Gang Gang Cockatoo displaying good eye contact.
Gang Gang Cockatoo displaying good eye contact.

Do you ever wonder why you like a certain photo? It is often an immediate feeling and sometimes we don’t know why we like it, we just do. I believe one of the main reasons is a viewer connects with an image and is drawn to it. That is they relate with the subject and feel like they are there with the bird.

What is it about the Gang Gang image above that you like, what is one of the things you are drawn to? I assume many people make eye contact with the bird and feel like the bird is looking back at them. Humans often do this with each other so its no surprise they look for eye contact in other animals.

A number of years ago I participated in the excellent birding forum called Feathers and Photos, I posted this Red Necked Stint shot and it got the following comment from Tony Peterson;

Looks good Duade. the head-turn/eye contact with viewer allows for a tighter/more intimate crop – something that I’ll have to keep in mind for future compositions

Red-necked Stint showing nice head angle and eye contact. Shot with a Canon 7D & Canon 400 5.6L – Read my EF400 5.6 Review

Tony has touched on a point that I believe is worth exploring and sharing. When taking photos of birds I am trying to create a link between the viewer and the bird. I always try to get good eye contact, it is this eye contact which I believe helps to create an intimate picture.

When we talk about eye contact it often goes hand in hand with the head angle of the bird. That is the angle of the head in relation to the camera sensor. For most shots I get the light angle coming over my shoulder then I attempt to get the sensor parallel to the bird. This places the light over the length of the bird and gives maximum coverage. Next I hope the bird turns slightly towards me and looks in my direction.

It is probably easiest to show an example. Here are three shots all taken within seconds of each other of a Rainbow Bee-eater that was posing nicely for me. All three shots are in focus with nice light and detail. The only thing separating them is the Head Angle.

Head Angle Example of Rainbow Bee-eaters – Shot with a Canon 7D & Canon 400 5.6L – Read my EF400 5.6 Review

The head angle on the left bird is angled away from the sensor. Whilst we can see the eye it is not looking at us and fails to engage, this is an instant delete for me. The head angle on the middle bird is possibly exactly parallel with the sensor creating the perfect Field ID shot. For me this is ok but it lacks the intimacy I am after and it looks like the bird is looking away from us. The bird on the right has what I believe is a good head angle, that is a few degrees towards the camera sensor. The bird is now looking towards me and there is great eye contact, this is the image I would use.

I took this shot of an Australian Wood Duck recently.

Australian Wood Duck – Shot with a Canon 7D & Canon 400 5.6L – Read my EF400 5.6 Review

It received this comment from Ray Walker which is bang on.

You would get another point or two if he had of turned towards you a tad more..

It didn’t really matter that the light, detail and low angle were strong. Simply having the wrong angle will always let the shot down.

In comparison I took this shot of a Pacific Golden Plover which also has good light and detail. The difference here is the bird angle is parallel to the camera and there is a very small head turn towards me creating good eye contact. This image to me is engaging and successful.

Pacific Golden Plover Showing Great Head Angle. That is the eye is engaged with the viewer. Canon 5D MkIV & Canon 500 f/4L IS II

And one last example of good HA. The bird is turned slightly towards the camera sensor and it looks like the bird is staring straight at me creating a strong connection.

Red-capped Robin
Red-capped Robin Shot with a Canon 7D & Canon 400 5.6L – Read my EF400 5.6 Review

How to capture the correct HA.

1. Burst Mode.

I always shoot in burst mode and will often let off 4 or 5 shots at a time. This gives me some insurance when shooting as it increases my odds of at least one of the shots being sharp and containing the HA I am after. This can chew up memory cards but I will delete anything in camera that is soft or poor eye contact. below is an example of several bursts taken of a Black-shouldered Kite. I would be interested to know which of the 10 head angles you prefer below?

10 Different Head Angles from the same bird taken in burst mode
10 Different Head Angles from the same bird taken in burst mode

From those 10 I narrowed down my selection to 6 and 10. Number 6 is a tricky one, there is no direct eye contact with the viewer however the intense pose showcases this bird of prey hunting and looking for its next meal. The head angle is good and there are no distracting shadows. I chose number 10 because of the eye contact made with the viewer, there is no doubting the bird is staring at you. I would have deleted the first 4 instantly as the bird is not looking at the viewer and lacks connection. Number 5 is similar to 6 but didn’t work well in the full profile shot. Numbers 7-10 are all very similar and a matter of preference. I have included the final images below.

Black-shouldered Kite
#10 & #6 Black-shouldered Kites

2. Pishing/Squeaking.

I will often make squeaking or pishing noises to get the birds attention. The bird will often look towards the noise allowing you an opportunity to snap that important eye contact.

3. Positioning.

Sometimes you have to move left or right, up or down to get the stronger angle.

Hopefully this is useful to beginners who want to improve their images.

Bird Photography Techniques Used To Capture Beautiful Bird Images

Whilst head angle and eye contact are very important I always try and photograph birds when the light is good. Feel free to read my article on the importance of light in creating beautiful bird images.  I also always photograph birds in RAW, read my article to see why.

Ever wonder how I get nice clean, smooth backgrounds in my photos? I explain 4 steps to a smooth background here.

Photographic Gear Used

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