Tuesday’s Tip: Eyes

It’s All about the Eyes

by Heather Swanner

The first thing I notice about a person when I meet them is their eyes…their color, their shape, their ability to reflect light, their eyelashes, etc.  Some people notice a person’s smile;  rather, I am drawn to the eyes.  In my photographs, I strive to capture my subject’s eyes just the way I see them.  As much as I love incorporating props into my sessions, a session is not a session until I’ve captured the window into my subjects’ soul….their eyes!  Clients and other newer photographers often ask me how I get the eyes to be so crisp and clear, so I decided to share a few of my techniques with you.

Contrary to what some may think, capturing those gorgeous eyes is not a result of spending lots of time in Photoshop.  Rather, it’s all about having your subject in the right kind of light.  For me, that light is in the open shade.  What do I mean by “open shade”?  Basically, it means that I put my subject in the shade (like under an overhang or a tree) while I stand outside of the shaded area and take the picture (meaning that I am often standing in the sun while I take the picture).  The area behind me is well-lit and provides a lot of light that bounces back and is reflected in the subjects’ eyes.  A big mistake I see photographers make is going too far into the shade to take pictures.  If your subject is shaded and you (the photographer) are shaded, then there may not be enough light to be reflected in your subject’s eyes (if you are shooting with natural light).  So take a step back, put on your SPF 30, and get out of the shade to take the picture.  When shooting this way, I try to make sure that the space behind me is pretty open so that there is even more light that can be reflected back into the subjects eyes.  Keep in mind that you don’t want your subject to face the sun in this set up….it’s better for your light source to be behind your subject.  In this example, the light is behind the subject (who is standing under a small overhang).  When I was taking this photograph, I was standing in the sun.

Another way to maximize the natural catch lights in your subject’s eyes is to have your subjects look up.  With the sun behind them, and sky overhead, you will achieve a great amount of reflection if you are above your subject.

If you are shooting in natural light indoors, the best advice I can give is to move your subjects as close to windows as possible.  In the following two images, a large window is just to the left of the subjects.  Because my preference is to have a little bit of depth to my images, I prefer that my clients not face the window (they are east-facing).  I use a reflector just to the right of the subject, and that bounces a lot of light back into the subject’s eyes.

Shooting at a shallow depth of field (for me, that’s around 1.6 to 2.8) allows me to get the eyes in sharp focus while softening the remainder of the image.  This really allows the eyes to pop in your image!

Lastly, I OCCASIONALLY (and I said OCCASIONALLY) use some light photoshopping techniques to add just a little more sparkle to the eye.  The next image is a SOOC shot that I think is pretty nice without a whole lot of adjustments.

To achieve a little more sparkle in the eyes, I did a quick color balance and lightened the entire image slightly.  After that, I dodged the highlights in his irises slightly (at about 4%) just to bring out a little bit more sparkle.  If I had touched the whites of his eyes, I am afraid he would have ended up looking creepy!  :)

I know that there are tons of Photoshop actions out there to help the eyes pop.  The problem is that they often get overused, and the subjects start looking more like aliens than people!  My belief is that you will get a much more natural look simply by putting your subject in the right light from the beginning.  And if you have to, just remember to keep a light touch when editing the eyes in Photoshop!

Thank You SO much Heather!


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Jed - June 14, 2011 - 10:38 am

Great photos!

Jen - June 14, 2011 - 5:26 pm

Awesome article!!!

Ali P - June 14, 2011 - 5:30 pm

Great tips! Thank you for sharing!

Autumn - June 14, 2011 - 5:30 pm

Great tips!! Love this post!

Alesa - June 14, 2011 - 9:48 pm

Great article. I will have to try this next time I shoot.

Joann Balay - June 15, 2011 - 12:45 am

Amazing photos and great tips. Thanks Heather!

Niina - June 15, 2011 - 3:51 am

Thank you so much for these great tips. I´ll definitely try to apply the open shade light technique next time when I´ll be taking photos of my daughter and her friends!

Shirley - June 18, 2011 - 2:31 pm

Thanks so much for your tips! Much appreciated.

Sally - June 18, 2011 - 2:51 pm

The lighting tips are great. The photoshop I don’t so much care for.

Love Lulu - July 29, 2011 - 10:03 am

These are such great tips! thank you for sharing :)

And what beautiful photography! I love it! :)

Wendhy Jeffers Photography - September 25, 2011 - 1:40 am

awesome tutorial :)

Jim Argersinger - September 27, 2011 - 11:27 pm

Question: what equipment do you shoot with? Camera, favorite lens. I am trying to decide what my next lens will be. I like how sharp your images are. I want a really good portrait lens for my Nikon D 7000. Any suggestions. Thanks?
Jim in Austin, texas

Becky Eller - October 4, 2011 - 9:51 pm

I’m a beginner and found this very helpful. Great tip.

