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Eyes and Ears in Wildlife Photography

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

You've probably heard about eye contact being important in connecting the viewer to the subject in photography, but what about ear contact? For humans, we rely on our eyes more than our other senses and we can read each other eyes pretty well. Animals often rely more on their ears and when we can read them, they can tell us a lot.

In the first 'tips' post for this website, I wanted to take you on a journey of discovery exploring how ears can be just as important as eyes in an image and I will show some images where the ears are 'wrong'.

I have a background in pet & equine photography and in horse portraits we aim for pricked ears. This shows off the horse, makes them more attractive and shows they are happy. Pricked ears in an image = interested, happy, positive. Being prey animals, their ears can rotate around 180degrees and you don't need to be an expert to know what flat pinned back ears mean! So with horses it's pretty simple. We can get away with ears to the side if they are relaxed and connected with their owner, but those images aren't usually 'head on' and so a relaxed ear works fine.

Soft eyes, forward ears. Happy horse and owner.

Dogs are similar, they look much nicer for posed portraits with their ears forward, and they're interested in 'the viewer'. With their ears down, they usually don't look happy and we want happy images. Of course when they're running, ears tend to do what they like and can add so much movement to the photo.

Tiggy showing us extreme ears! You can see how it adds engagement

Ok so for pets, you can get them to prick their ears to look pretty and the owner gets a nice photo. Does it really matter for wildlife though? In my eyes, if it's a head on portrait, yes.

Ears can tell us a lot about an animals behaviour, emotions and the environment around it, and if you want to buy a portrait of an animal and have it in your home then you want to have that attention towards you, right? It makes you feel connected, as if that animal is looking at you with its full attention.

If it's a profile of an animal, I would want the ears facing in the direction the animal is looking, as it tells a story. What is it looking at? Doesn't it look proud and attentive? Is there danger?

There's no mistaking where the attention is here.

Walking with intent. If the ears were sideways, I doubt the image would be as impactful and would have less energy.

Because animals use their ears to assess their surroundings, scanning for potential danger, a head on image with an ear off to the side leaves me feeling a little unsettled. What can they hear, they don't look comfortable, what is there? On the aesthetic side, it can leave the animal a little asymmetrical too and doesn't really look as cohesive. The animal can also look a little bit bored if it is allowing the ears to flop to the side in a relaxing way. This image of a Rhino calf demonstrates what I mean. When I look at it, I feel as though there's something to worry about off camera. Of course there wasn't really, but we don't know that because we can't see. There's interest and bravery, but also a little bit of uncertainty.

In the case of profile images, I prefer the ears to be facing in the direction the animal is looking. One of the reasons, as I mentioned above is that it can indicate there is something out of frame that it is looking at and it can make the animal look better. The 'something out of frame' in a profile shot is usually less 'worrying' than it is on a head on image.

I find with a profile shot having the ears facing the viewer, draws more attention to the fact the animal is aware you're there, it feels a bit intrusive and thus returns the unease that I try and avoid in portrait shots. There are instances where it doesn't have such a negative effect but as my thought processes go, I'm not a fan! Below the calf looks worried in the first image, almost hurrying away but in the second, the ears are forward and we can relax a little. Now to a viewer, it looks like we are the one worrying the calf. What had happened was the calf got left behind for a bit, and as it ran to catch up with mum, just did a little check at the person watching.

This Zebra foal is another good example to show how ears can make a difference.

Here the ear is turned towards the viewer, and it's apparent it knows we are there but it doesn't give such a worrying feeling, it just doesn't look as confident and engaging as it could.

Of course, in a 'non confrontational' setting, the direction of the ears means that the animal is concentrating on that area, and can be indicative of predators or threats. So it's funny how the contrast between the animal looking at you 'with its ears' in portrait view has a different feeling than the' ears looking at you' in profile view.

The rabbit is very aware I am there

In this 3/4 view, one ear is towards the viewer and it feels relaxed

On the flip side, when an animal is displaying behaviour, the ears can tell you a story. Take 'Dust Cloud': it's head on, but the ear is off to the side. Not only does the dust give you movement, but that turned ear, tells you something is happening to have caused that...Which was warthogs causing trouble.

3 ear positions in one photo.

For a bit of fun, here is an image of a Rhino mum and her calf. Look at the ears and what is your take on what is happening? How does it make you feel?

If you've got this far, well done! Dissecting images is always fun, and I would love to hear your thoughts!

There will be a few more blogs coming soon!

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