Wildlife, Pets & People–Keep Those Eyes Sharp!


There's nothing that ruins an otherwise great image faster than a subject with eyes that are not sharp. By following a few simple guidelines, you'll be well on your way to avoiding this pitfall.




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!

You can read more by Charles MacPherson at The Amazing Image and The Wild In Focus.

Discussion 7

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Thanks for the knd comments, Rob and Penny.

Panning does take some practice and one of the best ways to get some is to focus on two of the most common birds around - seagulls and pigeons!

Start with the seagull.  They're slow, so they are a lot easier to follow. 

When you pan, the object of the exercise is to keep the eyes in the same spot within your viewfinder.  It does take time - don't be discouraged!

Once you've mastered that, set your camera for Shutter Priority (S ot TV, depending on the camera) and start shooting.  Gradually lower your shutter speed and shoot as you pan.  You'll eventually get the bird and his eye in tack-sharp focus, with a smoothly blurred background.  That's a win!

Then move on up to the pigeon.  They're a LOT faster in flight, though they tend to travel in straight lines, so you'll have to work on keeping up with them.

If you want a real hard-core challenge, see if you can find some Tree Swallows.  At 7 inches long and 45 MPH and with a tendancy towards instant and very sharp turns, they are among the hardest birds to follow - especially once you use lenses longer than about 300mm.

Keep practicing and I bet you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you can do!

All the best,

Charlie MacPherson


This shot is one I would dream of getting. One of those "lucky I was there" shots!  I've never been able to see, let alone shoot a fox.    Usually I never have my camera when I need it :)  Then there is the panning...never got the hang of that either.  I bow to your talents!

I checked out your other web sites.  EXCELLENT!  Finally someone I can understand. You really need to put all that information in a book.  I will be your first customer.

Good stuff!

Keep it up Charlie.

Great tips, Charlie, explained well !  Keep them coming!  Looking forward to reading future tips! 

Excellent question.  It was my lovely and infinitely patient wife, Jen.  As you're no doubt thinking, this was a shot I would have missed if I had been alone - and you're right!

We were driving into a park in western Maine at only about 5 MPH. 

When I saw the fox, I grabbed the 5D MkII which had the 70-200mm F/2.8 L IS already mounted, and said "Take the wheel - and tell me if I need to brake!"

We only followed him for 100 feet or so, because I didn't want to stress him, but I wondered if he was just showing off. I couldn't blame him - that fish was quite a catch!

LOL, that was my question.

The fox is a great shot, but who was steering while you were taking the picture?