How Important Is Direct Eye Contact?

I’m hoping to get some feedback from my viewers on this one.

Almost from day one with my bird photography I’ve labored under the impression that good eye contact with my subject is vital, almost essential, for a strong image.  But that’s a premise I’m beginning to question to some degree.

I don’t think there’s any question that a good look at the eye almost always makes for a stronger image.  Direct eye contact is often even better.  But no image is perfect – they all have strengths and weaknesses and I’m wondering if I sometimes put too much importance on eye contact over other desirable traits of an image.

Below are three images of male Northern Harriers.  Each has strengths and weaknesses.  My previous impulse would have been to shun the last two shots because of a poor look at the eye, even though they have other strengths the first image does not.  Now I’m not so sure…


northern harrier 9822 ron dudley

 1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 500, 500 f/4, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

In this photo the bird has an interesting wing position and it’s nicely separated from the horizon below.  And I have great eye contact but the bird is “only flying” and there’s nothing else interesting going on.  And besides, it could be said that looking at the photographer isn’t really a “natural behavior” anyway…

Note:  If you’re wondering what the brown is at top right, the background is water, not sky, and the brown at top and bottom are land.  I could clone or crop the top brown out.   I had to add canvas to this image for composition. 



northern harrier 6735 ron dudley

 1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

Here the bird is looking away from the viewer.  But, the harrier has prey and there’s blood on its foot.  For me the prey (a vole) is a huge bonus, perhaps even mitigating the lack of eye contact.  I’m just not sure…



northern harrier 9740 ron dudley

 1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 500, 500 f/4, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

In this shot the “other strength” of the image is more subtle.  Hunting harriers are notorious among photographers for looking down while hunting low and slow over the ground instead of giving eye contact to the viewer.  This shot shows typical hunting behavior and includes the terrain at bottom over which the  bird is hunting.  It also demonstrates the flight attitude (body angle to the horizon or “level”) often necessary while flying so slowly.  But the look at the eye is somewhat weak.

Any thoughts on all this?  How much do you think the lack of good eye contact in the last two images weakens the shots?  Have I been placing too much significance on eye contact?

If you have an opinion I’d appreciate any input.


54 comments to How Important Is Direct Eye Contact?

  • Cheryl Radigan

    Personal preference for me is to have most of the shots with the subject naturally engaged in its own world of activity. Take, for example, photos of children. Nice when they look AT you, but better when they give you a view into their world of interest. You are invited in by the focus of their eyes somewhere other then ones self. Rather akin to the ‘no baiting’ rule that you so diligently follow. LOVE your photos! The ‘holy grail’ of measuring excellence. Thank you!

  • Pam Skaar

    Shot #2 is my favorite. It made me ooh and aah at the behavior captured for me to see so well. I have seen harriers hunt in the position of photo 3 and the intensity of his gaze on the potential prey is wonderful. I am not a photographer, just a birder, but all three shots are great.

  • Tom Redd

    Lots of excellent comments here, I will throw in my 2 cents and it will be repeating what many have said, but at least you know why I vote this way. In order of preference, panel #1 is first – I like the distinctive yellow eyes of the harrier and it has the best head angle of the bunch. It also has a horizon to it. Panel #3 is second – it displays the hunting posture that is characteristic of this bird. It also is the best exposure with lighting and might be a tad sharper than panel #1 (it appears that way on my monitor, but I could be wrong). The foreground wing in this photo shows he is just past you or slightly turned away from you and that is a bit of a bummer, but overall, this image is still very strong. Lastly, panel #3 – it is a nice photo, but the head angle away and the uninteresting sky for a background just doesn’t hold my interest as long as the first and third photos. All nice images of course and good question for discussion.

  • Gale Comin

    I love #2. It makes a statement. #1 is nice. #3 would be baffling if you didn’t know what the harrier was doing.

  • Susan Manley

    You always show such amazing images, and all three of these have their own strengths. Like others have mentioned, I believe the end purpose of the photo will define which one is the best to determine the importance of eye contact. In my opinion, good eye contact is not always that important. For example, you recently posted a “butt shot” of a bird that showed other features of interest. As an amateur photographer, I enjoy taking photos of birds in flight and in their natural habitat. I prefer the first image with the catch-light in the harrier’s eye that draws you into the image along with the color of its eye (and I really like the feather detail on the top and bottom of the wings). Then I like #2 almost as well, yet in a different way. You still have the color of the eye, yet the central point seems to be the vole. It is interesting, but not the type of photo I would hang on my wall. The third image shows stunning detail in the wing and how it looks while hunting. I think I would like the photo better if it had a catch-light or more vivid eye color, yet I don’t know if that would be possible with the angle. To me, the first two images give me more of a feeling of motion that I prefer –I might be the only one that feels that way.

