What is a Sharp Wildlife Image?

There is a fundamental misunderstanding with many of the newer photographers entering into the field of wildlife photography (even some pros).  The belief that an image is not sharp if the entire subject is not sharp is simply not true as a principle within the core community and those who would be considered by many to be the best of the best.

What is the most widely held rule and belief in wildlife photography is that the eye, and generally the immediate surrounding of the eye should be in focus.  So, that means that the ears could be out of focus on a bear, but if you have the eyes sharp then you are good.  Let me explain with several points why this is true.

The Eyes are the Portal to the Soul
When a human looks at another human, they lock on to the other individuals eyes first.  It is through that connection that we tend to relate initially to someone or maybe even an animal.  You want the viewer to lock onto the eyes of the bear, for example, and make a connection. So, that must be the first part of the subject to be in focus. 

In the above image, the eye and tail are in focus, but the wing is not. This is acceptably sharp.

Low Light Means Sacrificing Depth of Field
Depth of field, or the part of the image that is in focus, is often somewhat out of the hands of the photographer.  Yes, we can control it by using  a smaller aperture, but that might not be possible in a lower light situation.  In this case we might need to use F4, which will give us a shallow depth of field. This will make most of the head of our subject out of focus in close-up portraits.

De-cluttering a Background
Another scenario, which often plagues any portrait photographer is a cluttered background.  By selecting F4, for example, we can create a smooth and creamy background.  This makes many a photo look amazing and surreal. 

Notice that the eyes are sharp, but the beak and neck are out of focus.  The background also has a smooth appearance due to a more shallow depth of field.

Obviously, some of what I have talked about is subjective, but these are generally held principles in wildlife and portrait photography.  Would it look better if our bear had a sharp muzzle and eyes?  Perhaps it would, but that kind of depth of field might be impossible at close range.

Sadly, many so called "reviewers" in stock agencies, fail to understand the simple principles above.  If I could give you a dollar for every image that was rejected due to the entire head of a subject not being in focus, I could buy you a sweet photography rig!  Magazine editors seem to be much more savvy and well trained on this issue. 

I hope this short post has helped you understand why it is an accepted practice to not have the entire subject in focus and how artistic representation can really win the day with smooth backgrounds and attention on the eyes of a subject.

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