Monday, June 18, 2012

The Eyes Have it

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Today I want to share what I have learned about
focus in portraits.

EYES should be the main focus. 
Once I get the eyes in focus, I let the rest go to ART.
Art means blurred in some way.

Notice in the above photo that my daughter Lindsay's eyes
are pretty much the only thing in focus.  The rest is just blurred ART.
I LOVE that dreamy look and that is my personal STYLE of portrait photography.

To create this look, I use my Canon 50mm 1.4 lens.
Yep, I LOVE to use it at 1.4...a wide open aperature with a
very shallow depth of field......
so it is crucial to get at least one eye in clear focus.

When I first started photographing people, I used the
stand-by rule...focus on the eye with the center point, then
hold down the button while I recomposed the shot.

I was perplexed when many of the eyes in my photos
were out of focus.  I mean MANY!

That method does NOT work for me in professional portrait photography.

I had to learn to use the focus points on my camera.

My camera has only nine focus points like this:

Some of the newer cameras have up to 45 and I heard
about one that has 65! 

Rather than explain this for every camera, pull out your camera manual
and look up Focus Points. Read how to use them on your particular camera.
That's what I did and it was awkward to use at first.

The idea is to select a focus point that is directly over the eye
closest to the camera as seen below:

Because my camera has only nine choices, I often have
to tilt the camera to accomodate the focus point over
the eye and compose with the rest of the shot.

See how the shot is tilted?

But that creates interesting composition!

When I have more than one person, I change my
aperature and ALWAYS focus on the eye
closest to the camera.

I can't tell you how many times, in haste, I have focused on
the most prominent face and the closest one to the camera was
out of focus!

Here's a technique that works for me. 
Figure your f-stop by how many planes are in your photo.
Notice in the photo below
that I have two planes.  The gal in front is one plane.
The two gals in back are on the same plane.

I figure one f-stop per plane....thus 2.2 or so.
Add a bit if you really want to make sure everyone is in focus.
The higher the f-stop number (smaller aperature) the deeper the
depth of field and thus more in focus. (Less ART!)

In this family photo, I had three planes.
The gal in front, the the gal to the far left is on a second plane,
 and the parents and boy are on a third plane.

I shot this at about f4 or 5 so everybody would be in focus.
F3 would have created more art, but when I'm shooting
for a paying customer, I usually go for better focus.

Play around with this to test your camera in group situations.

I set the focus point on the eyes of the gal in front.

This photo has two planes..
But with families I always want everyone
in focus, so I set it at f4 or 5...thus I had good depth of field.
But I sacrifice the ART...notice the daisies in the foreground are in focus, yet
I wish they were blurry ART! 

Since they are on the same plane in the photo below, I can
shoot at 1.4...LOVE a wide aperature!

It takes LOTS of practice to get fast setting the focus points.
It does slow me down and I sometimes miss
precious expressions especially with young children,
but I ALWAYS use focus points with portraits.

Getting a clear focus on the eyes and the
beauty of the background ART is worth learning this method!

I LOVE the dreamy look! 
Dang, that background is ART!!!

My portrait photography improved dramatically with
this method.

Good luck and have fun with this!



  1. Fantastic tips, insights and results :)

  2. Fotografie fantastiche!! un caloroso saluto...ciao

  3. Another great the focus in the first shot.

  4. Great info. this is something I'm working on, and felt like opening the camera way up, I was not getting a sharp enough focus of the person. I have several focus points, and will go back to the drawing board!

  5. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANKKKK YOU! This was such a wonderful post! This post has helped me SO much, I can't even tell you. I LOVE your art, & you have one happy new follower. Please do more posts like this, you are GREAT at them!

  6. really great tutorial! thanks so much for posting, and I couldn't agree more--focus and recompose does NOT work for me. I like to move my focus point exactly where I need it to be. Learning to do that really helped me get those tack sharp eyes in portraits!

  7. LOVe these tips! I try to focus on the eyes as well

  8. Love this tutorial! Glad I found you!