5 Tips for Photographing Eyes

The human eye is unbelievably amazing and complex. We can see a pretty huge range of colors (around a million different shades), can see a huge variance between light and dark, can focus on different distances in fractions of a second, and can see detail better than the highest megapixel cameras on the market. And yet, every eye is unique with wonderful colors and patterns and shapes.

The eye is the second most complex organ in our body (after the brain) and one that is absolutely essential to the photographer. No wonder it makes a compelling photography subject!

Here are some tips for how to photograph eyes:

Taken with an iPhone 5 and a macro attachment, in natural light on the beach

One eye, taken with a 100mm macro lens and reflected.

Macro lens

To do this right, it really helps to have a macro lens. You can try to do this without, but it is difficult to get close enough for the eye to fill the entire frame. I would recommend 100mm or more for your macro lens. Shorter focal lengths mean you must be closer to the subject and possibly blocking the light or reflecting in the glossy surface of the eye. You can still get a good photo with a shorter lens—don’t let equipment keep you from trying! I’ve taken very cool eye photos with a macro attachment for an iPhone.

Focus point

Obviously, where you focus is up to your artistic discretion. If you are just starting out, I would recommend focusing on the iris, that colorful part around the pupil. This is the part with the most visual interest and the part that is really unique from one person to the next. It may also be the easiest part to autofocus on because of the contrast in the iris. Autofocus will work for someone with very steady hands, but if you find you are moving a lot or have a thin depth of field, you may want to manually focus.

Shutter speed and aperture

There is a delicate balance with macro lenses and aperture. The depth of field can be very thin at wide open so you may need to close down to f/5.6 or less in order to get everything in focus. However, this means you will have a slower shutter speed or higher ISO. Everything is a trade-off. Make a decision whether the speed or the sharpness is more important to you and find that perfect balance. If you are hand-holding the camera you need to have a shutter speed of 1/100 second or more (for 100mm lens) to keep from introducing motion blur.

Create a catch light

A catch light is simply the light source reflected in someone’s eye. The average viewer doesn’t always notice the catch light, but they can usually tell something is off if there is no catch light. It’s one of those details that let the viewer know they are looking at a photograph and not a computer generated model. It gives a little life to the eyes. Some catch lights are thought to look better than others, but it is largely a matter or preference. Try using a softbox, an umbrella, ringlight, or a window compared to direct sunlight. Choose your favorite.

One eye, taken with a 100mm macro lens and reflected.

Taken with an iPhone 5 and a macro attachment, in natural light on the beach.

Working with your subject

There are a few things to keep in mind when working specifically with eyes. First, continuous light may be easier to work with than flashes. This is because the size of the pupil changes with changing lighting conditions.

Continuous lighting ensures that what you see is what you get and that a large dilated pupil is not taking up the biggest part of your shot. Ask your subject to look directly into the lens. This will help the photo to grab the viewers attention, like someone is looking right at them. Avoid asking your subject to look right into a light. Not only is it uncomfortable and cause the subject to squint, but it can cause damage to the eye if it is bright enough. Work quickly and take breaks to make the most of your shoot.

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