5 Quick Tips for Getting Sharp Eyes in Portrait Photography

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Eyes make or break a portrait so getting them sharp is critical. If you have dabbled in photography at all, then you know the feeling when you get home and look carefully at the images from a shoot; that sinking feeling when a woefully too many are not “eye sharp”. So what can we do to get sharp eyes in portrait photography? In some ways, this is THE question, and if I had a definite answer that worked all the time in every situation, I’d be famous. But I do have enough experience to share with you some tricks that have worked for me over the years.

Note: – This post is sponsored by Kent Dufault's guide to portrait photography where he discusses how to take your portraits well beyond have only sharp eyes. Take a look.

Ways to Get Sharp Eyes in Portrait Photography

sharp eyes in portrait photography

Know the Auto Focus of Your Camera: I always hate it when articles tell me to “read my camera manual”. I don’t want to read the manual. It’s tedious and boring. But I am going to tell you to read the manual. Then go to You Tube and search “Auto Focus and (NAME OF YOUR CAMERA). Listen to two or three videos. You will find that AF differs depending on the lens you are using, so you need to have the manual handy while you are learning.

Understand Focal Plane: Using AF (AutoFocus) place the square, or set of squares on one eye of your subject. If the subject’s other eye is not on the same horizontal plane as the AF square, it will be out of focus. So, move your subject, or tilt your camera (if you can without ruining composition) so that the eyes are on the same plane. Take care when shooting a group of people. Use a high value aperture (like f11) to be sure that people in back will be in focus. The bigger the depth of field, the easier it is to get all eyes in focus. I generally only use a shallow depth of field (shooting at an f value of 3.8 for example) when I have a single subject who stays still.

People are Fascinating

Play It Safe with F11: Usually, at the beginning of a shoot when I am still building rapport with a client, or letting them shake off nerves, I shoot with a high value aperture. I happen to love f11. It hides a multitude of sins. The plus side is that nearly EVERYTHING is in focus. The down side is EVERYTHING is in focus. But it is better to have an image that is in focus; one you can crop down a bit to make it look more like a portrait, than to have a slew of blurry images that nothing can help. As the shoot goes on, I lower the aperture value (f8, f5, f 3.2 f 2.8). The wider a photographer shoots, the more razor thin the area is that is in focus and it is easy to miss. So get the safety shots first when I am looking for sharp eyes in portrait photography, then risk it all later when you know you have the money shot in hand.


AI SERVO is Your Friend (or can be): If you are shooting kids, or any situation where your subject’s eyes are not still for very long, try switching to AI SERVO AF mode on your camera. The great thing about this mode is that once you tell it what to focus on, (eyes), then it will track and continuously focus for you. Thus, when you finish pressing the shutter button (or press the back focus button), it will focus on that moving subject. The down side to this is that there usually is no “beep” sound that alerts the photographer that focus is locked in. It can be a bit unnerving. But rest assured, it is focusing.

Medal of Honor - Staff. Sgt. Salvatore Giunta - United States Army - 101116

Note: – This post is sponsored by Kent Dufault's guide to portrait photography where he discusses how to take your portraits well beyond have only sharp eyes. Take a look.

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is a portrait photographer of 3 major life events: Newborns, Infants, and high school seniors. Check out my work at Panos Productions.

7 thoughts on “5 Quick Tips for Getting Sharp Eyes in Portrait Photography

  1. Hamid Aminrezai

    I just have a remark here. When you write under “Play It Safe with F11” that you “lower the aperture value (f8, f5, f 3.2 f 2.8)” you actually mean higher the number. Isn’t it?

    Thank you

    1. Matt Wallach

      I think when Katie says she lowers the aperture value what she is doing is opening up the lens (aperture) thereby shortening the depth of field. And yes the aperture at f2.8 is larger than at f11.

  2. Alans Snap Shot

    This is a very good post. Thank you for sharing it! I don’t thing there is anything more distracting than a photo where the eyes are not perfectly clear! You pointed out some really good ways to improve on this. Great job, and nice images!

  3. Ridley Fitzgerald

    You’re right, the eyes are vital for portraits. I’m no photographer, but I’ve taken a lot of pictures for fun, and the eyes are hard to get right! Who knew that the Auto Focus feature was actually important? Now I know!

  4. Ibrahim Shalaby

    Another nasty thing to deal with is the auto focus system itself, since wide apertures are popular in portraiture (tempting I would say) the razor thin DOF reveals faulty auto focusing issues.
    Slight front or back focus errors become extremely visible. My advise if your cam doesn’t support fine tuning auto focus technique avoid wide open apertures when focusing to the eye.

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