Case Study: Lighting up the eyes in portraits

Early on, I told myself I wanted to be a landscape photographer. And true to my word, it was the first subject I tried to be good at and I concentrated on it for years. I kept taking pictures of people at a minimum, and practically shunned portraiture. Back then, I would probably say that I didn’t like it and would lump it together with model photography or the like. Or maybe I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. But the truth of the matter was that deep inside, I didn’t think I had what it took to be good at it. Maybe I still don’t.

There are established rules when it comes to portraiture. You will read or hear about the best portraits are achieved through certain lighting techniques and by shooting with specific gear and settings. And it is difficult to argue with that when such statements are backed by outstanding results. However, I do not want the class to dwell too much on such things.

Gear and technique aside, as I see things, there are two basic approaches to portraiture when it comes to storytelling. The popular, or perhaps, commercial way of doing it is to shoot completely through the perspective of the photographer or director, if there is one. The composition, and for that matter, the story, is an artificial construct that says little or nothing of who or what the subject really is. This is commonly manifested in the form of model and fashion photography — the pictures you typically see in advertisements and magazines.

The second approach is borne of a connection between photographer and subject. This connection is not necessarily intimate. It does not even need to be deeply personal. But this connection is what allows for a portrait to have a degree of honesty with respect to the subject. The photo is a reflection of the reality of and around the subject. It is more about the subject, not the photographer. Children are excellent subjects in this case. They have this sense of honesty about them that many adults no longer have.

I have a strong bias towards the latter. Unfortunately, having been stricken with shyness as a child and still having to deal with it as an adult, I found the whole photographer-subject interaction quite intimidating. It wasn’t until my son was born when I thought to myself this may as well be the time for me to overcome my anxiety towards portraiture.

Is there anything in between these seemingly polar opposites? Perhaps. But I believe a portrait will commonly be judged from the perspective of either of these approaches.

Of course, good gear helps. But do not let that belief make or break your attempts. To take a good portrait, I do believe that you need to know your subject first. Otherwise, you might as well be just taking an ID picture. Only by taking the time to get to know your subject some more can you figure out how to coax whatever you want from him or her. Or it can give you a cue as to when and where you can capture a genuine moment of the subject. Only then can you compose a convincing story to tell your audience.

Regardless of how you want to work on your portraiture, a few things remain constant. Your subject’s face, or more specifically in my opinion, the subject’s eyes are potentially the most powerful drivers of a story in a portrait — even more so than the pose, the costume or the background. That is why, as far as composition is concerned, focusing on the eyes and making them look alive is extremely important. However, the framing of your subject may not be enough in shooting a good portrait. Take the picture below as a case in point.

ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/8sec
ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/8sec

I post this picture in my course sites to express what I think of my students’ work. It may as well be what I think of when it comes to the self-portrait itself. The composition is fine, as far as I am concerned. However, the eyes lacked an important thing: proper lighting.  You need lighting and it has to work for your subject. With my eyes bereft of any catch light, they look dark and lifeless. They don’t even look human. It’s awesome and amusing for what I use this picture for — which is to tell a story of exasperation. But as a portrait that showcases my mug, it’s terrible because of how my eyes look. I would have been better off closing them.


Mother and son Osaka, Japan (2015) ISO 100, f/4.5, 1/80sec
Mother and son
Osaka, Japan (2015)
ISO 100, f/4.5, 1/80sec

Parental bias aside, what makes my baby boy fun to take pictures of is those big eyes tend to pop out when he’s enjoying himself. It’s not hard to tell how he’s feeling at any given time. The same will hold true for most infants and toddlers. The above picture was taken fairly late in the afternoon. The sunlight was still fairly intense and coming from the left corner of my eye, but diffused enough that it didn’t cast overly dark shadows, allowing for a bright enough exposure of the faces with the background still moderately exposed and recognizable. Most importantly, there was enough light for details in the eyes to pop out. The lighting was not perfect, but very much workable. We certainly could do a lot worse.

Now, what if ambient lighting is much farther from being ideal? If you want anything good, there may be no choice but to employ additional lighting.


Aidan Librero ISO 100, f/3.2, 1/60sec
Aidan Librero (2014)
ISO 100, f/3.2, 1/60sec

The above picture captured an already good moment where I actually had my camera within arm’s reach. This was taken indoors, and unfortunately, the room was dimly lit. But a flash gun bouncing light off a wall to my left helped augment the sunlight from a large window. That can account for the catch light on my son’s eyes, imparting even more life into his already emotive facial expression. Relying solely on ambient lighting would still likely yield something usable, with very little contrast between the eyes and the rest of the face, or in worse cases, the iris from the sclera. The eyes would certainly not have looked as expressive without the flash gun. It would have been an inferior portrait.

Composition is important. It will always be the main building block of any picture. But the quality of your light and how you use it will dictate how good that that block will look.