Portrait Photographers: Portraiture is About A Lot More Than Just the Eyes

When you’re starting out as a portrait photographer, everyone teaches you all about the eyes. “Get them in focus!” “Make it the most in focus and strongest part of the image!” That’s what they say; and after years of shooting portraits, that’s what every photographer will continue to tell everyone else. “They’re the windows to the soul,” everyone says. But after years of shooting portraits, I’ve said before that the eyes aren’t honestly always that important unless you’re shooting very close up. If the eyes are a big part of the photo, then yes–indeed they are important because of how humans always make eye contact.

And then you remember there are a lot of people who don’t always make eye contact–and that body language is sometimes a million times more important.

A more serious portrait: showing off young hunger to succeed.

A less serious portrait showing off a friendly person to work with.

The motivation for this post is not only the fixation on the eyes many portrait photographers have but also to every #instafamous photographer who tries to gain a following by doing nothing else but photographing beautiful, barely clothed women. Instead, here are ways that you can convey organic, real emotion in your photos.

Let me start off by at least explaining the way I capture the portraits I do. I’m legally blind and it’s tough for me to sometimes see the details in someone’s eyes because of how my astigmatism works. But I can tell details in a person based on their appearance, their body language, and their attire. I’ve known for years that autofocus and cameras can fix the issues with eyes being in and out of focus and well lit–but when photographers are learning to hone their craft, they ignore loads of other important details in the storytelling process of portraiture.

For example: posture. A person’s posture can tell a lot about how they’re feeling or how they carry themselves. I’ve got a friend that is always cognisant about her posture to the point where she has perfectly aligned shoulders. But most people have one higher shoulder due to environmental stress like how you wear your bag, how you sleep, etc. Your body adapts.

Then there are things like hands, arms, legs, waist, etc: which tell loads of stories. Let me show you.

This is Rachel in a point of thought. She’s trying to formulate her ideas and this is told by the way her hands are. She’s calm though; and you can tell that in her facial expression.

She’s still pretty calm but she’s a little less in thought now and more in the process of trying to express an idea.

And here’s Rachel with a bit more clarity in her expression and direct eye contact. Think about this in the process of a conversation.

Still think I’m a bit crazy here? Consider this: lots of people love pizza. They’re authentically excited by it; and that’s what I was trying to portray in my project The Secret Order of the Slice. In the images, you can tell the excitement from a lot of people in the images.

At the same time, that excitement in their body language is very evident and very important to the series. Body language is evident in everyday conversation and overall in a portrait, it can tell a lot more than just the eyes can.

The eyes though are shiny–so they emit a lot of contrast and glean and shiny things sometimes draw our attention. But they don’t tell you anything about the person you’re photographing. Instead, that needs to be conveyed using their body language and expressiveness. And every portrait photographer should keep this in mind.