Photographing Eyes In Portraits

They say the eyes have it and, although I usually don’t listen to them, in this case I believe they are actually correct.  I pay a great deal of attention to the eyes of my subjects when I am photographing portraits because they have such a significant effect on the overall portrait.

The eyes are the main focus in portraits because they tell us so much about our subject.  Ever seen a photograph where the subject’s mouth is smiling but their eyes are not?  Or when the subject’s mouth is serious, but the eyes are smiling?  

Which do you believe?  The eyes, of course.  The eyes have it.

What are some things you want to consider when photographing the eyes of your subject?


Of course it would seem to go without saying that you need to focus on the eyes if you want to showcase them prominently.  I literally focus on the eyes when I shoot – that is where I aim my focus first, locking in and then recomposing as needed.   If I get my entire subject sharp and in focus but have soft focus on the eyes, the portrait rarely works.  Starting with focus on the eyes is that important because we learn so much about how our subjects are feeling by the look in their eyes.


Camera: Nikon D4
Lens: Nikkor 85 f/1.4
Settings: 1/640, f2.8, ISO 400



Catch Light


I rarely photograph a portrait of an individual without paying specific attention to the role of catch light in their eyes.  Technically, catch light is the highlights of the reflection of the light source in your subject’s eye.  Catch light can vary greatly in shape, size, color, and position in the eyes.  Non-technically, however, I view catch light as something more meaningful.  I view it as life in the eyes, the way we showcase the spirit and depth of an individual.  Think about it – when you meet someone who is wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and their eyes look dull underneath, it is difficult to get a sense for them.  Contrast that with meeting someone in a natural, clean light, where their eyes seem to pop, where you can see dimension and sparkle and all the little specks in their eyes – you simply feel like you really see them better.  

And it is the same with portraits.

Camera: Nikon D4
Lens: Nikkor 85 f/1.4
Settings: 1/250, f2.0, ISO 560


Often catch light can be far more than just a speck of light – these highlights can mirror back everything in front of the subject, including the photographer and all the surroundings around them.  This contributes to a pretty magical sensation of seeing what your subject sees and can often elevate the catch light to becoming the main focus of the portrait.



Camera: Nikon D4
Lens: Nikkor 85 f/1.4
Settings: 1/200, f4.0, ISO 200


Much has been said of the position of catch light in the eyes.  Some say they should be positioned at 10 and 2 in the eyes, others say the smaller the catch light, the sharper the look, and yet others are diehard fans of the effect of beauty dishes or a series of lights placed around the eyes.  Whatever your preference, there is no doubt that the same and position of catch light in the eyes can also have a strong effect on the portrait – and can be quite fun to play with when setting up your lighting.



Camera: Nikon D4
Lens: Nikkor 85 f/1.4
Settings: 1/500, f2.0, ISO 500


Red Eye


The type of light you don’t want to see in the eyes of your subjects is red eye – that is the effect that occurs when light from a flash is reflected from the retina, in the back of the actual eyeball.  What most people don’t know is that the main cause of the red coloring that appears is because of the blood behind the retina.  

(Ewwww.)  The reason the appearance of red eye can disappear when we bounce flash is because the direction of the light hits the eye in a way that doesn’t reach straight to the retina, thereby saving us the appearance of that creepy red eye look.


Blink Management


It’s not uncommon to photograph a few blinks here and there.  One thing to consider, though, is that human beings tend to blink more rapidly when they are nervous, so a simple way to manage a frequent blinker is to work in earnest to put them at ease.  Less stress, less blinking.  


If you don’t have as much time as you’d like to put your subject at ease, and you’re really having a difficult time shooting through the blinks, here is an absolute worst-case scenario option:  ask them to take a deep breath, provide a short countdown, then switch your camera to rapid burst mode and fire off a generous round of shots once they open their eyes.  Unless someone applied glue to their lashes in the interim, it’d be highly unlikely you wouldn’t get a few great open-eyed shots between the blinks.


Eyes Closed


When eyes are intentionally closed, not accidently blinked shut, you can convey something even more powerful about your subject.  Often closed eyes convey a great deal about the mood of the individual you are photographing, about something they are paying attention to inside.  When you photograph two people with either one or both sets of their eyes closed together, especially a couple or a parent-child, it can powerfully showcase the feeling they each have for one another, the affection a wife has for her husband, or the love a father has for his son. And sometimes closed eyes can convey other type of powerful emotion – like great joy or laughter.


Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikkor 35 f/1.4
Settings: 1/250, f3.5, ISO 800


Direction of the Subject’s Eyes

Often composition of an image is ruled by where the subject is looking.  The viewer of a portrait often finds that their line of sight follows the line of sight of the subject.  If the point of interest in off to the edge of a wide area of negative space and looking across it, the viewer will follow their line of sight slowly across the image and then finally out of the frame.  Conversely, if the point of interest is positioned at the edge of a wide area of negative space and looking abruptly out to the edge of the frame, the viewer will follow their eyes immediately out of the image – leaving one with that abrupt, disconcerted experience of something not quite right about the image.


Camera: Nikon D4
Lens: Nikkor 85 f/1.4
Settings: 1/2000, f2.5, ISO 800


Eyes Adrift

Not all eyes have to be focused on looking anywhere specific.  In fact, some of the dreamier-feeling portraits I have seen are photographs where the subjects just zone out a bit, takes a mental vacation, or simply rests their eyes in a calm, relaxed manner – not looking at anything at all, inviting enough to draw the viewer into the portrait.


Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikkor 105 f/2.8
Settings: 1/100, f3.0, ISO 125

Composition of the Eyes in The Frame

The tried and true composition rule of thirds is even more impactful when you are framing a head-and-shoulders shot.  Placing the eyes in one of the major axis points invites the viewer to make eye contact immediately.


Camera: Nikon D4
Lens: Nikkor 35 f/1.4
Settings: 1/160, f3.5, ISO 560


Grabbing Sharp Eyes with Moving Subjects

Of course not all subjects are going to sit still and calmly await their portrait to be taken.  Animals and children are especially notorious for being rather hard to pin down.  In the common situation where your subject is on the move and you still want to grab a sharp focus, be ever-mindful of your shutter speed.  One of the most common reasons why eyes are captured with unintentional blur, or softness, is because the shutter speed wasn’t fast enough.  Once your subject is on the move, increase your shutter speed accordingly and – as always, keep your focus on the eyes.

Camera: Nikon D4
Lens:Nikkor 35 f/1.4
Settings: 1/320, f5.6, ISO 720

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