Ask any portrait photographer what the most important thing to get right is and they will most likely tell you getting the subjects eyes in tack sharp focus. Without sharp eyes, the portrait loses it’s impact, which makes it a pretty important step to master. You may be able to sharpen up the eyes a bit in post production, but Photoshop can only take you so far. It’s important to know how to capture tack sharp eyes in camera.
Follow these three simple steps to make sure every portrait you take from here on out has tack sharp focus:
1. Check Your Settings
First, make sure you check your exposure settings. Not only so you take a properly exposed photo, but check that they’re going to give you an adequate depth of field to keep everything you need to be in focus will actually be in focus. Using a shallow depth field–lots of background blur, or bokeh–is a popular artistic approach when shooting portraits because it helps keep the viewers eye on the subject by taking away some of the distractions that may be present in the background.
One of the ways to capture this shallow depth of field is by using a wide aperture. However, using a wide aperture, like f1.8, may not give you enough depth of field to have the tip of the subject’s nose and their eyes in focus. This may not be an issue for every portrait you take, but it will be of concern for many of them. You may need to adjust your shutter speed or ISO so you can use a more narrow aperture.
On that note, when adjusting your shutter speed, you’ll also want to make sure you’re not using too slow of a shutter speed, as this has the intention to introduce blur. Even the slightest movement from the subject while you’re snapping the frame can result in the eyes either moving out of focus or motion blur. If you can’t find that perfect balance between aperture and shutter speed, you may need to increase your ISO or add lighting.
2. Use Your DSLRs Focus Points
Most DSLRs allow you to move the focus point to a specific spot in the composition–this comes in handy when shooting portraits because it allows you to set the focus point to the subjects eye and really fine tune the point of focus without having to get autofocus involved.
Though autofocus does have it’s advantages, it’s downfall when shooting portraits is that it will typically focus on what is closest–unfortunately, the nose is usually closer to the camera than the eye. The only time I would recommend using autofocus is if your camera allows you to use the autofocus function with a focus point that you choose, not the camera.
A foolproof way to make sure the eyes are in focus, is by using the LCD viewfinder on the back of your camera and utilizing the zoom function (the buttons that look like little magnifying glasses with a + and – on them. Center and zoom the preview onto the subjects eye until the eye is large enough where you can clearly see if it is in focus or not. This technique works best, however, only when your subject is not moving around very much.
3. When In Doubt, Add Light
If the eyes are not properly lit, it will be very difficult to focus on them, much less capture a balanced exposure where the eyes are really dark and hard to see with the contrast of the subjects skin. If you’re noticing this happen in your portraits, try adding a light so the face is more evenly lit. In many cases, even a simple reflector bouncing light onto the face is enough to make a dramatic impact.
In addition to brightening up the eyes a bit, you’ll get the added benefit of catchlights depending on your lighting setup. Catchlights can really make the eyes pop in a portrait, which makes the photo itself that much stronger.