Focus on the Eyes for Great Portraits

In the original movie ‘The Karate Kid,’ I remember Mr. Miyagi reminding Daniel-Son to always focus on his opponents’ eyes. The same can be said for portrait photography. With portrait photography, the most important part of the image to capture sharply is the eyes. If there is one thing you remember from this writing, it should be that when you are taking a photo with your digital camera get the subjects’ eyes into focus. If you do this, half the battle is won and the rest of the photo should pull together nicely.

The Eyes Have It

If the subject’s eyes aren’t sharp, it is a serious detriment to the photo. With most portrait images, the viewer will be directed straight to the eyes of the subject. This is a natural occurrence. Therefore the sharper and clearer the subjects eyes, the better the impact of the photo.

With single-zone cameras for portrait photos, you aim the center of the viewfinder at the subject’s eyes when you activate the focusing system. Usually this is performed by half-depressing the shutter button. If there is a need to compose the image with the eyes in another part of the frame, the focusing can be locked by holding the shutter button in the halfway position and recomposing before fully depressing the shutter button.

For multi-zone focusing cameras, you can select the focus point area nearest the area to be focused upon. For portrait photos, you would normally turn the camera vertically, placing the subject’s eyes about a third of the way down the frame. Select the focus zone closest to the eyes and focus. Use the focus lock described earlier then recompose and shoot the shot.


There is an old saying – “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” In photography (as in life I would add), eyes are very important. A little glimmer in somebody’s eyes can make all the difference. It can reflect life, beauty, emotion, inner depth, sensitivity, kindness and sometimes even mischief. In photography, these little sparks are referred to as catchlights.

A catchlight is like a twinkle in the eyes. Simply put, it is the highlight that appears in our eyes when a light source is reflected off the surface of the eye. Though tiny, this highlight gives the eyes life and adds depth and dimension to the eye in a portrait. Although they can lead us into the false impression that the light is coming from inside, catchlights are nothing more than the reflection of an external light source (studio lights, flash from camera, window, TV screen, etc.). Without catchlights, even otherwise beautiful portraits appear dull and lifeless. 

Catchlights come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the shape and size of the light source, and its distance from the subject. For example, a large, round umbrella reflector will produce a larger, more pronounced catchlight than a small portable electronic flash.

There is no hard-and-fast rule regarding catchlights; it’s simply a matter of personal taste and preference (there is an unwritten rule that catchlights should be located at the 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock position for each eye). You will see all manner of catchlight size and placement in amateur and professional portraits. There is no “better” or “worse” way to place them. Use your own judgment as I do!

Emotive Portraits

 Always strive in the beginning to put your subjects at ease. Make them feel   comfortable and engage them in discussions. A good portrait can reveal volumes about the subject. Get creative with expressions and ask your subject to convey as many emotions as possible. A good portrait is all about correctly conveying the exact moods and expressions of the subject. Don’t be afraid to take charge of your subject during a photo shoot. Ask him or her to change his or her expression from bored, sad, happy, exhalted, thinking, confused, determined, etc.

Your subject cannot see what you are seeing through the viewfinder. They are relying on you to direct them. Tell them which direction to look, what type of expression to wear and what emotions to display. If you remember to focus on your subject’s eyes, the expressions will come through sharply and the viewer will be able to capture the mood of the photo.

Looking off Camera

Have your subject focus their attention on something unseen and outside the field of view of your camera. This can create a feeling of candidness and also create a little intrigue and interest as the viewer of the shot wonders at what they are looking. This intrigue is particularly drawn about when the subject is showing some kind of emotion (‘what’s making them laugh?’ or ‘what is making them look surprised?’). Just be aware that when you have a subject looking out of frame that you can also draw the eye of the viewer of the shot to the edge of the image also – taking them away from the point of interest in your shot – the subject.

There are a lot of ‘rules’ when it comes to composition. Sometimes I love them and sometimes I hate them. My theory is that while they are useful to know and employ, they are also useful to know so you can purposely break them – as this can lead to eye catching results.

The Rule of Thirds (see my hub on Composition) is one that can be effective to break – placing your subject either dead center can sometimes create a powerful image – or even creative placement with your subject right on the edge of a shot can sometimes create interesting images.

Candid Shots

Taken during your subject’s unguarded moments, candid pictures often turn out exceptionally well. If you want your shots to capture the natural behavior of your subjects, then go for candid shots. People who are aware they are being photographed tend to become self-conscious and stiff in the desire to look their best on photo. If your subjects are kids, this technique is going to work just fine. Remember to focus on the eyes.

A good portrait will contain at least one element that reveals the subject’s personality, attitude, unique mannerisms or any of the other features or traits that form the individual nature of the person. It will tell us something about the subject. A good way to capture a sense of these traits is to take a candid photo of your subject.

Don’t Forget the Eyes!

While looking at a portrait photo the first thing that the viewers eyes travel to is the eyes of the subject. So that makes the eyes undoubtedly the most important component in a portrait photo. Focus on the eyes of the subject, make sure they are pin sharp and consider half of your job done. Catchlights, candid shots, composition and other specialties will eventually come together for you.

Dust off your camera, focus on the eyes of your subject and enjoy great portraits!

Jayden Miller Copyright © 2012.



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