Focus on the eyes. Really.


I’ve written about this before, and I’ll write about it again. Ask almost any photographer, and they will tell you the same- Focus on the eyes when taking pictures. It doesn’t matter whether you are photographing people or animals, birds or bobcats, this is advice to shoot by.

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The windows are, as they say, the windows to the soul, and when we truly capture them in a photograph, they can draw us in and let us feel a powerful connection to the subject. Eyes that are out of focus will not do this. Our own eyes will automatically be drawn to the parts of the image that are in focus, and it seems a little harder to establish a rapport with someone’s nose.

This was shot at a very shallow depth of field, and you can notice the tip of the nose and the hair are already out of the focal plane

It’s more than just drawing the audience in. It is also hedging our bets on making sure that more of the important details are in focus. The eyes are sort of mid way (distance wise) between the tip of the nose and the ears. Go ahead, imagine there is a camera right in front of you, staring back at you. Touch your nose, then your eyes, then your ears. Your eyes are right in the middle. This means that if you focus on the eyes, you are more likely to have the entire face in focus. If you aim for the nose, the ears have more chance of being out of focus, and vice versa. This can be minimized to some degree by adjusting your aperture so that you have a larger depth of field (although when shooting in low light this is not always possible.)

With the shallow depth of field, there is no way to have both the nose and eyes in focus. You can use this however for a more dynamic photo

When shooting profiles, the difference in focal planes is usually minimized. Think about how far a beak or a nose can stick out, when facing toward the camera. Rotate that same face sideways, and many of the facial features will be in a single plane that runs parallel, or nearly parallel to the camera’s focal plane. This makes it easier, but it is still a good idea to pay attention to the eyes and try to focus on them.

Notice how just the head of this east Sandpiper is in focus. The body, legs, and beak tip are all fading into blur

Now look at this profile of the Least Sandpiper. Much less is blurred out, although the camera settings are identical

Another advantage to focusing on the eyes, is that you can notice when there is sunlight or another light source sparking or glinting in the eye. That glint can add a lot of life to the photograph. I know of several professional photographers that will add that light afterwards in post production, or will use a flash, just so that it will light up there eyes with that spark. I myself don’t really see the need for that, since, with a little attention, you can get that light there naturally, just by paying attention and timing it right. Also, if you are shooting wildlife, that flash can be rather disturbing and can scare them off, ruining your chances for more photographs.)

Notice the light reflected in the eyes?

There are however times, when it is best not to just watch the eyes. Safer.

Sometimes its best not to focus on the eyes, but to pay attention to other things

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website- www.galenleeds.net
This entry was posted in How To, nature photography, photography, portraits and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Focus on the eyes. Really.

  1. Good tips and a funny one too on the skunk. The slideshow was very enjoyable with incredible photos and action captures.

    • Thanks Donna. I had fun tossing the skunk one in there. I have photos of its eyes also, but they weren’t as much fun in this context. Your portrait of the cardinal on the bottom of your pages fits right in with this theme.

  2. Those pictures are so remarkable. We can see how wet the seal is.

    • Thanks Pamalah. It’s a fantastic bay for kayaking and exploring, and having visitors such as these. I had a wonderful kayak last night, with some of the best bioluminescence I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, my cameras don’t quite have the sensitivity to capture it in a way to do it justice.

  3. Great pictures, Galen! Do you use a single focal point when shooting? I’ve tried focus/recompose with limited success, especially when shooting kids. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    • I use single focus points. I preselect them to where I want the eyes, so that I can compose the photograph around that focus point, and hopefully don’t have to recompose. I find it easier when photographing quick moving subjects such as children and animals. Sometimes that doesn’t work, and I do need to focus and then recompose. To do this, I dedicate a button that just focuses, and remove the focus capabilities of the shutter button. I speak a little about it here- Getting clarity by turning off your focus

      Other times, when shooting en especially fast moving creature, such as a bird in flight, I will use the center focusing point since it is faster and more accurate, and then crop the photograph down to the composition that I want. I try to avoid this method though, as I prefer to do as much composition as I can with the camera itself.

  4. Peggy Tee says:

    Great dog portrait – going to try that composition out on my pup the next time! Also really liked the picture in the slide show of the little girl – action everywhere, but the way you positioned her, right in the middle and focused, drew my (pardon the pun) eye immediately.
    Excellent post, keep ’em coming.

    • Thanks Peggy Tee. I’ve actually done a whole series of dog portraits, zooming in on different parts- nose, eyes, etc. with a shallow depth of field. It makes for some really fun images. Glad you are enjoying the blog, and I hope you keep coming back

  5. Pat Bean says:

    Great advice, which I never thought about. Thanks for sharing. You earned a Bean’s Pat as the Wondering Wanderer’s blog pick of the day.

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