Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?

Started May 24, 2012 | Discussions
ptl-2010
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Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
May 24, 2012

I was wondering if there was a trick to getting eyes in focus when taking portraits of single people.

I shoot with a Canon Rebel XSi and 50mm f1.8 (in this case). I usually select the center point, put it on the eye, then re-frame and shoot. Only issue is I seem to move a little and throw it off some times. I f I keep it center I get the lip or nose, and at f2.8 you can really tell. I'd like to be able to get a little more consistent.

I will sometimes shoot f4 or f5.6 and at that point it's not a problem, but I would like to be able to capture some nice, shallow portraits where the eyes seem to be about the only thing in focus. I know the 50mm f1.8 is capable of it, but I just seem to have a hard time keeping the focus on the eyes.

-Paul

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Nell27
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to ptl-2010, May 24, 2012

ptl-2010 wrote:

I was wondering if there was a trick to getting eyes in focus when taking portraits of single people.

I shoot with a Canon Rebel XSi and 50mm f1.8 (in this case). I usually select the center point, put it on the eye, then re-frame and shoot. Only issue is I seem to move a little and throw it off some times. I f I keep it center I get the lip or nose, and at f2.8 you can really tell. I'd like to be able to get a little more consistent.

I will sometimes sFot f4 or f5.6 and at that point it's not a problem, but I would like to be able to capture some nice, shallow portraits where the eyes seem to be about the only thing in focus. I know the 50mm f1.8 is capable of it, but I just seem to have a hard time keeping the focus on the eyes.

Not sure what you mean buy "I seem to move a little and throw it off sometimes".

Center point auto focus, focus on the eyes, KEEP the shutter button half pressed, recompose your shot and take the picture.

If you're not keeping the shutter button half pressed then you'll get lots of poorly focused shots.

With it half pressed you should be able to do almost anything and still get a perfectly focused picture. Just don't move forward or backwards.

Any lens at 1.8 will have a very shallow depth of field but for portraits there shouldn't be a problem getting the eyes on focus.

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ptl-2010
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to Nell27, May 24, 2012

Not sure what you mean buy "I seem to move a little and throw it off sometimes".

Center point auto focus, focus on the eyes, KEEP the shutter button half pressed, recompose your shot and take the picture.

If you're not keeping the shutter button half pressed then you'll get lots of poorly focused shots.

With it half pressed you should be able to do almost anything and still get a perfectly focused picture. Just don't move forward or backwards.

I keep it half pressed, I just think from moving down from the eye and recomposing, at such a shallow DOF i'm moving in/out without realizing it and throwing the focus off a bit. I'm looking at 100% crops of eyes, I ran off a quick 8x10 and you can't see that it's not in focus. I seem to end up getting the outer slope of the eye socket in focus sometimes, sometimes I get the eye. If I fix it in post it looks just fine, it's not like it's WAY off just a bit.

I just didn't know if there was a better method, like using one of the outer focus points and recomposing or if the higher end bodies had closer/different arrangement of AF points that makes it easier to grab focus without recomposing.

If I'm on the right track (center point on eye, hold shutter button half way while recomposing, once composed press shutter fully down) I'll just have to practice more and lay off the caffeine before I try to shoot

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-Paul

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Nell27
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to ptl-2010, May 24, 2012

I've probably taken thousands of portraits and can't think of a better way to get proper focus.

The only thing I might recommend is to set your aperture at 2.8.

You'll still get a nice background blur (if that's what you're after) and your overall picture will be sharper.

Good Luck.

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AnthonyL
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to ptl-2010, May 24, 2012

There is an effect as shown at

http://www.visual-vacations.com/Photography/focus-recompose_sucks.htm

Punch in the numbers into a DOF calculator and see if that matches your experience.

You could try using one of the other focus points and not recomposing.

Presumably you are happy with the focus if you don't recompose?

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apaflo
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to ptl-2010, May 24, 2012

ptl-2010 wrote:

I keep it half pressed, I just think from moving down from the eye and recomposing, at such a shallow DOF i'm moving in/out without realizing it and throwing the focus off a bit.

It certainly appears that you've understood the problem. Another source of focus error happens when the arc of movement between getting focus lock and releasing the shutter is large enough that the distance changes due to that angle. For example, two people standing side by side and if focus is locked on the face of one and then the framing changed (where the focus point is now between the two people), the arc of movement results in the camera being focused slightly behind the faces of the two people.