  • Janice Webb

    There is definitely an intimacy when we make eye contact with eachother and/or any living creature and this is quite mesmerizing. In #1, I really loved the beautiful wings but but I felt drawn to gaze into the Harrier’s eyes where #3 was totally about the great form and action along with the very pretty background. I suppose that what I’m trying to say is the eyes compete very heavily for my attention to the detriment of what is going on in the picture.

  • I’d like to thank all of you for taking the time and making the effort to share your thoughts and opinions regarding the question I asked. Perhaps further explanation is in order about my motivation for asking it in the first place.

    One of my character quirks is that I’m the quintessential “creature of habit”, not necessarily a good thing, obviously. Long ago I “learned” that a good look at the eye was nearly always required for a strong image and direct eye contact was highly desired. I picked up that ball and ran with it – too far and for much too long.

    Recently I’ve begun to question that little “habit” but always with one caveat in mind – to avoid the pitfall of thinking that a particular shot with no eye contact that I liked was bettter than it really was.

    Your comments have helped me to re-think all of this. I definitely will no longer “discard” an image that is otherwise strong just because the eye doesn’t stand out as much as I previously believed was necessary.

    Thank you all, once again. I’ll definitely be resurrecting some of my older images from my “If Only” bin…

  • If I were able to select only one for my personal collection of great harrier shots (HA!), I would take #3. I really like the wings-down hunting posture. The head is in a nice position and the eye is very visible. The feather arrangement on the top side of the wing is shown in exquisite detail, whereas the pattern on the underside is somewhat obscured by shadow in 1 and 2.

    • I agree Dave, the light and detail on that right wing is something I really like about that shot. Maybe you should plan a trip out here next year to work on your harrier collection…

  • Mike

    Adult Harrier eyes are SO distinctively yellow. As with everyone, I’m a fan of all three, but more so 1 and 3, and particularly 3. Love the closeup of the wing for aging purposes, the classic body position of a hunting Harrier when it’s wing is in the down stroke position, and the yellow elements at the bottom of the image. If only the eye on 3 was a touch brighter to play off those ground elements! But how often does something that coincidental and serendipitous happen?

    • “But how often does something that coincidental and serendipitous happen?”

      Not often enough, that’s for dang sure, Mike. I wish I knew what you know about things like aging birds just from the wing…

  • Nicole

    ALL THREE ARE FABULOUS!!! The first is excellent, creates an intimacy between the viewer and subject; the second is superb, because it is an action shot, and shows why these birds are with us today – their amazing hunting skills; the third is a bloody incredible photo – subject placed in the center of the photo, it shows a position that we don’t see as often. All are incredibly clear, amazing photos. I’m running out of adjectives here…. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!

  • Lane

    My preference is for eye contact with the bird, if possible, because it creates an instant relationship with the bird, which, even though fleeting, is pleasing to me. But, I won’t pass on an otherwise potential good shot because the bird is looking for dinner or trying not to fly into a tree. And birds of prey with prey are always interesting, but a connection or a behavior where the animal is concentrating (which kind of animates it, yes), wins over the prey shot. But let’s face it, a great image is a great image, no matter what is going on. IMO.

    • Lane, Good point about eye contact creating an “instant relationsip with the bird”. Perhaps that’s sometimes the “hook” that keeps the viewer around long enough to more fully appreciate other aspects of an image.

  • There are a number of things here — and all compliment each, and all can
    stand on their own at the same time.

    The eye is very powerful – so much so that contact is avoided in the wild – I get that.

    But — you have the power of forms in your photos also — blurred lines in the background,
    the horizontal of the bird – the sharpness of the outline — good god. And I say
    that in wonder – as it is wonderful.

    Not trying to be a fan boy here – but I love it.

    In short — shoot it – and let us see what “moves” you, as you are the creator.

    I have no problem with what you have given us so far.

    The top is my favorite of the bunch. But then again — #3 is great too — as what ever is below – well, it’s in a world of hurt.

