The Eyes

Today's post comes from the book Jeff Smith's Posing Techniques for Location Portrait Photography by Jeff Smith. It is available from and other fine retailers.

The eyes are the windows to the soul and the focal point for any portrait. You can create the most stunning pose in the most stunning scene, but if the eyes are not properly lit and properly posed, the portrait will not be salable.

Poses with direct eye contact are usually the most popular among portrait buyers.

Position of the Eyes. There are two ways to control the position of the eyes in a portrait. First, you can change the pose of the eyes by turning the subject’s face. Second, you can have the subject change the direction of their eyes to look higher, lower, or to one side of the camera.

Typically, the center of the eye is positioned toward the corner of the eye opening. This enlarges the appearance of the eye and gives the eye more impact. This is achieved by turning the face toward the main light while the eyes come back to the camera. This works well for all shapes of eyes, except for people with bulging eyes. When this is done on bulging eyes, too much of the white will show and draw attention to the problem.

When the mouth smiles, the eyes must smile, too—otherwise the expression won’t look natural.

Eye Contact. The point at which you ask the subject to focus their gaze in respect to the position of the camera’s lens also, in essence, poses the eye. First and foremost, the subject should always be looking at someone, not something. To do this, I put my face where I want their eyes to be. There is a certain spark that the eyes have when they look into someone else’s eyes that they don’t have when they are looking at a spot on the wall or a camera lens.

Usually, I position my face directly over the camera. This puts the eyes in a slightly upward position, increasing the appearance of the catchlights (see page 39). If the camera position is too high to make this possible, I position my face on the main-light side of the camera, never beneath it and never to the shadow side of it. Both would decrease the catchlights.

Having the subject look at your eyes (rather than a spot on the wall or some other inanimate object) gives their eyes more spark in the portrait.

When the eyes of the subject look into the lens (or very close to it), the portrait seems to make eye contact with the viewer. An overwhelming majority of our senior clients prefer the intimate feeling of eye contact as opposed to the more reflective portraits where the eyes look off-camera, but this is our clients. You need to offer both styles of portraits and discuss with
your clients what is right for them.

Reflective Poses. Reflective posing works well in a storytelling portrait—a bride glancing out a window as if waiting for her groom, a senior glancing over the top of a book and thinking of the future, etc. If the eyes are to look away from the camera, there a few rules that need to be followed. First of all, the eyes should follow the line as of the nose. It looks ridiculous to have the eyes looking in a different direction than the nose is pointing. This goes for poses with the subject looking just off-camera, as well as for complete profiles. Also, as you turn the face away from the camera, there comes a point where the bridge of the nose starts to obscure the eye farthest from the camera. At this point, you have gone too far. Either go into a complete profile, showing only one eye, or bring the face back to provide a clear view of both eyes.

Reflective poses show the subject looking off camera.

Catchlights. Outdoors, the single biggest mistake I see photographers make is not having the proper catchlights in the subject’s eyes. This usually comes from working with light that has no direction. In almost all of my portraits, I use a small reflector near the subject to ensure there are beautiful catchlights in both eyes. If you evaluate the catchlights, you can often diagnose any problems with your lighting. If each eye shows a distinct catchlight in the proper position, your main light is good; if the catchlights aren’t right, neither is your main light. Usually, this means your light lacks direction, indicating that the main light source is too large and too soft.

With no direction to the light, catchlights are absent and the eyes have a dull look.

On-camera flash creates a tiny catchlight in the center of the eye. This is not the ideal position.

The top catchlights are in the proper position and a reflector below the subject has produced a second catchlight. This smooths the skin, softens any darkness under the eyes, and produces a glamorous look.

In this final image, the catchlights are strong, well defined, and located in the proper position on the eye. This is the result you want in a professional-quality portrait.

Studio Lights Outdoors

Today's post comes from the The Digital Photographer's guide to Light Modifiers: Sculpting with Light by Allison Earnest. It is available from and other fine retailers.

Using your studio lights outside is the same as inside—with one exception: you must determine your shutter speed for the desired background (ambient light) exposure. When shooting with a combination of flash and ambient light, your shutter speed controls the available-light exposure (the exposure of everything not lit by the flash), while your aperture controls the the flash exposure (in most cases, this is the exposure of your subject). Yes, it takes much more effort and
courage to use your studio lights outdoors, but the final images you show your clients will be worth the effort.

