I’ve got a nearly unbreakable rule in photography. Except for those images that are artistic in nature. So with that exception, here’s the rule:
As the eyes go, so does the image.
In other words, if the eyes of your subject are in focus, clear and sharp, your image is by default sharp. Its just the way that we as human beings are wired. Think with me for a second: If you are having an intense conversation with someone, where do you look? The eyes. If you greet someone for the first time, where do you look? Yep, the eyes.
At least in American culture, eye contact is a form of nonverbal communication that often speaks volumes more than words themselves. Just by reading the eyes of another, we can communicate emotion, trust, intimacy, and knowledge.
So it stands to reason that an image that has the eyes in sharp focus can also maintain those same qualities just mentioned above. And I’ve seen it happen over and over.
I’ve noticed that in sales sessions, my clients buy the images that have the eyes in sharpest focus. Especially images that have the face framed closely. I get those wonderful compliments about how my photography just captured the very soul of their child.
Why is that? Most parents can never explain it, but they just know it to be true. But we as photographers do know why. It’s all because the eyes are in focus.
The Eyes are the Goal
So let the eyes be your goal. Make it a habitual practice in your photography to nail the eyes in your focus. Every time. It takes practice and there are things that you can do to really help your efforts. Most of them we’ll talk about in the upcoming posts.
But for now, let’s make sure we all understand two things. First, an image has to nail the focus on the eye itself. Second, you need to have proper light hitting the eye to illuminate it.
Focusing on the Eye
Let’s talk about the former, focusing on the eye. Even budget lenses these days can commonly shoot at f/2.8. That’s pretty low. At that aperture, even if you miss your focus and hit the nose or the forehead, guess what? It just ain’t close enough. You’re going to have soft eyes. And soft eyes equals a soft image.
So like I said before practice getting that focus on the eye alone. One helpful trick to accomplishing this is to get a new focus for every single stinking shot you take! Even if the subject you’re shooting hasn’t moved, get a new focus every time.
For portraiture, never, ever use continuous AF, where the camera is continuously refocusing. That’s a method best used for action and sports photography and won’t do the trick for us. We want One-Shot AF, which lends itself to our method of shooting. In most DSLRs, One-Shot AF allows us to press the shutter halfway down to nail a focus. Usually the camera beeps. Then we can recompose our camera how we want for the image.
Note: When recomposing, keep the shutter pressed halfway down. And NEVER, EVER move the camera towards or away from the subject. You’ll lose that crisp focus at low apertures!
Proper Eye Lighting
Secondly, it doesn’t matter if your focus is razor sharp on the eyes if there isn’t enough light to illuminate them. Come on, we’ve all been down this road before. We’re going through our images in lightroom only to find that the eyes in all the shots are big black holes. Let me illustrate. Here’s two images from the same session. Both were great images. Both were in focus. But which one stands out to you right away?
The right image is obviously better, right? What’s wrong with the left image? Just one thing, and one thing only. There’s just no light hitting the eyes! Which gives no contrast. And therefore no real feeling of proper focus. It makes the image boring. You know what I mean.
How do we fix that problem? Well, we’ll talk about this more later. But the basic rule of thumb is to make sure your subject has the correct light hitting them. Yes, even in the shade. Especially in the shade.
To this point, here’s what I recommend. Let’s say you’re shooting in the shade. What is giving the ambient light you’re relying on for the image? The sun, of course. But just because the sun isn’t glaring on your subject doesn’t mean its not important. Give the sun some respect, yo!
Try this. Before you pick where you’ll shoot, find the sun in the sky. Even though your subject is shaded the light is still directional. It comes from the sun. Have them face towards it, slightly (and I mean slightly!) angled off it. It will produce that beautiful catchlight your clients love.
Okay, so we’ve talked about the eye. That’s usually your goal. A sharp image has sharp eyes. So now that we understand the goal of a sharp image, let’s get technical baby.
Knowing your camera will give you a tremendous advantage when trying to sharpen up your images. First off, the balance between your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are critical. Let’s look at how:
I’m just going to tell you the hard truth. Shooting under 1/125 makes it really really difficult to get a sharp image (unless you’re using flash, which is a topic way past this discussion.)
Especially for kids. I’m tellin’ ya… I’ve got three of those balls of continuous energy buggers and they just laugh in the face of 1/125. Sometimes I can get a sharp image at 1/125, but just as likely I’ll miss a great shot. If your lighting and environment allow for 1/160, go for it for sure. If they don’t, either switch your environment (I’m going to write on this someday) or change/add light through modifiers such as reflectors. If you can’t do any of the above then just jack that ISO up to the high heavens.
I’m tellin’ ya… I’d rather shoot at ISO 1600 with lots of grain than get a soft image. But here I go talking about ISO… that cart just ran ahead of the horse. Sorry.
Okay, let’s talk about ISO, then. Its sort of the calm before the storm since aperture comes next.
I’ve already covered what you need to know. Higher ISO means grainier images. More noise added from your sensor. But hey, that’s just a tradeoff we’ve got to accept. Newer cameras handle this so much better.
I remember switching from my 40D to a 5D Mk II a few years ago. Well, the day the Mk II came out, actually. Its noise reduction at high ISO was literally light years ahead of my 40D.
In every case, I’d rather shoot high ISO to keep my shutter speed around 1/125 at the very slowest for most sessions, unless your subjects are excellent at being still for you.