    • Thanks, JSturr. I do “shoot it” and post what moves me but I like to find out what moves others too, and more importantly WHY they’re moved (or not) by it. That’s why I occasionally ask for specific feedback on some of my posts. I appreciate your feedback very much.

  • Well, the responses you’re receiving are, naturally, as diverse as your audience. And I think that’s important. Who is the audience for your photographs? Us who follow your blog? Potential paying customers? Magazines? Or do you do this just for your own satisfaction? You know the answer so now you know which of your images are the “best”.

    For ME, I have been a birder much longer than a picture-taker-of-birds. I’m thrilled at any image approaching the quality of your work. I marvel at the detail of the feathers, the color of the eyes, the talons, the beak, the habitat, etc., etc.

    Your Harrier images all evoke the essence of this wonderful raptor (again, for ME) and I really like each one on its own merit. Since a shot of a bird of prey with actual prey is not very common, I tend to view these as special, but don’t necessarily like it more than the others.

    A wishy-washy answer but, hey, that’s the kinda guy I am! 🙂

  • I’m not a photographer so this opinion might not be useful. But I love the last two shots, not to say I don’t like eye contact, but these pictures really show the bird just doing what it does in in a unique way. Thanks once again. I love all your photos!

    • Of course your opinion is useful, Teri – you’re a “consumer” if images or you wouldn’t be here so I do value your opinion and thank you for it.

  • I am always one to triumph content over anything Ron. But, on the subject of the role of eye contact in an image, I feel that it can make the image more compelling. Direct contact can do even more, however, at times I feel that it can almost take away from an image. In my experience with illustrating headshots of raptors, a bird of which the eyes make the image, I have found that direct eye contact seems too artificial. I try and ignore the drive to photograph birds in the same way, the exception being owls.

    I think that the first harrier is my favorite. It seems to be the most striking. Having a clear visible eye makes it so, but perhaps it is a combination of other factors. I too feel that a bird carrying prey is a huge bonus. For me I feel that it all depends on what your focus is. And of course, people tend to like different things. It is neat to read through and see what people prefer regarding these images. Great post as always Ron.

    • I always appreciate your artistic perspective when you chime in on these posts, Bryce. Aesthetics isn’t my strong suite so the kind of input I’m getting from you and the others is very important to me. Thank you.

  • Howard

    Of course strong eye contact is not required to make a good picture. Whistler’s Mother would not be hanging in a museum right now if that were a requirement.

    Strong eye contact is great for inferring confrontation, flirtation, puzzlement, surprise — that sorta thing. But when a guy’s packing a half-eaten rat — well — let him pay attention to where he’s going.

  • Hi Ron,
    For me, direct eye contact is not a priority. I like photo #2 and #3 better than #1 because of the “action” captured in the photos. I agree that having a bird look into the camera lens is not necessarily “natural”! I really enjoy photos that give people a glimpse into the bird’s life. For many, it may be their only exposure to that bird. It’s an important part of educating others and could be more interesting than just the “look”.

  • Of course, I love all three, but I like the third the best. To me, the third is the most interpretive of the Harrier–the wing position, angle of flight, the head looking down but not away, the eye visible even though not as clearly as in the first, all to me make it the most compelling shot.

  • I agree that eye contact is important, but not vital for a great shot. Some poses, positions or actions negate the need for eye contact as the action is the prime concern for some images. The appearance of a raptor looking at the camera may be powerful on its own (doubt that the bird is looking AT the camera, more likely toward it, coincidentally), but not critical to many excellent photos.

  • Brian Gatlin

    Hey Ron, for me, I really like 1 and 3, but 2 not as much. 1 is obviously a classic clean look at the bird, and the eye contact helps me connect directly with the bird. Eye contact provides that immediate direct connection, and in its absence, you need other things to pick up the slack.

    In 2, the vole is obviously a big plus, but despite that the image doesn’t work that well for me. I think the head is turned so far away that is shape looks a little odd. And in this case, the shadowed underwing kind of bothers me, which is interesting because it doesn’t in the first shot. I wonder if that illustrates the idea that if the eye contact isn’t there, more other things need to be?

    Finally, I really like 3. I think that’s for several reasons. The eye/head position is pretty neutral relative to us (it’s not looking at us, but it’s not looking away either like in #2), and the eye is still good and clear. In this image the bird is so intent on hunting that its behavior and interest really draws me in to its world (rather than it engaging with mine like in #1). I want to know what the bird sees, and I think that may be what makes this one work so well for me.

