For Great Portraits, Shoot the Eyes

(First of two parts)

I was leading a safari to California’s Morongo Valley to photograph a gold mine of songbirds and raptors, and this article was on my mind. As we worked the different birds I found myself commenting about the difficulty of getting the eye in tack-sharp focus, and keeping it in focus. Some of the birds were in shade where the eye wasn’t lit up by a reflection of the sun and thus more difficult to key on. While there are always exceptions (silhouettes, profiles, artistic blur, etc.) we normally shoot the eyes of our subjects if they appear in the image.

What does it mean to “shoot the eyes” of our subjects? If the image is a portrait, and the subject’s eyes will be in-frame, they become a focal point of the image. I look at the eyes in a photograph first: the eyes of a bride, the eyes of an athlete competing, the eyes of a grizzly bear, the eyes of an owl. If the eyes aren’t sharp I tend to disregard the quality of the overall image unless it was clearly shot with other intentions.

Focusing on Camera Settings

We improve our connection with our subject through the sharpness and placement of the eyes in our photographs, and there are tools built into our camera bodies to help us accomplish this. Modern digital cameras, and their finely tuned AF systems, can be twitchy – and twitchy is my kind word for it. We have all been in situations when critical focus was achieved only to be lost a second later as the camera’s AF system re-evaluated and re-focused … on something else. Taking the focusing off of AI-Servo (Canon) or Continuous Focus (Nikon) will help with static subjects.

Since I shoot Nikon, I will use their terminology. Go to the Focus Mode Selector on the front of the camera and select “S” rather than “C” or “M.” On the back of the camera use the AF- Area Mode selector to choose Single-point AF. You don’t want to be using Dynamic Focus (and all 51 of those AF points) or Area Focus. You want the camera to focus once, using one focusing grid, when you tap either the shutter release button or the AF-ON button on the back of the camera. Personally, my D3s is set to back focusing, with the shutter-release button only taking the image, not focusing. Most consumer-grade cameras don’t have an AF-ON button on the back.

I’m not sure I could go back to the shutter-release button focusing as well. Every shot you take activates the AF system, creating many more opportunities for a focus shift to occur – sometimes so subtly that you don’t notice it in the viewfinder. Back focusing, using only the AF-ON buttons for focusing, allows you to continue to shoot images without activating the AF system. This is a tremendous advantage once critical focus (on the eyes) is achieved. Compositional changes can be made easily without refocusing before the shot.

Servo and Continuous modes will attempt to keep the subject in focus, even when you aren’t triggering an image, a major source of twitchiness. Since we are shooting the eyes of the subject we want to only be using a single focusing grid. Now this might vary between nature subjects and portrait subjects, but I use a single focusing grid – just one. Obviously, you want to understand how to move that point around your viewfinder so that your grid can be placed exactly (if possible) on the eye of your subject. Now with the camera on single focus, using a single grid, focusing on the eyes is easier to maintain.

Shooting Wildlife Portraits

The standard wildlife lens is the 500mm f4 lens. It’s big, heavy, cumbersome, and expensive – as in your buying another car expensive. This lens and its 10x magnifying power are both a blessing and a curse. While we can easily isolate our subjects from the surrounding environment, depth-of-field is at an absolute minimum. Since wild animals are dynamic subjects and not static, there is more need to use some of the tools (dynamic focus and continuous focus) we talked about earlier, and thus bring AF twitchiness back into play.

On my recent safari I was going back and forth between single/continuous focus as the need to have the correct equipment options for different subjects demanded. But there were times when I manually tweaked the focus of that big lens to insure eye sharpness, the focusing grid covering the entire bird, not just the eye. That little bit of extra effort can help, but sometimes it can lead you to missing shots. Many of the little birds I was shooting were around 30 feet away; some were in the shade. While the D3s has extreme high ISO abilities, ISO 400 is still better than ISO 800, or higher. I shoot for quality, so I keep the ISO down when I can. I say this to show that there is a trade-off between ISO and shutter-speeds. I need high SS to stop movement, but I need quality images, or what’s the point? At 30 feet I have about 2 inches of depth-of-field at f4 with that 500mm lens. On a small bird critical eye focus is an absolute.

I had an interesting situation in Yellowstone a few years ago. A large bull bison was swimming the Yellowstone River towards me. If I focused on the front of his face – like his nose, his eye, about 18 inches farther back on his large head, would be out of focus. I had to change positions to get a better angle on the bison’s eye, move the focusing grid without looking away from the viewfinder, and shoot images as he bobbed in the river, mostly underwater. The resulting image was great, but without the eye in focus there would be no connection to the image, the personal struggle of the bison would have been lost.

I’m not a birder, I’m a bird photographer. I don’t just shoot people, I’m a portrait photographer. I know my photography has improved as I’ve struggled to make the connection in my images between the image viewer or buyer, and the subject. The more I work towards that perfectly sharp eye, composed in a creative way, the better my photography becomes. When I’m teaching a photography seminar I emphasize that we can move our feet, change our position, adapt to the shooting environment, all with the final goal of more powerful images.

One Response to “For Great Portraits, Shoot the Eyes”

  1. I have always had my cameras set to the default shutter-release button focusing. I'll have to try back focusing and compare results. When I am actively shooting at f/1.4 or f/1.2 I have noticed occasional focus shift, probably due to the AF system. Thanks for the tips!

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