There’s a significant difference between simply having the power of vision, and truly being able to see. A well-trained eye enables one to seek out objects, recognize minuscule details, and gather information that would otherwise remain unseen and unknown. The untrained eye takes many things for granted and glances over vast amounts of information and data in a split second. Indeed, everything one sees tells a story which can lead to great discovery.
Developing keen, disciplined sight is not just a matter of having good eyes, as people with poor vision can still attain visual hyper-awareness with corrective lenses such as contacts or glasses. It’s more a matter of learning to see things differently, to practice the powers of perception in a more focused manner. This is a skill that’s been learned by professional photographers, hunters, military snipers, trackers, wilderness guides, and many others who depend on razor-sharp, incredibly discerning eyesight for optimal performance and success. For some, developing such “eagle eyes” is a natural, unconscious process, but for others, it’s acquired through a conscious effort and regular practice. Either way, it’s a skill that anyone can learn with time and effort.
For the purpose of this blog, I’ll be addressing this topic as it applies to outdoor enthusiasts of any kind, whether you’re a photographer, bird watcher, hunter, or one who simply wants to increase your enjoyment of the natural world by being able to see more critters…big and small. The following five techniques can be applied during your time out in nature which will progressively help both expand and focus your ability to see in a more disciplined, methodical manner.
#1 Slow Down!
A major factor in retraining your eyes to be able to see more wildlife, as well as simply appreciate your surroundings more in general, is to slooooow dooooown. Living in the high-speed, super-sized world of our modern culture, we are greatly influenced, both consciously and subconsciously, to move fast and think big. This especially has an effect on how we see things. Much of the media content that we are exposed to in our daily lives is extremely fast-paced. Next time you watch a movie, TV program, or even a commercial, notice how fast the images, scenes, and camera angles change. Bamn! Bamn! Bamn! It’s a rapid-fire, machine-gun pace of stimuli. The producers are trying to jam as much visual information into our minds as fast as possible. The results, while they can be entertaining and informative, are also that of a dramatic decrease in one’s attention span and a HUGE negative impact on one’s ability to focus.
When purposefully walking at a slow, relaxed pace through the woods, or just sitting quietly, one begins to notice the slightest, most hidden phenomenon: the pleasing, earthy scent of specific trees and plants, the sound of the dew dripping off the leaves in the early morning breeze, the symphony of songbirds and other creatures that are present, the elusive movement of wildlife, the slightest twitch of an animal’s ear, flick of a tail, or footstep, the way the light hits the foliage and intensifies certain colors, the intricate structure of rock formations and even the bark of the trees, the peaceful comfort of the sunshine and fresh air on one’s skin, etc. When one slows down, waaaaaay down, the senses become genuinely hypersensitive. Sounds are not just heard, they are felt. They radiate throughout the entire body. Sights are not just seen, they draw a response for further investigation and appreciation.
#2 Wide Angle Vision
As a culture that increasingly spends hours a day staring at tiny cell phone screens, it can be challenging to develop the wide angle vision that’s necessary for attaining that hypersensitive level of seeing. Being able to broaden your field of vision, and maintain that wide-angle view, is a necessary skill…especially for first spotting wildlife from a distance. It’s a little difficult to explain the process, but I’ll give it my best shot here. Try this: look outside a nearby window. What happened? Most likely, after a quick glance of the entire scene, your eyes began moving around and focusing in on particular objects: a tree, a car, a person, etc. When your eyes start to focus in on individual objects, they can easily miss out on small, otherwise unnoticed visual data that very well could be what you’re specifically searching for. This is especially the case with detecting the subtle movement of wildlife.
For many animals, the first thing that alerts them to danger is movement, sometimes extremely slow, barely noticeable movement, like the blink of an eye or a slight change in texture, color, or tonal contrast in the brush. One of the first steps in better being able to spot wildlife…big and small…is practicing that exact same skill yourself. And the first step in doing so is learning to first survey a scene thoroughly with wide angle vision, which enables you to much more easily detect the subtle, otherwise unnoticed presence and movement of wildlife.
