Want to improve your portraits? It's all in the eyes :: Digital Photo Secrets

Want to improve your portraits? It's all in the eyes

by David Peterson 6 comments

Portraits are some of my favorite pictures to take. You rarely ever get a chance to bring out someone’s unique personality in some of the other more “staged” shots. And nothing screams personality more than the eyes. If you want to take portraits that truly stand out, you need to give the eyes as much emphasis as possible. In this article, I’ll show you how.

There are a few ways to emphasize the eyes. You can focus on them, use color contrast to draw attention to them, zoom to get closer to them, and much more. Each of these techniques has its own pros and cons. It all depends on the subject you’re shooting and the theme you’re trying to express.

Have a quick look at the image above. Why does it stand out so much in your mind? What do the eyes convey, and would they still be able to convey it if you were zoomed out just a little bit more? My guess is no. When I look into this photo, I can feel the boy’s uncertainty. It’s almost as if his eyes are quivering, even though I can’t see them moving.

That’s the raw emotional power of the eyes. Even though this boy isn’t physically present, just seeing his eyes this close makes me feel what he feels. Human beings are very perceptive when it comes to reading eyes. In less than a second, we can know how someone feels. As a photographer, it really helps to use this to your advantage when taking portraits. The eyes are everything.

Focus on the eyes

If you’re close enough, and your subject is completely still, use your manual focus to focus on the eyes. You’ll get a much more precise focus that will really draw out your subject’s emotions. The more you can see in the eyes, the more the eyes have to say. When you switch to manual focus mode, the eyes will have much more detail, and they’ll communicate with your viewer in untold ways.

Automatic focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. It’s actually quite acceptable if you’re far away and using a telephoto lens. There is a slight error that happens when you use automatic focus on the eyes, but it’s dramatically reduced when you step back a few feet and shoot from a telephoto lens. It’s one more reason why professional photographers often use moderately telephoto lenses (70mm to 150mm) when taking portraits.

Create color contrast near the eyes

When you create color contrast near the eyes, it naturally draws you viewer to the eyes, emphasizing them even more. There a lot of ways to achieve this effect. You can do what the photographer did below and place some colorful makeup near the eyes, try placing some jewelry near them, or you could use a colorful head scarf, hat, or wrap.

When blue eyes are surrounded by a complimentary color (say orange), they appear even more blue. The brighter the colors near the eyes, the brighter the eyes will look in the final photo. Just by having any color near the eyes, you’re making them appear much brighter.

Place the eye in one of the four thirds of the frame

We use the rule of thirds for composition all the time. Why not use it to emphasize the eyes and draw more attention to them? Have another look at the two example photos. Did you notice that the eyes occupy both the left and right thirds of the frame? The photo of the woman with the makeup uses this effect even more so. The photographer placed her eyes near the top third of the frame.

You don’t always have to zoom in real close to achieve this effect. Try zooming out a little more to get the entire face while keeping the eyes in one of the four thirds regions. Make sure you give your subject a space to look into if he or she is looking at anything. This makes the photo feel much less cramped, and it gives the impression that something has caught your subject’s interest.

The eyes can communicate emotion in ways that nothing else can. When you use this to your advantage while taking portraits, your photography will truly strike at the heart. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

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  1. Diane kemp says:

    Gosh there is so much to learn. I doubt I will ever learn a lot of it but I am determined to learn as much as possible.I enjoying the lessens and I find that every lesson shows me different ideas in photography'
    I hope to keep improving as long as I live. I intend to live a long looooong time. :-)

  2. Gary says:

    have you tried out any of the so called fx format lenses on a dx format camara? I heard that the zoom range changes on a dx and that the overall picture balance is better because dx uses the sweet spot fx refines the corners better,combine the two and it.s better? comment.

  3. Geophoto says:

    Personally I prefer 5.6 or 8 to cach the more sharp details, all depend of you preference..

  4. Debbie Morris says:

    When using manual settings on your dslr for the eyes, what settings should I use? I have a Nikon D7000 and a Nikon 18-200mm lens. Thanks.

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