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Using Your Subject's Eyes Creatively in Photography

For people and wildlife images, the eyes are often the most important part of the picture. From a technical standpoint, you certainly want to make sure the eyes are in focus (to do so, I’ll typically switch my autofocus to a single point, and then make sure that point is on one of the eyes). Beyond the mere technical, however, you'll also want to have a sharp artistic vision when it comes to the role your subject's eyes play in your photographs. Pay close attention to what the eyes are doing and the direction they are pointing, as all of this can have a profound impact on your final composition. Here are some tips for using eyes creatively in your photography.

Three young mountain gorillas were playfully wrestling in a whirling, chaotic tangle of fur. I seized the moment when one of the gorillas looked directly at me with its piercing brown eyes. The eye contact helped cut through the chaos, creating a point of interest for the viewer. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Canon 70D, Tamron 70-200mm lens, ISO 200, f/3.2, 1/400 second.

Create a point of interest for the viewer with eye contact.

A great moment to trigger the shutter is when your subject makes eye contact. This can help create an emotional connection between your subject and viewers of your photograph. What's more, the eye contact can create a point of interest in a composition, even if your subject is relatively small in the photo. For example, with this photo of a mother and baby orangutan, I used a wide-angle lens to capture their rain forest home as the mother swung by. Although the baby is small in the picture frame, her eye contact with the camera—and with the viewer—focuses the viewer's attention on that part of the composition.

Eye contact creates a compelling point of interest within this wide-angle composition. Sumatra, Indonesia. Canon 1DXII, Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens, ISO 400, f/9, 1/40 second.

Use the eyes to tell a story.

It is often said that the "eyes are the window to the soul." I don't know whether this is true or not, but a subject's eyes can help you tell a compelling story. Eye contact is one way of telling a story, but to be truly effective, the eyes should be doing more than just simply staring ahead. For example, with this photo of a lioness at a kill, her eyes look intense and focused. Perhaps she is thinking about her next meal, a tasty photographer that she has in her sights!

Eye contact gives the viewer a sense of being there, right in front of this hungry female lion gorging at a kill. Her glare tells a story and triggers an emotional response in anyone viewing the photo. Masai Mara, Kenya. Canon 1DXII, Tamron 150-600mm lens, ISO 6400, f/11, 1/500 second.

Likewise, with this photo of a slender mongoose, its intense eyes and twitch of the tail make the mongoose look angry or agitated. This helps breathe life into the subject, and imply a sense of motion and energy.

This mongoose's eyes make it look angry, but then again, maybe mongooses always look angry! Etosha National Park, Namibia. Canon 5DIII, Canon 500mm lens, ISO 400, f/11, 1/640 second.

The eyes can tell a story even if they don't connect with the viewer. Sometimes, a sideways or downward glance can tell more about the subject and their story; a downward glance can imply sadness, while a sideways glance can imply amusement. For example, with this photo of patrons at an outside bar, the sideways glances of the woman in the center and the woman on the left imply a sense of fun and energy.

The eyes in this photo attract the viewer's attention, and help to tell a story. Boston, USA. Canon 5DIII, Tamron 70-200mm lens, ISO 800, f/3.2, 1/125 second.

And for this photo of a man taking a moment to rest in the bustling square of a Moroccan city, his downward glance (coupled with resting his head in his hand) helps tell a story of tiredness, perhaps frustration.

Although you can't see the subject's eyes, they are still helping to tell a story in this photo. Fes, Morocco. Canon 70D, Tamron 16-300mm lens, ISO 200, f/11, 0.6 seconds.

The eyes can be the subject.

Eyes are really interesting. Instead of making the eyes a part of your overall composition, consider making the eyes the focus of your visual design. For example, with this photo of a spectacled caiman, I (carefully) waded into the water to get as close as I could to my subject, in an attempt to fill the frame as much as possible with the caiman's incredible reptilian eye.

I wanted to capture the beauty of this caiman's speckled eye, so I got in as close as possible, zooming out enough to also capture the eye's reflection in the water. Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm lens, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/200 second.

Line of sight can be used in your compositions.

The direction your subject looks creates a "line of sight," which in turn creates an implied compositional line extending from your subject's eyes. You can use this creatively in your compositions. For example, with this photo of a Sumatran orangutan, her upward glance sends the viewer to explore the top part of the composition.

There are two primary compositional elements in this photo: the curve formed by the vine, and the implied line of sight created by the orangutan's eyes. Both work together to get the viewer's eye moving throughout the composition. Sumatra, Indonesia. Canon 5DIII, Canon 24-70mm lens, ISO 400, f/14, 1/30 second.

People and wildlife aren't the only ones with "eyes."

Don't just think about eyes when photographing people and wildlife. Other subjects might have "eyes," too—just not real ones! Features or objects that look like eyes can induce the same emotional and visual reaction from viewers as actual eyes. So, always be on the lookout for interesting "eyes" to incorporate into your photos. For example, this tunnel carved through a glacier by meltwater reminded me of a reptilian eye, so I made it the focus of my composition.

This glacial tunnel sure does look like an eye—an angry dragon eye, perhaps! Things that look like eyes can have the same impact on viewers as actual eyes. Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland. Canon 5DIII, Canon 24-70mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/20 second.


Pay close attention to what the eyes are doing. Make them an important part of your overall visual design, and use the eyes to more effectively tell the story of your wildlife and people subjects.

Eye contact immediately forges an emotional connection between this sulfur miner and the viewer. Ijen Volcano, Indonesia. Canon 5DIII, Canon 24-70mm lens, ISO 100, f/5, 1/80 second.

About the author: Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, the author of numerous books and instructional videos, and founder of Photo Masters.

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1 Comment

Craig Stevenett
Craig Stevenett
Oct 03, 2020

The eyes definitely have it!!

As always, thanks for the tips!

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