Here’s a quick lesson on how to practice: Go back to the window you just looked out of and focus hard on not focusing on any one particular object. While in a relaxed state, allow your field of vision to widen, almost as if trying to see through the scene that is before you. Give special attention to expanding and exercising your periphery vision, as if trying to see out of the sides of your eyes. Hold that wide angle stare for as long as you can. It will eventually start to feel more natural, and most especially, you’ll start to notice those tiny, subtle characteristics and moments of everything in the scene, which naturally, is your cue to then focus in for further examination. The more you practice this technique, the easier and more productive it will get.
#3 Micro Vision
After getting the hang of seeing the world with wide angle vision, it’s time to start practicing the other end of the visual spectrum, and that’s what I refer to as micro vision, which is focusing in as precisely and up-close as possible to examine extremely small details. Going back to that example of looking out the window, after examining the scene with your wide angle vision, say you notice a flicker of movement or a tiny, out of place bit of color in a distant tree. With micro vision, you now focus in not just on the tree more specifically, but you go as far as examining everything about the tree in great detail: the size of the trunk, from top to bottom, the texture of the bark, every single limb, every single perceivable leaf or tiny twig on each and every limb, etc. You methodically check out every single minute detail of that tree until you clearly identify what it was that initially caught your attention. This can be done with the naked eye by simply getting closer, however, doing so very well may scare away any birds or animals that you’re trying to locate. A much better option for this micro examination is using a high-quality set of binoculars. Keep in mind, binoculars are not just for long distance viewing applications. They can be used at relatively close ranges with great effectiveness for discovering the fine details of things that you’d otherwise never see or have had paid attention to.
#4 Look for Parts of Animals
Whether you’re using wide-angle vision or micro vision, an important skill to practice in conjunction with either is to look for parts of animals. Quite often, wild animals will not be standing out in the open somewhere just waiting for you to have a look at them. Most wildlife remain hidden much of the time, or at least stay close to cover. And, the animals that do inhabit wide open terrain tend to blend in naturally by means of their coloration, and they also tend to position themselves in a way in which they can easily detect danger. In most cases, wild animals will see or smell you long before you even know they’re there. But no matter the case, either in thick cover or the wide open plains, from relatively close distances or far away, and with either the naked eye or using binoculars, learning to look for and recognize parts of animals is vital to success. Work on developing a heightened awareness of shapes, colors, minuscule movements, textures, and contrasts that are even slightly out of place in a particular setting. Instead of looking for a whole animal, again, focus in and look for parts of an animal, especially in areas of thick cover, such as a distinct color or pattern, the shape of an ear, the flick of a tail, the flash of an antler, an eye, nose, or other facial feature.
This is something that will naturally take practice. But in time, you’ll be amazed how much faster and how much more wildlife you’ll start seeing. As an example, I can look at an entire, vast mountainside and tell within just a few seconds if there are any eagles present…not by looking for the whole eagle…but rather by simply looking for a tiny white spot in a sea of brown, green, or other dominant colors. Here’s a few more example for you…
#5 Stay Alert
This one may seem obvious, but one of the most important things to do while out and about looking for wildlife is to stay alert and keep your eyes open! I don’t know how many times I’ve been out looking for wildlife with either with clients or friends, who used most of their time napping, reading, or incessantly fiddling with their cell phones. And as a result, they never saw a single animal the whole day. While being immersed in the beauty of nature is certainly relaxing, one has to stay focused on the task at hand to successfully and consistently see wildlife, and that means to be alert, awake, intensely fixated on your surroundings, constantly scanning the area, and watching for the most subtle movement or activity. You have to make it a point to keep distractions to a minimum, keep your mind busy, and don’t let your guard down for even a second!
So to quickly wrap things up, no matter if your eyes are young or old, in great shape or needing a little extra help from corrective lenses, you can still greatly expand your visual powers of awareness by simply practicing these few simple techniques on a regular basis. Like anything else, the more you do it, the better you’ll get. And before you know it, you’ll have your own set of “eagle eyes” in no time!
To see more photos, check out the video version of this story by clicking here.
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