Have you heard of the expression “the eyes are the window to the soul?” The reason that expression has persisted for as long as it has is because if there is some truth in it. When you look somebody in the eyes you can tell a lot about them—what they’re feeling, sometimes even with they’re thinking. Without sharp eyes in a photograph, you lose some aspect of your subject’s personality. So the question then becomes this: how do you get tack sharp eyes every time?
Here’s the ultimate problem with portraits and eyes: you’ve probably also been told that you need to shoot people with a larger aperture (smaller f-number). The reason for this has to do with the background—when you’re creating a portrait, you want your viewer’s attention to be off the background, and on the subject. But what that ultimately means is that you have less depth of field to work with overall—which in turn means that you will get a plane of maybe a few inches where you’ll be able to achieve tack-sharp focus. That makes it hard to actually get the eyes sharp, especially if you’re counting on your autofocus system to find the correct focus point for you. And if your subject is moving, that makes your job even more difficult, since he or she is likely to move right out from under that focus point.
Focus points are specific
Many modern cameras default to using the focus point that’s right in the middle of the frame. But most of the time, once you’ve composed the image, your subject’s eye isn’t going to be right in the middle of that frame. So you need to take steps to place that focus point where your subject’s eye is.
You can do this a couple of different ways: first, using the simple focus/recompose method. This is where you orient your subject’s eye so that it is in the middle of the frame, press halfway down on the shutter button to focus, then recompose and take the picture. Depending on the angle of your camera and how your subject is standing, this may not always be the most accurate way to lock focus because a very shallow depth of field could mean that the focus point will change slightly when you move your lens. So I prefer to set the focus point manually.
Not all cameras have this capability—generally speaking, the more automatic your camera is the less likely it is that it will offer you a single point AF setting. Most DSLRs, however, do have single point AF, typically accessible via a small switch on the back of the camera body. To use it, look through the viewfinder while moving the joystick on the back of your camera up, down, left or right. You’ll see that focus point change positions as you move it—just place it over your subject’s nearest eye and press down halfway to focus, then all the way to make the exposure. Notice how I said “nearest eye—” that’s because if your subject isn’t perpendicular to the camera you may have one eye that’s sharper than the other. The eye nearest to the camera should generally be the one that’s tack-sharp.
Now make sure you check your results on your LCD. And it’s not enough to look at the zoomed out version of the shot, because your LCD is way too small for you to be able to tell how sharp the eye is. You need to zoom in on it before you’ll know for sure.
Back button focus
Many beginners don’t know about this feature, though it’s likely you’ve noticed the button that controls it. Usually called “AF-ON,” this is an alternate method for focusing that gives you greater control over your results.
You’re used to pressing down halfway on your shutter release button in order to focus your camera, then all the way to take the picture. The problem with this method is that if you don’t leave your finger on the button after you’ve pressed down halfway, you’re likely to lose focus again when you go to make the exposure. If you switch to back button focus, however, this is no longer a problem. You can use the back button to lock focus, and it will stay on that point until you decide it’s time to take the picture (see this link for more about back button focusing).
Watch your aperture and shutter speed
If you’re having some trouble keeping those eyes in focus with these techniques, you may want to make some adjustments to your aperture. Getting tack sharp eyes at f/1.8 is exceedingly difficult, because even slight movement of you or your subject may be enough to throw off that focus point before you have a chance to make the exposure. If you’re shooting at f/1.8 because of the light, you’re actually probably going to be better off upping your ISO so you can shoot with a smaller aperture. f/4.0 or f/5.6 is going to make your job a lot easier.
Chris's eye (selective colouring) by Flickr user orangeacid
Also remember your shutter speed—it may be tempting to slow it down a little so you’ll be able to capture the image without turning up your ISO, but that’s the wrong move. Even if you have rock-steady hands, they’re not going to be steady enough for you to hand hold your camera at speeds much slower than 1/60th. But equally as important is the ability (or inability) of your subject to remain still during those slower shutter speeds. She may move just enough to create some barely-discernable motion blur, which will mean the difference between tack sharp eyes and soft eyes.
Don’t be afraid to sharpen
It’s always important to get your photos right in camera, but don’t forget that cameras are just as imperfect as photographers are. The trouble with digital cameras in particular is that they always take photos that are slightly soft. That’s because they work in pixels—when a digital camera renders an edge it can’t do so down the middle of a pixel, because a pixel can only ever be one color. Instead, it has to place the edge between two pixels, which means that it’s not quite capable of creating images as sharp as its film-based predecessors could. So despite doing everything right, it can still help to sharpen the eyes in post processing.
eyes12 sharpen eye by Flickr user anthonysolis19990
All post processing programs will do this slightly differently, and some even have actions available that will do most of the work for you. For the sake of brevity, however, I’d like to talk about how to sharpen eyes in Photoshop.
First, open up the file and then create a new layer. Name it “sharpened.”
Now click on the “sharpen” tool in the left menu bar. You’ll find it grouped with “smudge” and “blur,” which look like a finger and a teardrop, respectively. The “sharpen” tool is shaped like a triangle. At the top of the screen, set the strength to 15-25% and check the “sample all layers” option.
Click on the “sharpened” layer to activate it, then paint over your subject’s eye, taking care not to cross over onto her skin. Make sure you do this while viewing the image at 100 percent, so you’ll be able to see the details of what’s happening. You may need to paint over the area a few times to get the best effect, but make sure that you stop before the eyes start to look unnatural.
You can do this using other techniques, too—some photographers like to create a duplicate layer and sharpen the whole thing using the “unsharp mask” tool. The sharpening is then confined to the eyes with a layer mask. It doesn’t really matter which technique you choose, because they’ll both give you an image with the same results. It is important however to make sure that you don’t go overboard—if you’re not sure, then you probably did. Back off before you end up with eyes that look otherworldly.
sisters by Flickr user Erathic Eric
Finally, remember that you can’t really use this technique to sharpen eyes that you did not get right in camera. You can’t correct out-of-focus eyes, you can only improve eyes that are already sharp. The idea behind this technique is just to improve upon the natural softness that is present in every digital photo.
There are few rules of photography that are unbreakable, but I would say that this one in particular comes pretty close. If you don’t have sharp eyes, you have a photo that is less than perfect. When the eyes are soft they are also a little dull, and dull eyes can’t function as that all-important window to the soul.
It does take some practice to get this right, so I suggest scheduling a photo shoot with friends or family so you can really start to get the hang of your single point AF system and your back button focus. And really, don’t be afraid to ask for a little help from your post-processing software. Often a little sharpening can go a very long way.
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