Photographing Eyes: A Mother’s Day Gift She’ll Never Forget

Many moons ago, I met a photographer at a Seattle street festival who peddled portraits of eyes. Festival-goers were paying her $25 or $30 a pop to have her photograph their eyeballs in extreme close-up. There wasn’t so much as an eyelash in her photographs, just iris and pupil, and the images were simply gorgeous. She also did collage-style family portraits. By that, I mean collections showcasing whole families’ eyeballs. (One family even included their parrot’s eyeball in their collage!)

I hadn’t fully grasped before that day how breathtaking the human eye is. Each one had so much depth, color, and complexity. Don’t even get me started on the detail. Ever since, I’ve been captivated by any photograph that’s all about the eyes. They don’t even have to be in extreme close-up. Take, for example, this iconic cover from the June 1985 issue of National Geographic:


Copyright: National Geographic

It’s worth nothing that this portrait, just like the street festival eye portraits, was taken before digital photography and photo-editing software. Even today, many wonderful portrait photographers will tell you that when it comes to capturing eyes, the key is perfect natural light and knowing how to work it. That was the case with this photograph by Ryan Pendleton that we shared on our Facebook page earlier this week:

“Frozen” by Ryan Pendleton

“Frozen” by Ryan Pendleton

Taking gorgeous photographs of eyes does not require Photoshop. Here are some tips to help you get great shots of eyes, right out of your camera:

  • Use bright natural lighting, and remember that the brighter the lighting, the smaller the pupil will be. Generally speaking, the smaller the pupil, the more vibrant the eyes look.

  • Focus on the irises above all else.

  • To prevent squinting, position your subject such that the natural light is coming from behind them, from off to the side, or from directly above them.

  • You can also try positioning your subject in the shade while you stand in the sunlight. If you position yourself right, the bright natural lighting from behind you will bounce back and be reflected in your subjects’ eyes.

  • If you are shooting indoors, move your subjects as close to windows as possible. You may want to use a reflector to distribute the light across their face.

  • One set-up that can get great results is to have your subject positioned with the sun behind them and their eyes looking up. This way, you get the reflection of a well-lit sky on their irises.

  • Use a macro lens. If you don’t have one, a close-up filter, lens-reverse ring, extension tube, or any other tool for life-size magnification can also work.

  • Ask your subject to look directly into the lens. A great tip from Pendleton that works well with children is to ask the child to try to see the color of your eyes by looking back through the lens.

  • Let your subject close his/her eyes between shots so they don’t appear glazed or get watery eyes.

  • To really make the eyes pop, use a shallow depth of field, perhaps 1.6 to 2.8. Focus first on the eyes and then reframe the shot as needed.

  • Remember that irises are very reflective. Experiment to find the lighting angle that works, one that keeps the eyes looking like eyes instead of like a mirror for you and your equipment.

  • Keep the sensor parallel to the eyes.

Circling back to where this blog started, I’ve got a great idea for a Mother’s Day gift: Why not make a photo collage showcasing the eyes of all the members of your family? You don’t have to do extreme close-ups. Just focus on those eyes, make sure they’re focusing back on the camera, let them be the centerpiece of each image, and then combine them in a frame to create a beautiful gift for Mom—a collage of windows to the souls she loves most! You could even print them onto metal using our Photo Factory!

P.S. Check out this cool tutorial to see how one photographer took the cheap, do-it-yourself, MacGyver approach and got an amazing photograph of his OWN eye!


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