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Focus on the Eyes for Powerful Portraits

The most engaging portraits seem to have direct eye contact between subject and viewer, as if the camera were simply a window through which we’re looking. But is it that simple? So much goes into making a good portrait, can success simply come down to eye contact between subject and camera and is it even necessary to concentrate on the eyes for a portrait? There are certainly wonderful portraits that do not focus exclusively on the eyes that illustrate character with other aspects of the body, from posture to hands, but as an introduction to the craft of portraiture, it’s important to understand how and why attention on a subject’s eyes is important, and to be familiar with methods of achieving that attention.

The Whys of Focusing on the Eye

The “why” of this equation may be as simple as the adage about eyes being the window to the soul or, better, the wonderful William Henry quote, “The eyes shout what the lips fear to say,” but the eyes are our most visually expressive tool. We appreciate and encourage direct eye contact in personal encounters, and our ability to communicate is enhanced when we look into one another’s eyes. A portrait is intended to communicate, and having your subject’s eyes engaged with your gaze as a photographer will convey characteristics about that person to the viewer. As a photographer, it’s your job to ensure that the characteristics are true to the person, not caricaturized nor only true to the fleeting moment of that exposure. This is the challenge. The eyes can tell so much, be sure that your image does not convey only a generic expression. Before and while you photograph, create an atmosphere that will allow the sitter to be comfortable and let their eyes reveal deeper aspects of their personalities. And be ready to capture those instances.

Photographs © Cory Rice

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