Wildlife, Pets & People–Keep Those Eyes Sharp!
There are few things worse than "almost" getting the shot. That special moment. The perfect pose. The dramatic lighting... and the eyes are soft. You blew the shot.
While there are very few "absolutes" in photography, this is one of them. If the eyes are not sharp, you have a bad picture. (Yes, I know you might intentionally blur a subject, but that's not what we're talking about here.)
Here are some tips to keep the eyes sharp:
1. Be sure your shutter speed is fast enough. You can successfully hand-hold your shots when the shutter speed "matches" the focal length. In other words, keep your shutter speed at 1/300th second or faster when using a non-stabilized 300mm lens.
2. Use a tripod when possible. A good solid tripod is invaluable for eliminating blur caused by camera shake.
3. Keep your aperture set to a mid-range. Yes, this conflicts with the need for a fast shutter speed. But if you set your aperture somewhere around F/8 or smaller, you'll increase the depth-of-field to the point where you can still have sharp eyes in the event that the camera locks focus on the wrong thing, such as your subject's nose.
Trust me—it happens. In other words, a little depth-of-field can go a long way.
4. Resolve those two conflicting needs by raising your ISO, bearing in mind the noise profile of your particular camera.
5. Use your Image Stabilization (Canon), Vibration Reduction (Nikon), Optical Stabilization (Sigma), etc.
Caveat: Some lenses, including some Nikon and some of the older Canons, will create a blur if IS / VR is turned on while on a solid tripod. Test your equipment by shooting a stable image of something like newsprint, and looking for evidence of camera shake. Or check the manufacturer's specifications to see if the lens has tripod detection.
6. Be smart about setting your focus points. This varies by camera, but in the Canon 7D, I use a group of points around the center. When using the 600mm F/4, I'm nowhere near good enough to pick a single focus point and keep it on the eye of a fast bird in flight. (No offense, but I bet you aren't either!)
Activating all focus points is an alternative, but be careful that the camera doesn't lock focus on something in the background—like a tree or cloud.
7. Pan the subject. Panning (following) a moving subject will help because it reduces the apparent motion of the subject.
With practice, you can even combine intentional blur with intentional sharpness.
I captured this image while driving alongside the fox. Even though I lowered the shutter speed to create the motion blur in the grass and his feet, by panning and holding his head steady in the viewfinder I was able to keep his eyes sharp. It was exactly the image I was after.
Follow these tips, and practice shooting techniques like panning, and you'll have a much better chance of keeping those eyes sharp and creating amazing images!