Okay, so you know when you capture that stellar shot, and then you get home to your computer screen and the eyes just aren’t sharp and you want to crawl out of your skin? Getting consistently sharp images (especially around the eyes) takes practice, patience, and sometimes just better equipment. Speaking as a true perfectionist, eye sharpness was one of those annoying technical issues that made me wail, rent my garments and pour ashes on my head. In the beginning of my career I just couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, and I had some serious frustration going on! So if any of you reading this right now are picking up what I’m throwing down, allow me to throw some tips your way that now help me to get a sharp image almost every time!
1. Focus on the eye
When shooting a portrait, make sure your focal point is directly centered on your subject’s iris. If their head is turned or tilted at an angle away from you, always grab the eye closest to the camera. Simply pointing your focus at the subject’s head or at the space between their eyes is not going to yield a tack sharp image. I set my AF point to a single point of focus rather than allowing my camera to auto detect my focal point for me. This gives me absolute control. Between every single shot I grab the focus on the eye, and holding down my shutter button half way, I recompose the shot for composition. This takes a lot of practice when shooting kids because they are always on the go. But stay diligent, and in time you will become “quick on the draw” so to speak, if you don’t get discouraged.
2. Toggle your focus points
When I shoot a horizontal photo I generally set my focus to the center AF point. However, when I rotate my camera to shoot a vertical portrait I change my focal point to the AF point that is now at the very top of my viewfinder since I always use the focal point closest to my subject’s eyes. This is a good practice because I generally shoot at wide apertures such as 1.8. Shooting with a shallow depth of field gives you very little leeway when you grab your focal point and then move your camera to recompose the shot artistically. The further you shift your camera from the original point of focus on the eye, the more chance you have of losing the tack sharpness. Therefore, I have learned to quickly toggle my focus point back and forth without even taking my camera down from my face, which has helped greatly with getting a sharper image every time.
3. Light your subject properly
Lighting plays a drastic role in the end result sharpness of the eyes. Lighting is an entirely in depth topic in and of itself, but in general, your subject should face the light source unless you are intentionally back lighting or creating a dramatic portrait. So when you are shooting in open shade think about where the sun is located. The same is true when you are shooting with window light. I prefer that my subject’s face is almost completely directed at the window itself so that the light is glamorously illuminating their skin and eyes. To see the difference proper lighting makes, raise your ISO to 800 and shoot a portrait in a dim room, then shoot another portrait at 100 ISO with your subject directly facing a south facing window (within 5 feet of the light). Having bright, even light falling on the face allows your camera to grab the focus of the eyes to a greater degree.
4. Use fixed lenses
I find that fixed lenses are always sharper than zooms. I sold my 24-70 2.8 L because it just didn’t compare in sharpness. Nuff said.
5. Avoid motion blur & camera shake
With kids I like to stay at 160 shutter speed or higher to avoid motion blur. Camera shake can also blur your image simply from your breathing or failing to hold your camera steady.When taking a still portrait I tend to hold my breath while clicking the shutter, and I brace my elbow into my body to stabilize my camera. You can also lean against door frames, walls, etc to brace yourself.
6. Sharpen the eyes in post processing
I like to defog/sharpen every image I work on. One of my favorite techniques for sharpening is the high pass filter and I use it on almost every image, however I do take the time to grab my erase tool and erase it off the skin areas. To try it out, watch this quick Photoshop tutorial video I found on Youtube.
7. Don’t shoot at maximum lens aperture
Most lenses perform at premium sharpness one or two stops above their maximum aperture. So for instance, on a lens that opens up to 1.2, try shooting at 1.8 instead of maxing it all the way out.
8. Don’t recompose the shot at f 1.6 or wider
I have a hard time getting an image tack sharp if I have recomposed when shooting that wide. It may look sharp on the web, but it won’t be sharp if your client wants to print a 16×20 for the wall. So if you are a daring individual who likes to shoot at 1.6 or wider, I recommend that you don’t recompose the shot after you grab the focal point on the eye. Instead, take the time to position your camera and your composition so that the focal point still lines up with the eye when you are ready to take the shot.
9. Shoot at a low ISO
Although ISO doesn’t technically affect sharpness, the added noise of shooting at higher ISO can contribute to an image looking hazy. As a portrait photographer who can choose and control my locations, I always shoot at 100 ISO unless absolutely forced by lack of light.
10. Invest in a sharper lens & better camera
I hate to say it, but equipment makes a big difference in image sharpness. Buying new equipment is never going to make you a better photographer, but it certainly can increase your image integrity and save you time correcting the shortcomings of your lens in Photoshop. I’ve personally experienced this myself. If you are doing everything right and still aren’t happy with the sharpness of the eyes, it’s time to upgrade your equipment. =) You can read here about what’s in my bag and why upgrading my equipment was a hallelujah! moment.
Until next time, Happy Sharpening!