I just didn't know if there was a better method, like using one of the outer focus points and recomposing or if the higher end bodies had closer/different arrangement of AF points that makes it easier to grab focus without recomposing.

Indeed, some higher end cameras do have more focus points to choose from than some lower end cameras.

If I'm on the right track (center point on eye, hold shutter button half way while recomposing, once composed press shutter fully down) I'll just have to practice more and lay off the caffeine before I try to shoot

You want to choose the cameras focus point to allow it to be as close to the right place as possible when you have the image framed as desired.

Otherwise, use a tripod if possible, use more DOF, or you can back up slightly to get more area in the image allow a focus point to land exactly on the correct spot within a a scene, and the crop the image to the desired framing.

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dad_of_four
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What focus mode are you in?
In reply to ptl-2010, May 24, 2012

I'm a Nikon shooter, and we have AF-S (Single) and AF-C (Continuous).

In Single, the AF will work as you described above. If you keep the shutter half-depressed, the AF will stay locked on. However, in AF-Continuous with the shitter half-depressed , the AF will continually focus as the subject distance changes. (You might choose this for sports, for example)

Try it your self.... Point your camera down at your feet and focus. While keeping the shutter half-depressed, lift the camera and see if it continually auto-focuses.

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Deleted1929
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to ptl-2010, May 24, 2012

Relatively small, almost imperceptible movements of you and the subject can wipe out the entire depth of field very easily. People don't realise just how much they move until you have to think about it.

Consider your stance and the way you are breathing ( shallow breathing woks best ). You may feel your camera holding is stable, but it's remarkable what a little practice will do for you when you're aware of how slight the movements you need to control are. Like most things ongoing practice is the only way to maintain the skill. It will seem like second nature eventually, but practice is still needed to keep it up.

To show how sensitive focus is to your movements think about the angle you have to lean back ( or forward ) to loose focus. You've about an inch front and back to play with, and your eyes are at, say, 5' 5"". If you do the maths you'll see that a sway as small as a single degree will put you out of focus, which is something you'd barely notice normally. And your subject is moving as well !

So one trick I'd suggest you use is to shoot when you get focus ( don't recompose ) and crop later. Frame loosely ( always ) so you have room to crop and rotate a bit.

You can use AF-C and/or a selected focus area as well. Personally I find this more trouble than it's worth and I tend to rely on my eyesight and judgement more than anything else. AF-C can be sluggish and I find myself using manual focus for critical situations ( and I've got focus confirmation to help usually ). A selected focus area is a better bet if you happen to be able to find one that covers what you want ( another reason I tend not to use it - it diverts my attention ).

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Nell27
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Re: What focus mode are you in?
In reply to dad_of_four, May 24, 2012

dad_of_four wrote:

I'm a Nikon shooter, and we have AF-S (Single) and AF-C (Continuous).

In Single, the AF will work as you described above. If you keep the shutter half-depressed, the AF will stay locked on. However, in AF-Continuous with the shitter half-depressed , the AF will continually focus as the subject distance changes. (You might choose this for sports, for example)

Try it your self.... Point your camera down at your feet and focus. While keeping the shutter half-depressed, lift the camera and see if it continually auto-focuses.

Good suggestion. Never thought about the fact that he might have contiuous focus turned on.

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happysnapper62
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Re: What focus mode are you in?
In reply to dad_of_four, May 24, 2012

Also assuming that the subject isn't moving. It would help if you could post some examples. lee uk

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happysnapper62
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to Deleted1929, May 24, 2012

sjgcit wrote:

Relatively small, almost imperceptible movements of you and the subject can wipe out the entire depth of field very easily. People don't realise just how much they move until you have to think about it.

Consider your stance and the way you are breathing ( shallow breathing woks best ). You may feel your camera holding is stable, but it's remarkable what a little practice will do for you when you're aware of how slight the movements you need to control are. Like most things ongoing practice is the only way to maintain the skill. It will seem like second nature eventually, but practice is still needed to keep it up.

To show how sensitive focus is to your movements think about the angle you have to lean back ( or forward ) to loose focus. You've about an inch front and back to play with, and your eyes are at, say, 5' 5"". If you do the maths you'll see that a sway as small as a single degree will put you out of focus, which is something you'd barely notice normally. And your subject is moving as well !

So one trick I'd suggest you use is to shoot when you get focus ( don't recompose ) and crop later. Frame loosely ( always ) so you have room to crop and rotate a bit.

