As if red eye isn't problem enough, how many times have you taken a picture of someone who's squinting or blinked? Sometimes it just takes a little more thought and consideration before clicking the shutter to avoid these problems. And, as you'll read, there are times when you don't necessarily want to avoid closed eyes.
The sun is a double edge sword when it comes to photography. It can be too high in the sky, making for dull landscapes. Or it can rise and shine at times of the day that makes us get up way to early or have to rush to catch it setting. But, when it comes to portraits, the biggest problem is that it often shines too brightly in people's eyes, causing the dreaded squint.
If you turn your subject the other direction, then you're dealing with backlighting and silhouettes, which would mean having to use a fill-flash.
There are a few tricks of the trade to avoid squinting in bright sunlight. Some are simple and some involve equipment.
On the simple level, ask your subject to close their eyes while you're adjusting the camera's setting. Just when you're ready to click, tell them to open their eyes. This often gives their eyes just enough of a break from the sun before opening them wide again.
A diffuser is a better option if you have one. They range in price from inexpensive to more on the expensive side, but for this purpose, the less expensive ones will work just fine. I prefer to use the 5-in-1 diffusers so that you've got a lot of options for other lighting situations. The black or opaque sides are best to use to shade the sun off faces and out of eyes. When using a diffuser though, you'll likely need an assistant or a stand to hold it.
The most common squinting caused by flash photography is the anticipation of the flash. If a subject knows it's coming, they'll instinctively squint to reduce the glow to their eyes. In this example, it's almost like he's anticipating the flash and preparing for it rather than relaxing naturally.
You can avoid this by having the subject look past the lens rather than at it. This will also cut out red-eye, so it's a win-win solution. They don't have to look too far past the lens to lose their fear of the bright flash and to still have an intimate portrait.
If lighting allows, you can use a diffuser on your flash to cut down on its intensity. There are a lot of lighting options to work around having to use a flash if these are in your budget or repertoire. Rather than a direct flash, using side lights can result in a softer look and less concentration of light on your subject's face. Whatever you can do to minimalize face on flash shots, the better chance of reducing squinted eyes.
Squinting doesn't always come from bright lights. Often times a good laugh will cause people to squint or close their eyes. As a photographer trying to lighten the mood, the temptation is to crack jokes to make them smile, but know that this can have the counter effect and still ruin a potentially great photo opportunity. The trick, if you're going to do standup comedy behind the lens, is to wait until that moment when the outburst of laughs ends and the relaxed, happy faces remain.
A friend of mine who does a lot of portrait photography will often start by taking a photo of a person or group without much direction. This is usually when you get the most serious looks. After the first photo, he'll jokingly say, "That was great if you're going for your driver's license picture!" This response, without fail, makes everyone laugh. As they're laughing he watches for their faces until that moment when the eyes are back open and the teeth aren't so prominent, and that's when he snaps the photo. Almost without fail, depending on the size of the group, of course, he'll get a great second shot. Clearly with a larger group some people will laugh longer than others, but with a joke like that, it's normally a matter of seconds. So, use the jokes, but learn how to time when to take the picture!
There are exceptions to almost every rule, as is the case when closed eyes. This little boy having water splashed in his face is a great example of when eyes closed serves the purpose of the image you're capturing. Another example could be a sleeping baby. Heck, anyone sleeping can be a nice portrait, especially with some soft lighting. A musician playing their instrument and being in the moment would often have closed eyes. It's an expression of their passion. So, be open to closed eyes!
In any of these cases, think about the image you're trying to capture, the nature of your subject's activity, and the equipment available to you. Expand on your experiences and experiment with different ideas. Ultimately, though, learning how to avoid squints and closed eyes when you don't want them takes practice. Stick to it and you'll see a big difference in your results.
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