Of the dozens of questions I field daily from portrait photographers, none is more prevalent than this one: “How can I get my subject’s eyes to pop in the photo?” Photographers want to know the magic answer – is it photography, light, camera gear and lenses, or Photoshop? The answer… All of the above.
The most important three ways to get eyes sparkling in your portraits are to:
Look for the light:
New photographers often have trouble finding the light. It is easy to get wrapped up in so many things when you are starting out – the background, the posing, your camera settings, and focusing. Trying to find the best light often just feels like one more thing. To me, it is the most important thing! That said, when I am quickly taking a snapshot of kids playing, the light may not be right, but I do not want to miss a “moment.” When I am working on capturing a portrait, the light becomes my main consideration.
- When given the chance, try and shoot in the morning or late afternoon, when the sun is low in the sky. When the sun is directly overhead, you often get deep shadows and pockets under the eye area. It is not flattering light.
- If you are doing a paid session, you may not have a choice on days, but for portraits of your family or kids, aim for days with thin, light clouds. They work like a giant soft box, diffusing the light. Full sun and thick, almost dark overcast are less ideal than thin, light clouds.
- Look for open shade. Open shade is areas that are not directly in the sun. On bright, sunny days look for shade created from buildings, a homes, trees, or any other overhang. One of the best places to get open shade – your garage. The photo above of my daughter Jenna was taken at the edge of our garage. Perfect light.
- Look in your subject’s eyes and have them turn in a circle, very slowly. You can make a game of this with younger kids. Watch how the light changes as they move. As you see good light hit them, and bold catchlights, this is your golden spot.
- Have the subject tilt their head, up or down. Sometimes a few degrees makes all the difference.
- Window light is powerful. When shooting indoors, as long as there is a lot of light outside, have your subject get near the window and watch the light.
- Use reflectors when needed. I do not use reflectors often, but with strong light, it can help fill in pockets and add light to the eyes.
- Though I much prefer natural light, those experienced using fill flash, can get great results. I am not one of them…
Nail your focus:
Getting the eyes both sharp and in focus is a key to getting what many photographers refer to as “eye pop” or “eye sparkle.” Sharp eyes will look better than soft ones every time.
- The role of depth of field – many portrait photographers love to shoot wide open. You get beautiful bokeh and background blur, as well as a softer skin . When shooting wide open, you dictate what is most important. There are some skilled photographers who can shoot at an aperture of 1.2 or 1.4 and get tack sharp eyes. Most cannot. If you notice your eyes are out of focus or even soft in your photos, check your aperture. If you are wide open, consider stopping down a bit, maybe 2.2, 2.8 or even 4.0. The larger your number, the more that will be in focus. You may not get quite that soft, artistic blur, but you also may get eyes that look sharp.
- Move focus points versus focus and recompose – some photographers like to focus on the eyes and then recompose. Others prefer switch the focus points, positioning one right over the eye closest to the photographer. I do the latter and much prefer it as a way to achieve sharper eyes.
- Check your shutter speed – ideally for a non-moving subject, you should be at 2x your focal length for speed. If you are using an 85 1.8 lens, for example, you’d want you speed greater than 1/170 of a second. If you have an image stabilized lens, or an ultra steady hand, you may be able to modify this. I often see photos with soft eyes with shutter speeds of 1/20. Yep – of course they are soft. It is really hard to hand hold at a slow shutter speed. Tripods help too, but most portrait photographers, including me, prefer the flexibility of not being tied to one.
- While almost any lens should be capable of achieving sharpness when used properly on your camera, professional series lenses and “good glass” can make a difference. I still stand firm that the camera equipment alone is not what takes great pictures, but solid gear certainly can make a difference to a skilled photographer.
Sharpen in Photoshop:
Most digital photos need sharpening. Even when I nail the focus and have great light in my subject’s eyes, Photoshop can help make them a little bit crisper. Be careful of “alien eyes” though. Overdone eyes are one of the worst things you can do to a photo.
- Use Photoshop actions to add light and sharpen eyes. The MCP Eye Doctor action for Photoshop and Elements has been helping photographers make eyes sparkle for more than five years. With this action set, you can add selective sharpness, enhance light, and make the eyes just that much better.
- Decide if you need an overall sharpening or selective sharpening – where you use a layer mask and paint on sharpening selectively.
- As I said before, less can be more. Do not oversharpen, excessively whiten catchlights or the whites of the eyes.
- When you present on the web and reduce file size, remember to sharpen for the web using a tool like the Free Photoshop action Crystal Clear Web Sharpening.
Now that you have some solid tips on how to get better light, focus and sharpness, the number one most important thing for you to do is GO OUT AND PRACTICE. Reading is great, getting out and shooting is better – and putting the tips into practice is the only real way to learn.
We’d love to see your images after you have a chance to try these things. Please bookmark and share this post – and add your photos that demonstrate good, strong eyes in the comment section.