What sets truly exceptional images apart from the rest?
The answer: attention to detail - Photography is about communicating, trying to establish a connection/bond between the subject and the viewer. It is said that the eyes are the "windows to the soul", not just in humans, but also in wildlife.
Through the eyes we as humans are able to connect with animals. If the animal's eyes appear lifeless, the connection will be lost. The eyes of the subject provide us with the connection point to the subject, for this reason wildlife portrait containing subjects without visible focused eyes are not as successful as subjects with visible focused eyes.
The rest of the subject's body could be out of focus and it would not have such a devastating affect on the image. Having a subject with sharply focused eyes might not always be enough and with this article I would like to encourage you to go beyond the norm, bring the subject to life -
Adding life to the subject.
Adding life to the subject.
The challenge in creating exceptional wildlife images is to bring the subject to life. In photography this can be established by ensuring that the reflection in the eyes is captured, referred to as catch-lights.
And nothing in wildlife photography will bring a portrait to life faster than sharply focused eyes with the sparkle of life. Inreality this is the reflection in the eyes from any available light source. Without this reflection the subject appears lifeless.
The only difference between these images is the perception of liveliness due to the capturing of the life giving catch-light. (Observe the differences between the two Rufousnaped Lark images above, and the Burchell's Zebra images below to see how the catch-lights or the lack thereof affect images) This is produced by approximately 0.0005 % (Rufousnaped Lark - blown highlights) that forms part of the image above. It is almost unbelievable that approximately 0.0005% (blown highlights) in the images could have such a dramatic affect. In the same situation the lack of the approximately 0.0005% (blown highlights) could take an exceptional image and degrade it to a mediocre wildlife image.
The catch-light in the eye establishes the prolonged and captivating bond required between the viewer and the subject. The blown highlights (catch-light) guide the viewer's eyes towards the subject's eyes in order to establish that captivating bond that exists between the viewer and the life-filled subject in the image.
Without the catch-light present in the subject's eyes, the viewer struggle to connect with the subject, the viewer's eyes keeps on hunting to find a connection point with the subject.
Wildlife photographers are not paying enough attention to this small but significant part of creating pleasing images; this small aspect of image creation that can provide the difference between the success and failure of the image.
This might be one of the easiest aspects to achieve, by just taking note and ensure that you pay attention to detail. Most photographers capture this life-giving light without even knowing it. The art of photography is to ensure that this reflection is captured whenever the image requires the catch-light to be present. Not all wildlife images require this reflection to be successful (exceptional images); it is mostly portrait images that come to life when the catch-light is captured.
How do you achieve this? That is truly the easy part and with some practice and discipline this will eventually become second nature. With time you will not even think about creating the image without the catch- light. Even artificial light (flash) will provide the subject with this glimmer of life. So - what is important, the subjects head positioning relevant to the light source and the camera, with wildlife in their natural environment we have no control over the subject - this is where timing is the most important factor. Wait for the correct head position, you will be able to spot the catch-light in the eye through the viewfinder - pay attention to detail before depressing the shutter button.
Catch-lights could be added artificially (definitely not the preferred way, and not one I would recommend or use). Remember it is always more satisfactory to create the image in the subject's natural environment.
Strive for perfection; photography is about paying attention to detail. So many photographers produce images that could have been outstanding if they just waited for the correct time to produce the images. And if approximately 0.0005% (blown highlights) can make all the difference between outstanding and mediocre wildlife images, then it is worth ensuring that this small percentage of blown highlight are present.
With the image above the catch light reflected from the eye complements the subject, this is another example of the effect this reflection of light could have in the creating process of outstanding images.
Normally the image above and below would end up in the recycle bin, but for illustration purposes I decided to include them. Clearly visible in the image above is the head position relative to the camera that leads to the lack of the reflected light from the eye.
Birds and other animals have a 3rd eyelid, a semi-transparent membrane called a "nictitating membrane" that can be closed. The purpose of the 3rd eyelid is to protect and keep the eye moist while also maintaining visibility. This image clearly shows the dull effect the closure of the nictitating membrane has on the image. It is inevitable that you will, at some point in time capture an image with this membrane at various positions over the eye. Although this membrane also reflects the catch-light, the subjects eye will not complement the image, and for this reason this image will be unsuccessful.
This is the reason why wildlife photographers have to take care, and exploit the subject at hand, by taking more than one image.
Imagine if you only took one image of this bird and left to explore other subject opportunities.
You definitely would have lost the opportunities this subject presented.
There is always the exception.