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How To Get Sharp Eyes In A Portrait

The eyes are often the key aspect of any portrait. If you get the eyes in focus then the photo will appear to be on focus.

That is because we are used to focusing on a person’s eyes when we look at them.

But if you are just a little off and end up with eyes that are a little soft, then the entire image looks out of focus.

1. High Enough Shutter Speed

Before you go messing with your focus settings or making any drastic changes…make sure your shutter speed isn’t the culprit.

It’s a common mistake to think that you don’t have to worry too much about shutter speed when taking a portrait of someone sitting or standing still. But if you want razor sharp eyes, don’t take shutter speed for granted.

Even just a little movement of the subject or hand shake by you can turn perfectly focused eyes blurry. Because with eyes, we are dealing with very tiny details, it doesn’t take much to cause motion blur.

This is especially true with higher resolution cameras of today.

A good rule for shutter speed is to make sure you are shooting faster than the reciprical of your focal length. For those of you, like me, who don’t remember math terms that well…the reciprical of a number is one over that number.

For example if you are shooting at a focal length of 100mm, then your shutter speed should be at least 1/100 of a second.

But if you are finding that the eyes in your subject are falling prey to a little bit of motion blur, then go one stop faster than that number.

So for a 100mm focal length, try 1/200 of a second.

If you have enough light, then there is no harm to starting with that higher shutter speed anyway.

Once you are shooting at a fast enough shutter speed, either the problem will be fixed or you’ll know it’s a focusing related issue rather than shutter speed. So keep reading…

2. Use A Smaller Aperture

So many photographers are obsessed with using wide apertures like f/1.4 to create that blury bokeh effect in the background.

But here’s a little secret a lot of pro photographers won’t tell you. When you are getting paid to get the shot and absolutely have to have sharp eyes in focus…you stop down to f/2.8 or possibly even higher.

Even the best lenses lose a little sharpness when you shoot wide open (meaning the widest aperture possible on the lens). That means that even if you nail the focus, you’ll get some softness even in the areas in focus.

If you want that blurry background AND exceptional sharpness, going fully wide open is not the solution.

Instead, try using some photography know how.

Position your subject so that there is more space between them and the background. Find a location where the background is far away from your subject. That increased distance will help you blur the background without opening up the aperture to a point where it affects your sharpness.

You can see here that I was using a very wide aperture and missed focus by just a fraction of an inch. The result was blurry eyes. This could have been avoided by stopping down to f/4.

3. Use Single Point Focus

Focus systems in modern cameras are pretty amazing. They somehow know where someone’s face is and automatically focus on it.

But if you want to be precise and ensure the eyes are in focus, try using a single point focus mode and moving that focus point over the eyes.

Sony has popularized a focus mode called “eye auto focus” which finds the eyes of the subject and focuses right on the eyes. I’ve only had occasion to test this out once and it does work pretty good. It’s not 100% but no method really is unless you have the camera on a tripod and a perfectly still subject.

4. Move Your Focus Point, Not The Camera

The “focus and recompose” method has been taught for years. But while it can be useful in a run and gun situation…if you are shooting a more posed portrait and sharp eyes are important…it’s probably not the ideal method.

The problem with this is that as you recompose, you are changing the location of the focal plane (the area of depth that is sharp in an image). If you are shooting with a wide aperture and at a closer distance, this focal plan can be quite thin.

By moving the camera (even just a little bit) to recompose, you can change the area of focus from the eye to the nose. That small change can have a dramatic impact on the perceived sharpness of your image.

Instead, try moving the focus point on the camera to where the eyes are when you have the frame composed the way you want.

It may take a little longer, but that extra time is well worth it if you consider the alternative of getting back from a shoot, opening up all the images on your computer and discovering a whole set of blurry eyes and sharp noses.

5. Light The Eyes

If the eyes don’t have enough light on them, they might appear less sharp even when they are perfectly in focus.

That is because light creates contrast (which goes hand in hand with sharpness) and a lack of light on the eyes can make them look dull and flat.

You can also do a little brightening in your photo editing software. But there really is no substitute for getting enough light on the eyes during the shot. Software brightening does not create the same contrast and sharpness that real light does.

There are many ways to accomplish this, but this isn’t a tutorial on lighting. So whether you are using natural light, flash, a reflector, or something else…just be sure to pay attention to how much light is hitting the eyes when compsing your shot and positioning your subject.

6. Don’t Forget To Sharpen With Lightroom or Photoshop

If you are shooting in the RAW format (and you should be), then there is a certain amount of sharpening that must be applied to the RAW image right up front with your RAW editor.

The eyes are one place where a lack of sharpening can become readily apparent.

If you use Lightroom to process your RAW images, you’ll notice that every image has a default amount of sharpening applied to it. Most of the time that should be increased.

But also pay attention to that bottom sharpening slider called “Masking.” Hold down the Alt/Option key as you adjust that and you can see that as you increase it, the sharpening will be applied to less and less of the image as indicated by the white areas. This lets you target only the higher contrast areas (which is a good thing).

7. Calibrate Your Lens

If you’ve tried everything above and still end up with soft eyes in your images, then it is possible that you lens may need to be calibrated (However, only dSLR cameras need the lenses calibrated…it is not an issue in mirrorless cameras).

If a lens is not calibrated correctly, it could be focusing slightly behind or in front of what you intend to focus on. In some models of dSLR cameras (usually the more expensive models), you can make adjustments to the calibration of each specific lens. This is commonly known as Auto Focus Micro Adjustment (“AFMA”).

If that is the case, there are a few different ways you can accomplish lens calibration. It gets a little technical and can be difficult to explain by typing, so I found this great video to explain the process.

Pete LaGregor

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a photographer in New Jersey and specializes in portraits and commercial photography, but loves shooting landscapes and video for fun. You can check out his work on his website.

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