Young male Bighorn Sheep, Alberta, Canada
I didn’t even own a camera at the time, but as I admired a photograph of a Bighorn Sheep in a national magazine featuring animals of the Rocky Mountains, I knew that if and when I ever did get a camera, high on my list of hoped for captures would be that iconic orange eye. And while I have yet to score a great shot of a mature male with a heavy, curling rack, one of the keys – perhaps the key as I evaluate much of my wildlife photography is the quality of the eye in the photo.
Female Roosevelt Elk, Oregon. Observing a herd of remarkably unwary elk in a place with a natural buffer between us and the animals, we were able to safely approach quite close. But in thick cover, the animals offered few photographic opportunities. We had pretty much given up and were heading back to the truck when the catchlight reflected in this girl’s eye caught my attention.
A sharp, clear eye showing a little color and reflecting catchlight can make or break a wildlife portrait. So once I have a decent photographic record of a given species, I start working to get an eye-catching eye.
Male Red-breasted Merganser in brilliant adult plumage: The red eye is one of the diagnostic characteristics that distinguishes Red-breasted males from their cousins, male Common Mergansers.
Even in low light, you can usually find an angle where some light is reflected in the animal’s eyes. This might mean waiting for the animal to change its position, or it might mean changing your own position. The other key is to not focus on the animal, but on the eye of the animal.
Virtually every living being with eyes, regardless of how small, offers an opportunity to catch reflection in that eye – catchlight, as evidenced by the polished black jewel that is the eye of this thumb-sized Golden-crowned Kinglet. Even insects, particularly dragonflies and damselflies, afford an opportunity to capture catchlight.
A young Wood Bison peers out from underneath his mother in Canada’s Northwest Territory.
Just as with portraits of humans, the eyes are critical to animal portraits. Here in Chignik Lake, several foxes regularly visited the village this past winter. Each was unique – not just in size, coat color and facial markings, but in personality as well. As we studied these foxes, we gave them names. Skit, a young fox who was a frequent visitor to the White Spruce Grove that we check daily for birds and other wildlife, had a tough go of it during this especially harsh winter. An injury to his right eye no doubt impeded his ability to hunt as well as to guard against adversaries. There were times when he looked like he might be nearing his last leg.
Despite hardships, he seemed to exude a puppyish curiosity and resilience. And somehow he managed to scrape through. When we last saw him a couple of weeks ago, his coat looked healthier than it had since the beginning of winter and his eye appeared to have healed.
Looking healthier than he has all winter, Skit appears to be ready for spring and easier times. In this portrait I attempted to capture some essence of his youthful resilience. The shine in his good eye helps suggest that.
As visual creatures, we’re drawn to eyes, even ascribing spiritual qualities to them. Glint and shine and rich, saturated iris colors suggest to us intelligence and vitality, traits that in turn give a subject charisma.
Takhi are the world’s only truly wild horses. These bachelor stallions were grazing in Mongolia’s Khustai National Park. In dim winter light, it can be difficult to find the shine in a subject’s eye. But even the slightest glint can bring a frame to life.
While catchlight can be added through the magic of digital technology, the more satisfying – and realistic-looking – achievement is to capture it as you’re making the picture. Watch the light and look for it reflected in your subject’s eyes. A little shimmer can really make a photo pop!