(Second of two parts)
We are drawn into images by the sharpness of eye contact. Eye contact transcends the initial view of the image and allows us to establish that personal connection. Images that draw us in, keep our interest, and give us time to view the entire image are those where the eyes of the portrait subject look into our eyes.
There is a feeling of connection to the subject, as if you are sharing the moment with them. It’s very hard to articulate and explain in words that feeling that connects you to a subject, either in the viewfinder or on the printed page. When that connection is there, its obvious – and doesn’t need words to explain it, we feel it.
Most of us have shot portrait jobs, whether on a professional basis or as an interested relative. We prep our subjects about what clothes to bring, props to pose with, and location backgrounds to deal with. We combine those elements into compositions and shoot away, telling our subjects to move this way, change hand positions or hip angles, chin angles up or down. But when it comes time to shoot the image those eyes had better be sharp.
The moms of the world, those that hire us and fire us, have the sharpest vision on the planet. If her daughter’s eyes aren’t the primary focus point in enough images, Mom will fire you and look for another photographer. That’s how important that connection is to her. Her child’s personality can be brought out the best by that whimsical look, that offhand glance, or a penetrating gaze that is defined by the eyes.
Lazy Focusing Hurts Portraits
That single focusing grid goes on the eyes of your subject. If I am close, or shooting a dedicated portrait lens like an 85mm lens, or at least that end of a zoom’s range, it’s easy to frame the image, move the multi-selector dial to position the focusing grid over the eye, and then focus. The common practice of holding the shutter-release button down in order to maintain focus while recomposing the image is cumbersome and another opportunity to screw up critical focus. If you are shooting on a tripod, which I use in every situation where I can, locking down the composition while still holding the shutter-release down halfway, is nearly impossible. The multiple focusing grids are meant to allow you to compose and focus, without the need for shutter-release manipulation.
If I’m farther back from my subject, or subjects (like a family), or using a wider-angle lens, I’m still placing the focusing grid across the eyes of the subject, even if it covers most of the head. And remember: If you’re shooting a family image, you focus on Mom. You compose the image to benefit mom, you focus on mom, and if you are smart, retouch her face for the digital proofs. Just to repeat, moms are the hiring/firing executives in the world of portraiture.
While this might seem elementary to many of us, I’ve seen examples of what I like to call “group focus,” which in bird photography would be called “flock shooting.” That single point of focus is just left in the middle, and if it’s on a father’s beer belly, so be it. Photographers might think that the depth-of-field of a typical portrait f-stop, like f8, will cover the sharpness issue for a group. But that’s not the point. The point is making the eyes of your subject the critical point-of-focus, which means it is the purest, sharpest, best defined part of the image. Lazy focusing skills won’t help you in portraiture.
Focusing on the eyes can be further enhanced using selective depth-of-field. An extremely shallow dof will draw your attention to the eyes even quicker. Using the program mode options of a camera, selected to portrait mode, will almost always result in the least creative image that can be taken. Critical focus and composition, and creative use of the f-stop, can result in portrait images that really have a power to them.
Level with Your Subject
Another aspect of focusing on the eyes is shooting at eye level. Now there are a lot of caveats to this, especially in portraiture, but my main concern has always been to give the subject the respect it is due. Sounds a little silly maybe, but shooting at eye level is as important to gaining that connection to our subject as is the sharpness of the subject’s eye.
Photographers diminish their subjects when they look down on them, an angle-of-view that can be seen as demeaning. Sometimes when we are new parents, and our toddler is crawling along the carpet, we call to them to look up at the camera instead of lying on our stomach and photographing them at eye level, in their world. In nature photography this is even more important.
A few years ago I was leading a photo safari out to the Toroweap (also known as Tuweep) area on the western edge of Grand Canyon National Park. It was early in May and there was still some snap to the early morning air as we drove the 60-plus dirt-road miles out to the rim. After shooting the sunrise and working the gorgeous, blooming cactus gardens and wildflowers we headed back north to the highway. Along the way I nearly ran over a five-foot gopher snake sunning itself in the road.
We all jumped out and started to photograph it, but no one except me wanted to get down on the road and shoot it at eye level. A snake in the dirt isn’t a wildlife portrait, but a photographer in the dirt shooting at eye level can capture a wild portrait. The image speaks for itself. Now, I know a gopher snake is a constrictor, and not poisonous, but I also know they can leave a good bite mark if disturbed – so I was careful. (In my earlier blog post  I might have called this “pushing”.)
Standing and shooting down (when you could kneel or lay down) at small subjects takes something away from the photographer-subject relationship. It could be wildflowers, or butterflies, it could be small children, or snakes – practice shooting at eye level, and when the subject has eyes, focus on the eyes as well. The eyes are our invitation into a subject’s life. Every emotion can be shown in the face and eyes, and that moment tells a story.