Ballerina Rhiona O’Laughlin was the perfect subject for this outdoor studio portrait (PHOTOGRAPH 1). Once the location, wardrobe, and props were selected, a wonderful team of helpers started setting up lights—while trying to stay warm. The main light used on this image was a ring flash on axis with the camera. This was metered to record one stop brighter than the background. A simple monolight fitted with barndoors was used as the accent/hair light. This was powered to record one stop brighter than the main light. The barn doors were useful to help block unnecessary light on the scene.

PHOTOGRAPH 1. An incident-light meter reading taken of the ambient light determined my shutter speed. My flash was metered to determine the aperture, which controlled the exposure desired on my model. SUBJECT: Rhiona O’Laughlin. CAMERA: Nikon D300, Lexar media. SETTINGS: AWB, manual mode, 1/80 second, f/7, ISO 200.

Set scene for PHOTOGRAPHS 2 and 3.

In photograph 2, the main light was changed to a medium softbox. This was positioned at a 45-degree angle to the subject, producing a soft lighting pattern on Rhiona’s face. A warming gel was placed over the accent/hair light to closely match the warmth of the late afternoon sun. My shutter speed was lowered to record more of the ambient light in the scene.

PHOTOGRAPH 2. My shutter speed was lowered to record more ambient light in the scene, and the main light was slightly underexposed. SUBJECT: Rhiona O’Laughlin. CAMERA: Nikon D300, Lexar media. SETTINGS: AWB, manual mode, 1/40 second, f/10, ISO 200.

With the same softbox, the light was remetered after Rhiona changed poses (below). Here’s a bit of advice: when shooting on location, always bring a small wood board for your model to stand on when posing. I didn’t have one for this shoot, and the young lady accidentally stepped on a hidden cactus. As a true professional dancer, Rhiona continued to pose and smile—despite the cactus and the very chilly Colorado weather. It definitely takes a great team to create great photographs.

PHOTOGRAPH 3- Working with the same lighting setup as in photograph 4-6, the exposure was adjusted as Rhiona shifted poses. SUBJECT: Rhiona O’Laughlin. CAMERA: Nikon D300, Lexar media. SETTINGS: AWB, manual mode, 1/125 second, f/5, ISO 200. WARDROBE, STYLING, MAKEUP: Elliot Brooke.

Direction of the Light

Today's post comes from the book Lighting Techniques for Photographing Model Portfolios by Billy Pegram. It is available from and other fine retailers.

In addition to its quality, you must also consider the direction of the light. As noted above, light that comes from overhead is usually not flattering, because it creates dark shadows on the eyes. Instead, look for light that strikes the subject from another angle.

Front Light. Light that comes from directly in front of the subject is commonly used in beauty photography because it tends to smooth the skin and flatter female faces. However, it can also flatten the features and create a lack of depth in your image.

Angled or Side Light. Light that strikes the subject’s face from an angle puts highlights on one side of the subject (the side closer to the light) and shadows on the other side of the subject (the side farther from the light). This adds a sense of depth and helps show the shape of the subject. As a result, it is a great lighting choice for images designed to showcase the model’s body (such as fitness shots). Because light from the side accentuates texture, it also works well for clothing shots where texture needs to be visible. One downfall of this lighting is that the model’s face will be shown with texture, as well. This can be effective with men’s facial structure, but it is not normally as flattering to a woman’s face.

Light that skims across the body from the side is great for highlighting a toned physique.

Backlight. Backlight occurs when the light source is directly behind the subject and directed toward the camera. One thing to watch out for when using strong backlighting is lens flare. This occurs when light shines directly into the lens and results in a loss of contrast and color saturation, and in some cases the creation of bright geometric artifacts (reflections off the elements within the lens itself).

In this image, Backlighting created highlights to separate the subject from the background.

When paired with some kind of stronger front or side light, backlighting can add impact and separation to a photograph by accenting the edges of the subject, an effect called rim lighting. In the image above, a light placed at an angle to the subject illuminated her from the front. Two lights behind the subject created bright highlights (rim lighting) along the edges of her body, separating her from the background. In this case, the lights themselves also formed a compositional element in the background.

With a weaker (or nonexistent) front or side light, backlighting can also allow you to create silhouette (or semi-silhouette) effects. Experimenting with this technique you can achieve some amazing photographs. In the series of photographs below, I focused on the model. Her body shielded my lens, and I had her move slightly to my left so the sun would just break past her body. I varied the output of my flash for each photograph, achieving a variety of different exposure and results. Who is to say which exposure is correct?

Different flash settings combine with backlighting to produce a variety of effects.