You can use AF-C and/or a selected focus area as well. Personally I find this more trouble than it's worth and I tend to rely on my eyesight and judgement more than anything else. AF-C can be sluggish and I find myself using manual focus for critical situations ( and I've got focus confirmation to help usually ). A selected focus area is a better bet if you happen to be able to find one that covers what you want ( another reason I tend not to use it - it diverts my attention ).

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StephenG

Dead right. you only have to look at the lcd screen especially with a long zoom, & the immage bobbles about like a rowing boat in a storm. Perhaps the OP could try the continuous shooting mode? Rattle off half a dozen shots & surely at least one will be in focus? Costs nothing to try. lee uk

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Deleted1929
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to happysnapper62, May 24, 2012

Rattle off half a dozen shots & surely at least one will be in focus?

My experience is that learning to take one shot well is better than the machine gun approach. I find it has a higher success rate ( YMMV ).

Possible problems with the machine gun approach :

  • A lot more shots to store, triage and process. At a professional level this becomes an enormous factor. You can go from triaging a few hundred shots to a thousand or more.

  • Extra vibration - more likelihood of shake. Bare in mind the idea DSLR shot is on a tripod with mirror lock-up and a remote trigger simply to remove all possible vibrations.

  • The viewfinder blanks each shot ( looks like flicker ). This can cause the shooter to loose track of the subject. LiveView sounds like a fix for this, but there's typically a lag between screen updates and what is actually happening, which amounts to the same problem.

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apaflo
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to Deleted1929, May 25, 2012

sjgcit wrote:

Rattle off half a dozen shots & surely at least one will be in focus?

My experience is that learning to take one shot well is better than the machine gun approach. I find it has a higher success rate ( YMMV ).

But the best approach is to take several shots well, not just one. People blink their eyes, and the more people in the shot the more chance that somebody did something we don't want in the picture.

Get it "right" with every shot, shoot multiple exposures, and then pick the best one.

Possible problems with the machine gun approach :

  • A lot more shots to store, triage and process. At a professional level this becomes an enormous factor. You can go from triaging a few hundred shots to a thousand or more.

I'm not in the business to get shots that are close, or good enough. It isn't a keeper that I really want to see, it's the one the customer is going to consider "once in a lifetime".

  • Extra vibration - more likelihood of shake. Bare in mind the idea DSLR shot is on a tripod with mirror lock-up and a remote trigger simply to remove all possible vibrations.

But even better in most situations (not all, and I use tripods and monopods whenever possible), a fast enough shutter speed is what eliminates motion blur. It works for camera shake and subject jitter equally well too!

  • The viewfinder blanks each shot ( looks like flicker ). This can cause the shooter to loose track of the subject. LiveView sounds like a fix for this, but there's typically a lag between screen updates and what is actually happening, which amounts to the same problem.

I see no reason to shoot at the maximum frame rate of the camera, or anywhere close. I personally use Nikon equipment which can switch between single shot, continuous low speed and continuous high speed. Single shot is usually fast enough, but I set continuous low for 1 or 2 frames per second, and high speed for whatever the maximum for the particular camera being used.

Much of what I do is "people photography", and I have no reservations at all about clicking off 20 or even more shots in a row in single shot mode, each a second or two or three apart. It almost always makes for a nice wide range of subject reactions, and thus provides a "great" shot far more often than any single exposure is likely to produce.

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Deleted1929
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to apaflo, May 25, 2012

Taking a lot of single shots is not the same as the machine gun approach, as you observe. The former is taking care to maximize the odds of getting each shot, thus increasing the overall likelihood of success. The latter is simply hoping for a random hit.

You are, I think, not differentiating between e.g. a studio setting where you have one specific task and one specific subject and, what I think the OP may have in mind, a situation where you have an isolated chance to take a shot like a wedding or an event. Under the latter circumstances you can't always avail of the multiple shots approach.

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apaflo
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to Deleted1929, May 25, 2012

sjgcit wrote:

Taking a lot of single shots is not the same as the machine gun approach, as you observe. The former is taking care to maximize the odds of getting each shot, thus increasing the overall likelihood of success. The latter is simply hoping for a random hit.

Five shots in 5 seconds is the same whether you press the button 1 time, or 5 times.

And yes it is, in either case, hoping for just the right random hit.

That has nothing to do with the technical quality of the image, and has everything to do with people having random expressions!

