Child Portraiture #2: Focus on the eyes

This advice ought to be basic knowledge for the professional, but every day I notice portraits – professional portraits – that are out of focus. When you look at a portrait, the first thing you notice is the eyes. If the eyes are out of focus, the entire photo looks out of focus. And it’s really not that difficult to do right.

First of all you need to use spot focusing in your camera, so you have complete control of the focus. With focus on the eye I don’t mean something close to the eye. It’s not the eyelashes, not the nose nor the cheeks that should be in focus. You need to focus spot on in the center of the eye. You also have to be sure that you have enough light for the focus system to work correctly. If the child doesn’t look straight at you with both eyes in the same distance from the camera, you generally need to focus on the closest eye. Exceptions are for instance when the closest eye is not the most lit one.

I have to admit – even being a stubborn old man – that modern mirrorless cameras with face detection does a pretty decent job at eye focusing. But mirrorless cameras are rarely used for professional portrait photography. That spot is still taken by the classic DSLR.

When making portraits you often use a very narrow depth of field and long focal lengths. Personally I often use 200mm at f/2.8 which only gives me a couple of millimeters of focus margin. Thus you require to be very precise in your focusing. Especially if you move your camera to change the composition after your focusing. Check the results on the camera to make sure that your focus is right. You can’t fix an out of focus eye in your postprocessing and it will ruin the photo completely.

Long focal lengths, narrow depth of field and the need for accurate eye focus don’t play well with children that can’t sit still. You have two options:

  1. Simply don’t. Move closer at a smaller focal length and use a narrower aperture like f/8.0. This will give you a lot more focus margin but requires more distance to the background.
  2. Keep the trigger down. Hope for the best.

Crisp and clear eyes are my primary concern when I make portraits. If the details in the eyes don’t make me loose my breath I will usually discard the photo. Of course – there are always exceptions, and you can of course use out of focus portraits for creating certain kinds of moods and expressions. And it can certainly sometimes be more important to catch the right moment than just the right focus. But as a rule of thumb this is the most important part of the portrait.

Practice, practice, practice 🙂

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