Thank you!

Sarah - October 8, 2011 - 10:05 am

I saw this on Pinterest! Thanks for posting this…I think I tend to get too far into the shade. Your tips are really good!

Chrissy - October 10, 2011 - 1:02 pm

I just got my first dslr camera and this post is one of the most useful I’ve come across in my search for tips. Thank you! Love your photos!

Kristi Busby - October 18, 2011 - 8:57 am

Incredible post. LOVE LOVE LOVE. This is my favorite tutorial by far that I’ve seen. You are now on my blog roll. Thank you! :)

Relyn - October 18, 2011 - 10:56 am

WOW!! That’s so helpful. Thank you, Heather. And, thank you Tabitha for hosting it.

Lulu - October 18, 2011 - 12:13 pm

I learned so much! Great tips!!! Your photos are amazing…wish I could hire you to capture my kiddos eyes!

Leshia Collins - October 18, 2011 - 7:30 pm

thanks for the tips…it is always nice when fellow photographers share what they know.

Rebecca - October 18, 2011 - 10:47 pm

Thanks so much, I can’t wait to try these new tips on my kids. Thanks for sharing them.

Pam - October 19, 2011 - 11:04 am

great tips!

I shot a wedding alongside another photographer a few years back, an they did the final edits on the photos. I later had the bride come to me very upset with the results (from photoshop) these were her words: “Our eyes look like giant television screens!!” (I re\edited my images for her and she was truly grateful). It is true, you can have WAY too much photoshopping on eyes. Keep it simple and natural! This is an excellent tutorial :D

Amy - November 11, 2011 - 4:45 pm

Thank you so much for the advice….I’m a beginner at all of this but enjoy learning new techniques to get the great shot.

Polly - January 6, 2012 - 12:17 pm

Wow, amazing shots. Thank you so much for the very user friendly tips. As a mom of 6 little ones, I love learning new tips to use when I am chasing them around like the papparazzi. Such a great article!!

Beth Ann - January 6, 2012 - 9:57 pm

You Truly have a gift :)

Amy - January 8, 2012 - 8:56 pm

I just found this post via Pinterest and thank you so much for the wonderful tips, particularly the one about not over doing the Photoshop. Great shots and great talent you have!

April - January 10, 2012 - 9:30 pm

Thank you so much for sharing! I am not a huge fan of using photoshop…I know it is useful but I completely agree that it is overused! These tips are great!

Wanda - January 16, 2012 - 3:31 pm

Beautiful shots! And great tutorial. I’m curious though. Do you manually focus on the eyes or do you use auto-focus?

Anastasia - January 18, 2012 - 1:48 am

thanks! great tips!

Barbara - February 28, 2012 - 6:02 pm

Loved your tips!

Merrit - April 28, 2012 - 8:42 pm

Great tips. Thanks!

Hayley - June 27, 2012 - 1:21 pm

I am so glad you posted this I can’t wait to try it. But I only have a little samsung point and shoot camera. Will it work with that?

Claire Harvey - July 30, 2012 - 1:45 pm

thank you for this!!! eyes are my FAVORITE part too and I just love these tips from another photog who feels the same way. You are awesome!

Fatima - September 6, 2012 - 8:53 pm

Oh, thank you for this! I have lucked into a few great shots… So glad to have a bit of knowledge to help me along in photographing my kiddos this fall! Hope I can capture the beauty I see. This tutorial will help. Thanks, again!

Dana - September 15, 2012 - 12:26 pm

thanks for the tips! beautiful pics!

Judy - November 12, 2012 - 7:21 pm


Leah - January 25, 2013 - 2:03 pm

Beautiful photos!! And thank you so much for the tips. I have always loved eyes, but I can never photograph them like yours and others pictures. So I will definitely be trying this!

Mindy Davis - January 25, 2013 - 9:02 pm

I am just beginning to research photography with the goal of taking better pics of my children. I got a new camera for Christmas. I want to take portraits just like those posted above. Could you tell me what the best lens for capturing these pics is…thank you?

It’s All About the Eyes | Photo Daydream - January 6, 2012 - 12:12 pm

[...] Learn how she creates these great shots in the article “It’s All About the Eyes” [...]

last thing i… #2 - April 5, 2012 - 1:57 pm

[...] PINNED:  Tips for photographing eyes from Confessions of a Prop Junkie [...]

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