You are, I think, not differentiating between e.g. a studio setting where you have one specific task and one specific subject and, what I think the OP may have in mind, a situation where you have an isolated chance to take a shot like a wedding or an event. Under the latter circumstances you can't always avail of the multiple shots approach.

Weddings are the perfect example where putting the camera into continuous mode and pressing the shutter button to get a series of shots is very likely to produce one shot that is better than the others, and which absolutely would have been missed by trying to somehow time each shot to the exact correct moment.

It's in the studio where it isn't of much use!

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ptl-2010
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to apaflo, May 25, 2012

WOW! lots of helpful stuff.

I've got the camera in single shot AF, so that's not an issue.

I checked out the focus point layout of the 5dmkII and it looks like a scaled down version of what my XSi has, so it might be a bit better. The 7d's 19 point AF looks great, and the 5d mkiii looks crazy!

I definitely need to practice my stance and stability, I'm fairly balanced (skateboarder) but I'm a pretty hyper person so I usually have a hard time standing REALLY still. It will come to me in time I think.

I will give the recomposing thing a try, that sounds like a good idea. I'll just select the AF point that is closest to the subjects eye, compose with that on there eye, and crop/rotate/etc later. I'm not always going to shoot with a super wide aperture but I'd just like to know how to do it and get the results I want. I'm gonna give it a shot this weekend.

Thanks again for the information and suggestions!
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-Paul

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Guidenet
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to apaflo, May 25, 2012

One of the issues with continuous shot mode is the camera refocuses as you recompose the image. You often have to go to a side of other focus point during composition, but I too prefer shooting 3 to 5 shots when I press the shutter button during less formal portrait sessions. I often get the best image on number two or three. Maybe the child's smile is just right, a little smirk, a twinkle wasn't there initially. Often focus is just better on a subsequent shot, but you do have to adjust the way you capture. You can't just to a half press lock and recompose.

Another technique I'm liable to get flamed over is to shoot a little large and crop after. I find my focus is easier when I don't have to worry about recomposing in the camera. I know what I want it to be but don't mind doing it later. Since I consider the processing part of photography to be as important as the button pressing part, cropping after the fact is all part of the picture making process. It gives me extra room to work. In the studio, it's why I often prefer 85 f/1.4 on FX over tighter glass. Just another opinion.
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ptl-2010
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?
In reply to Guidenet, May 25, 2012

Guidenet wrote:

One of the issues with continuous shot mode is the camera refocuses as you recompose the image. You often have to go to a side of other focus point during composition, but I too prefer shooting 3 to 5 shots when I press the shutter button during less formal portrait sessions. I often get the best image on number two or three. Maybe the child's smile is just right, a little smirk, a twinkle wasn't there initially. Often focus is just better on a subsequent shot, but you do have to adjust the way you capture. You can't just to a half press lock and recompose.

When I'm shooting family candid stuff or things out on the street I usually fire off a few shots, because it's true the initial shot might be great but you may capture something that wasn't there the first time that makes it even better.

Another technique I'm liable to get flamed over is to shoot a little large and crop after.

It seems that cropping images is a tough subject, lots of people hate it, others love it. I use it when I shoot events/sports and my lens cant reach, or when I take a portrait that's just a little off and would benefit from a tighter/different framing. I think using it in this situation would be quite beneficial, I'd rather lose a few pixels around the edges than miss focus and lose the whole shot.

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-Paul

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YoHahnMD
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?...Try focusing manually!
In reply to ptl-2010, May 25, 2012

Manual focusing is much better for shooting portraits.

The cameras autofocus can't always distinguish between the tip of the nose and the eyes.

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JulesJ
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Re: Portraits - How to get eyes in focus?...Try focusing manually!
In reply to YoHahnMD, May 25, 2012

Yoho. my wife has been shooting pro portraits for twenty five years and she uses autofocus most of the time. If you are talking about shooting portraits really close up then, yes what you say applies, but most pro portrait shooters I know (and I know quite a few in the BIPP and MPA here in England), tend to use longer lenses so as not to get facial distortion and hence shoot from quite far back. Here the difference between focussing on the end of the nose and eyes makes little difference. Especially studio shooting where one can have enough lighting to keep the aperture fairly small. I do realise that your expertise is small animals and moving car shots which are not the same and maybe with them your idea applies, but I wouldn't know about that.
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YoHahnMD wrote:

Manual focusing is much better for shooting portraits.

The cameras autofocus can't always distinguish between the tip of the nose and the eyes.

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