How to Use Lighting to Make Eyes More Gripping

Model: Erica Lourde

Model: Erica Lourde

Almost every portrait photographer will tell you to always focus on the eyes no matter what. Though we situationally disagree, they generally have a point about focusing on a portrait subject’s eyes and that they can be the most gripping and personable part of the image. With a couple of tweaks that you can do even before you start the editing stage, you can make the eyes even more enthralling.

So how do you do this? It’s all about your light modifier, light positioning, composition, and aperture choice.

It Starts With Your Composition

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Samsung 85mm f1.4 review images (3 of 3)ISO 1001-125 sec at f - 1.4

Put the camera down.

No really, put the camera down. It’s time to figure out specific posing and what you’re going for creatively in the image.

Look at your subject and observe them: their shoulders, attire, etc. After this, you should give yourself an idea of what areas of the person you want to emphasize in the image.

Will you photograph the top 1/3rd of them?

Will you only photograph their face and neck and make it a tight portrait?

What about the top quarter of them? How does that look?

What will you do with the hands and how will you position their face?

What pose can you make them do that will do them justice?

Now when we talk about composition here, we’re not only talking about composing based on the rule of thirds or the golden spiral. What we believe is also important are the colors. Colors can attract a viewer much more than a subject’s eyes can.

The image to the right isn’t the most catching composition to the eyes. Why? Well, one can argue that they’re too taking up too small of an area of the space. This is a photo that tells more about the person like the fact that they can sometimes be dapper, forward, confident and yet mature.

To make the eyes pop even more, we recommend that you shoot tighter on your subject.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Samsung 85mm f1.4 portrait review images (3 of 3)ISO 1001-640 sec at f - 1.8

The image above is an example of one where the eyes could have been more prominent but unfortunately they aren’t. They are surely more prominent and taking up a larger area of the image than the previous one was, but more work could have been done to make them jump out at you much more.

Part of this has to do with the fact that the eyes aren’t opened as much as they really should be either. When you do this, ask your subject to open their eyes more but to relax their forehead right after and release the tension in their eyebrows.

Chris Gampat Megan Gaber portrait test (17 of 17)ISO 4001-200 sec at f - 4.0

The image above is one that emphasizes the eyes the best. It’s very close up, uses the right amount of light and the eyes are the biggest area of any of the compositions that we’ve used so far.

Silver Interior Light Modifiers

For tight portrait photos, getting more emphasis on the eyes can be as simple as bouncing a flash off of a wall at times.

For tight portrait photos, getting more emphasis on the eyes can be as simple as bouncing a flash off of a wall at times.

There are two major light interiors for softboxes, octabanks and umbrellas: white and silver. White gives lots of reflection onto a subject while silver gives lots of reflection but also adds some punch. Think about it in terms of something like aluminum foil.

Then you can break those down into even further categories: smooth and beaded. Smooth silver reflectors add some punch and reflect the light while beaded interiors give even more punch but can cut down a bit on the effectiveness.

Silver also has a bit of a drawback: it can make your images way too detailed. Consider this carefully when looking at lighting options.

What’s wrong with that? Trust us when we say that absolutely no one wants to see their details in an image. What they instead want to see are details but not that much. It can make a retoucher or editor’s just that much more annoying.

Light Positioning

Positioning the light is also a crucial part of making the eyes in an image pop even more. In general, we strongly recommend that you use a relatively large light modifier and position the light somewhere in front of the subject, above and to the side.

Effective light positioning can also make the light reflect into the eye and therefore give off catchlights that make the eyes twinkle a bit more.

A Shallow But Narrow Enough Aperture

To make the eyes get more of an emphasis, you’ll need to have a bit of a balance depending on the size of your imaging sensor and the maximum aperture that you’re shooting at. Generally, we recommend being anywhere between f2-f2.8’s equivalent on a full frame sensor. If what your APS-C or Four Thirds sensor is giving you is narrower than that, then aim to shoot wide open and set your light accordingly. This gives enough of the eyes in focus and enough detail to the overall image to make someone get drawn into the eyes more than other parts.