    • Thanks Brian and well stated. I wouldn’t dispute anything you’ve said here. And I would add to what you’ve said about the negatives of #2 the fact that the plain blue sky is relatively uninteresting.

  • The first shot, with the eye contact is powerful. But I also feel that the last one is, too, again due to the eyes. I can feel the intensity of the bird’s perusal of the ground below him. The one with the prey, despite the detail, doesn’t have the same draw. That one feels to me like the bird is just plodding along (if you can do that while in flight). Bottom line, based on these photos, I believe that what the eyes are doing is important. The third photo is my favorite, and I think the most powerful of the three, because it shows who the bird is. (I just saw my first Harrier about a week ago, flying across a road right in front of our car, low enough that it was easy to identify it.) Love your photographs!

  • Diana Schleicher

    What is your goal in taking these pictures? Since you want shots of birds in their natural environment, natural light, not baited, set up or called in, and doing what they naturally do, then eye contact wouldn’t seem to be that important. More important to me, is the over-all result. I like #1 because it’s a good strong clear shot of the hawk, with a little horizon showing. In #2, the added interest is the vole the hawk has caught, in a clear blue sky. In #3, I like the terrain, the horizon and a deeper blue sky, and the way the hawk is flying low while hunting. A “perfect” shot, would be #1, with the vole from #2, on #3 background! HA!
    For me, they all have strengths and weakness, and eye contact isn’t an important feature at all.
    I enjoy your work, (excellent!)and would never be picky about what you are willing to share with us.

  • Mark Amershek

    Ron – right off I have to admit that I am not a photographer just a simple novice birder. But I would have to say that the first photo is the most informative for me. I can see in this picture a more complete graphic image of the bird. Features that are critical for field identification as there for me. The eye contact is nice but the other features are just as important. I guess I am skirting the artistic value of the the three shots. I personally tend to the utilitarian side of graphics. Nice portraits all around!

  • chris

    Ron, what a fascinating topic, one I’ve never thought about. The local BE photogs whom I follow have never had this discussion in front of me, so I don’t know their thinking, but as most of their BE posts are of a pair that has great personal interest, I don’t much care if the bird is looking at me or not. That said, here were my gut reactions to your shots above: #1 “Great flight shot!”(but I was only looking at the eyes because you told me to…) #2 “Cool! Look what we have in the talons!” Who cares if the bird is not looking at me? #3 “…pause…WHOA!!!!!” That is an art shot, an educational shot, and a technically excellent shot all in one. And if you are a performance-oriented person like me, you will immediately focus where the bird is focusing– which in this shot must be left to the imagination, as I know nothing about harriers 🙂 None of the shots is weakened by lack of eye contact. Each is a different type of shot, and I would happily see more of each type. Thanks for giving us this opportunity!

  • Charlotte Norton

    I feel totally unqualified to comment. I think personaly any photo eye contact or not that has is a good shotis wonderful. The ones showing behavior are not ony useful but informative to the viewer.It’s almost like asking which is the prettiest color red or blue. Diversity is a wonderful thing in all phases of life.

  • To me, your posts are similar to athletic events. Your shots show avian athletes taking part in a game (of life, in this case). Sports photographers need not have direct eye contact with the subjects they photograph. Why should bird photographers?

  • Leisa Duncan

    I enjoy seeing the birds – getting glimpses of the wild through you. For me, all the shots are equally as important because they all feature different things. Out of these three pictures, I like the last one best, seeing it look down as it hunts. Eye contact can be extraordinary (thinking of the owl’s eyes in the snow you posted recently) but for me, it isn’t necessary to have an amazing picture.

  • Sharon Constant

    Direct eye contact creates a completely different mood, but I don’t think it is necessary to make a strong image. I’m not an expert photographer nor am I up on current trends in nature photography, but I can say that in paintings and drawings, eye contact is not at all necessary to make a fabulous piece (think Vermeer: The Astronomer, The Geographer, The Lace Maker, da Vinci: The Last Supper, etc).

  • I think that your comments are very accurate on each photo and the 3 are excellent. Your 1st photo is the one I prefer at an esthetic point of view, but the other ones are great to show the behavior of this nice raptor.

  • Ron, I think all 3 shots are interesting in their own right. As you stated direct eye contact can be very powerful( as in a head portrait ),but can also take the subject out of it’s environment
    ( almost mugging for the camera, as humans tend to do ) instead of being engaged in it’s daily activities. The third shot is my favorite for that very reason.