There’s a couple rules of thumb here that you just HAVE to know. Aperture is a tricky business. I’m one of those weird people: unlike many current photographers, my background comes out of strobe lighting rather than natural light. Yep, its true. It feels really good to get that off my chest. But I’ve got something else I have to tell you. And you’re not gonna like it. Brace yourself…
When shooting in the studio, I never shoot less than f/8.
I know you’re probably screaming in horror. But its true. If I could shoot higher than that, I would. (The main image of the little baby I used in the intro was f/8.) Some of my heroes like Dave Hill and Jeremy Cowart shoot high aperture quite a bit. In fact, Dave is famous for shooting at f/16 and higher.
Why is that, you ask? Well there are a few reasons. But one huge one is this: Your image is going to be SO much sharper at those ranges. Sort of. Here’s why:
Shooting with a higher aperture means more of your image will be in focus. It’s called a deeper (larger) depth of field.
In other words, you have less of a chance of missing that focus. f/8 is far more forgiving than f/1.8. If this is confusing for you, go read the following article from Exposure Guide.
To illustrate depth of field, check out the following image from that same post:
Okay, so higher apertures are more forgiving. But there’s a tradeoff, isn’t there? Shooting at higher apertures gives us two distinct disadvantages, especially for the natural light photographer:
Higher aperture means less available light. You’ve got to trade that off by shooting higher ISO and slower shutter speed. Yuck.
Higher aperture usually means less bokeh. It’s harder to get that beautiful ‘blur’ behind your images. And its sacrilege not to have that, right? I agree.
So what’s a natural light photographer to do? Most of us don’t shoot in the studio. I already know what you’re thinking. When shooting outdoors in natural light, there’s no way f/8 would work. Not without additional light. And beyond that, shooting outdoors is completely different than in studio. Who would ever want to shoot outdoors higher than f/2.8?
Gosh, for that matter, f/2.8 is even too high for my taste! Give me f/1.8 or give me death! So where’s the middle ground, man?
Here it is… try and shoot at a minimum one stop above the lowest aperture your lens will provide you. If your lens allows f/2.8 at the lowest, bump on up to f/3.2. I’ll explain why in the next post about lenses.
But just realize that at low apertures, your ability to nail the focus is SO much lower. If your subject moves their head back for forth from your focus point, even by a half inch, your image won’t be sharp! Low apertures just don’t provide that deeper depth of field in order to allow for that.
To compensate for that, practice getting focus and shooting quickly. If you have to recompose the camera once you have a focus lock (this is super common!), be sure you don’t accidentally move the camera closer or further from the subject. You’ll lose the focus.
If time allows (rare for children, I know) you might even change your AF point on your camera. Most of us just use the center point. But what if you’re shooting landscape and your focus is up top? You can switch to an AF point higher in the viewfinder so as not to have to recompose the camera as much.
I know its hard! But it can be done. Practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to shoot the same image a couple times.
When I first started shooting professionally, I never knew how personal photography would become. I love meeting new people and new clients. But I also have treasured the opportunity to work for friends and family. Kelsey is one of those people. You’ll never find her without a warm smile. She is such a thoughtful, kind hearted person.
I’ve known Kesley and her whole family since I was in high school. Her older brother Michael and I were high school classmates and also had the same major in college. Kelsey’s whole family are such wonderful and kind people. They have been SUCH great friends through the years. Kelsey’s mom is affectionately called Gigi by our own kids. In the summer time, we go over and swim at her house, and they are so kind to invite us to their own get togethers since we don’t have family nearby.
When Kelsey asked if I would be interested in shooting her wedding, I was so honored. I am so glad that Kelsey and Tyler are getting married — you can just tell how happy she is that she’s found her soulmate in life. I can’t wait to have the opportunity to serve her family. I just got finished editing her engagement session, and it turned out awesome. I wanted to share them with you today. Hope you guys enjoy!
Katie and Kory are some really good friends of mine. I’ve known both of them for so long, and we always joke about our kids. They’ve got three kids and so do we. Each of their kids are just six months older than ours. They accuse us of being copycats. But we accuse them of the same. We were neighbors for about five years or so. But we just moved about a year ago and guess what? They just moved too, and they are just a street away. Neighbors again! I guess they just couldn’t stand the though of living away from us.
Next time, we’re moving to Tahiti. They’ll still follow us I think.
Anyways, I just finished editing a session I shot for them a couple weeks ago. Pictures are awesome!
Luke is a cool kid. This is my second opportunity to shoot a session for him. I’m not quite sure he remembers the first time, so I had to gain his trust again. Wasn’t too hard. ;-) He was easy going and fun to be around!
This Saturday, we had the pleasure of experiencing just a bit of magic. I’ve known Wendy for years now, and she has always been such a kind and thoughtful person. When she asked us to shoot her wedding, what could I say but yes? The whole day was out of a story book. The whole wedding was on the Davis family farm — spacious land, huge pond, corn rows, and all. Wendy decided on a natural decor, with hand made benches of old barn wood, burlap table covers, and elegance in everything.
I loved watching Brandon and Wendy together. They are such a perfect couple, totally in love. Thanks for letting me tag along just a bit — your day really was just perfect.
You just won’t believe how wonderful the whole day was, so here’s a little highlight video I made to prove it. Enjoy!