The most important aspect for any portrait photographer to get right is eyes in photography. Our eyes are drawn to other eyes, because they speak to us and convey emotion.
Even drawings of eyes are irresistible to us. So in a photo we’ll also first go to the eyes, which is why they need to be sharp. Everything else can be blurry, but if the eyes are sharp we perceive the photo as being in focus.
It sounds simple, but there are a few steps you need to take to ensure eyes pop in photos and grab the viewer’s attention. They are:
- Ensure your camera is steady
- Shutter speed settings for sharp eyes
- Aperture settings for sharp eyes
- Where to focus in portraits
- Which autofocus area mode to use
- Advanced portrait focusing technique
- Positioning the subject for light in the eyes
- Editing to make eyes pop in photos
Now let’s get into the details of capturing eyes in portrait photography.
1. A steady camera for portraits – how to hold your camera securely
The reason your photos aren’t sharp might be something as simple as not holding your camera correctly. It’s essential that you support the lens with one hand and operate the camera controls with the other.
The easiest way is to ask yourself what would happen if you let go of the camera body. It could go one of three ways:
- The camera drops
- The camera starts to wobble
- Not much difference
Not prizes for guessing that if the third option happens, you’re probably holding your camera properly. Or you’re strong. Either way, it’s a good idea to check by taking a look here at how to hold a camera properly.
This leads onto the next step in how to ensure sharp eyes in photos…
Emotion is conveyed in the eyes, which is why in portrait photography eyes are so important.
2. Shutter speed settings for eyes in photography
A fast shutter speed is vital for freezing movement in portraits, even if the subject isn’t running around. So, familiarise yourself with appropriate shutter speeds for different activities and types of subjects. For example, I would never consider anything below 1/250 when photographing young children or pets.
But it’s not just movement that dictates shutter speed for sharp eyes in photography.
Unless your camera is mounted to a tripod, you need your shutter speed to be higher than your focal length number. In other words, if you’re photographing at 100mm, your shutter speed has to be higher than 1/100 for a shorter exposure time.
I prefer twice the focal length. So with a focal length of 100, I prefer to shoot at 1/200 and above to avoid camera shake.
The longer the focal length, the more you open yourself up to camera shake. A shutter speed you can get away with on a 50mm lens will result in blurry eyes on, for example, a 200mm lens.
Aperture f2.8, shutter speed 1/250, focal length – 56mm with focus on the eye closest to camera. The eye furthest from camera is slightly out of focus.
3. Aperture settings for eyes in photography
Many portrait photographers like to photograph with their lens wide open so that they can get minimum depth of field, in other words a blurry background. But it’s easy to get carried away with blurring out the background and often photographers forget to take into account the effect this can have on the eyes.
When your depth of field is extremely narrow, you have very little margin for error. So the slightest movement by the subject or yourself could be all that it takes for their eyes to be not as sharp as you’d like.
I’m not saying that you have to shoot at f8, just be extra careful when using wide apertures to give yourself the best opportunity to capture sharp eyes.
Also, when you open a lens to its maximum aperture, whether that’s f1.4, f1.8 or f2.8 you could also experience a lack of sharpness in the eyes. Lenses very often don’t perform at their best when used at their widest aperture. Even with expensive lenses, but more so with lower priced lenses.
I focused the eye to camera left, but could just have easily focused on the other as she is facing the camera head on, so her eyes are on the same focal plane. Aperture was f4.
4. Where to focus in portraits – the eyes, but which one?
Speaking of camera settings, there’s more to focus than pointing a camera at someone and getting a sharp photo, especially with a DSLR. It’s much easier with mirrorless cameras, because they’re equipped with facial recognition and eye autofocus.
One of the most important portrait photography techniques to learn is how to focus on eyes in portraits.
- If your subject is face on to camera, with both eyes on the same focal plane, it’s easy. You can focus on either eye.
It gets a little more complicated if your subject, or just their head, is slightly turned.
- The trick is to focus on the eye nearest to camera. Unless that eye is not visible, like when obstructed by hair.
Some photographers feel that both eyes must be sharp, the one closest and the other one. If you feel this way, you need to pay close attention to your depth of field.
This is one of the reasons why your choice of aperture is so important. Even more so for sharp eyes in group photos of two or more people.
But if you really want to shoot wide open for a blurry background and you don’t want to be stuck photographing everyone directly face on to camera, there’s a solution…
You can increase your depth of field, and therefore ensure that both eyes in photos are sharp, by increasing the distance between you and your subject.
For me personally, as long as the eye closest to camera is tack sharp, I don’t mind if the eye furthest from camera is slightly out of focus.
5. Best autofocus area mode for eyes in portrait photography
Single point autofocus is without doubt the best autofocus area mode for portrait photographers.
Select single point AF in your camera’s menu, then to focus make sure that you position this point over the eye closest to camera.
6. Advanced portrait focusing technique – back button focus
I’m a firm believer in using back button focus for DSLRs – I use it 100% of the time for all my portrait photography.
Back button focus is absolutely essential for photographing moving subjects with a DSLR, especially children and pets.
How you set it up varies slightly from one camera brand to the next, but the basic principle is the same:
- Assign a button on the back of your camera to focus
- Set the shutter button to take the shot only, not to focus
- Use continuous focus
I’ve written about it in detail, so won’t go into it here.
Photographed at the top level of a sports field’s small, covered spectator stand with natural light. I was standing off to the side slightly and the light was coming the front of the model, which you can see in the catchlights. Focus was on the eye to camera right. Aperture was f2.8.
7. Using light for eyes in photography
Light is the magic in any photo. In portrait photography, positioning your subject in relation to the light is great for flattering their face and figure.
But to take a portrait to the next level, you also need to get the light in your subject’s eyes.
Create eyes that sparkle with catchlights
Because eyes are curved and have a smooth, reflective surface, they reflect the light source. This is why you can so often see how a photograph was lit by zooming into the eyes in photos.
You can see the position of the light and even what type of light was used, including:
- Light shining through windows
These spectral highlights in eyes are called catchlights.
Enhance eye color for vibrant eyes (in camera, no processing)
The best way to enhance eye color is to light a portrait from the side. The angle of the light really enhances eyes in photography, especially blue and green eyes.
It’s another reason why Rembrandt portrait lighting is my favourite portrait lighting pattern.
Before and after processing in Lightroom to make her eyes stand out
8. Processing eyes in photography
And finally, speaking of enhancing eyes in photos, with a few tweaks in post production, you can really make eyes pop in photos.
Follow these Lightroom editing steps with the brush tool for better eyes in photos:
- Darken and increase contrast on the very outer edge of the iris
- Increase vibrancy and contrast on the iris
- Whiten the whites of the eye slightly (it’s really important not to go overboard on this as you’ll make your subject look very unnatural)
- Sharpen the eye lashes, iris and pupil
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