relaxed, his look is just curiosity. Off-camera is a technique that I use a lot because it allows me to transmit many messages that depend on the situation.

Controling of the line of sight is essential but its implementation in the composition of a photograph depends completely on the message or emotions that you want to convey.

Some Examples of Mammal Looks

Breaking the Rule of Thirds

The rest of this article is available on another page. Click on the link below.


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