how to use your eyes | get the most from your local portrait session

the eyes have it | get the most from your local portrait session

They say that the eyes are the window to the soul. Or windows. Which is a little odd, when you think about it, as looking into someone’s eye, what you see is a reflection of yourself. Nevertheless, there’s alot of truth to it. Certainly, they have a major affect on photography, and understanding how will help you get the most from your local portrait session.

Obviously, your eyes are part of your face. So you’re pretty much going to have them in every portrait. I say, “pretty much” because not all portraits show people’s faces. But let’s go with “the norm”, not because I advocate normality (which I don’t – just ask my wife), but because people don’t have eyes on their hands. At least, nobody I’ve met.

Seriously though, the eyes are a significant part of a portrait. But why? How? The answer lies in the changeability of the eyes. Along with the eyebrows, cheeks and mouth (and in some cases, the ears), we interpret this as expressiveness.

Let’s focus on the eyes (pun intended).

the pupils

The pupils (the black bits in the middle) contract or expand (dilate) according to how much light is available, within limits. According to some, dilated eyes indicate that someone likes you. And contracted eyes indicate that they don’t. Arguably dilated eyes in a portrait will make you look more attractive.

Lighting will vary depending on your environment. If your local portrait session is in a studio, it with generally be fairly dark overall until the main lights fire. Natural light indoors gets good results. Outside in bright sunshine? Not so good.

which way are our eyes looking

Then we’ve got the fact that your eyes move about. According to NLP theories (that’s neuro linguistic programming, something that was very popular at one stage with salesmen, amongst other things), which way your eyes point indicates which whether you’re recalling information, making it up, and a few other things besides. And handily includes the get-out that it can be reversed in some people.
From a photographer’s point of view, this has some relevance.

When the person being photographed is looking directly at the camera with their face and eyes, it can speak to us of an openness or honesty. Whether the person is displaying happiness, sadness, fear or aggression, it appears genuine. Look down. Instant subservience sadness or lack of confidence. Look up. A dreaminess? Angle the head down so that the eyes look directly at you and it’s that classic “banana” look (the whites of the eyes form a banana shape). The result is a suggestive interest in the viewer. You might want to actually shoot from above. With adults, this can make them look smaller, adding to that childlike quality. Though with children, it borders too much on that snapshot look – because of their smallness.

Now we’ll have that face pointed at us, but have the eyes look over to their left or right. Instantly, the look is transformed.


We are left with a feeling of mistrust, or nervousness perhaps. There’s something that appears not quite right about that person. Not an attractive look. Have at eyes looking up though, and you’ve got a dreamy thoughtful look that can work quite well on ladies. Coquettish perhaps.

Let’s move the head to one side. Not all the way, more at 45 degrees. Point those eyes straight forward, so that the head and the eyes are both looking the same way. It looks natural, like they’re looking at something off to one side. Move those eyes back at our camera, and the resultant look is more fearful than just looking at us, as if looking over the shoulder at someone out of sight. Move the eyes so that they are away from us, and if we move the head to face too far away also, what we see is the whites of their eyes. Great if you’re after that zombie look. Not so great anything else.

“we close our eyes…”

You could break contact with the eyes altogether, of course. Closing the eyes can affect the photograph as dramatically as having them open (That’s the eyes of the person being photographed that close. I daresay if the photographer closes their eyes, it would have an effect too, but probably not for the better). Changing where the head is “looking” then becomes of crucial importance.

And then there’s also the effect our eyelids have, and how our face muscles affect our eyebrows. While they’re not strictly part of our eyes, they do affect how much they are visible. And as such, they change the expressions that we are perceived as having.

the effect of light

Now, earlier on I mentioned about reflections. This plays a big part in how our eyes are seen. Point a torch at a mirror, and its light is reflected. Point a light source – like the sun, or a camera flash – at someone’s eyes, and that gets reflected. The reflections are called catchlights.

Different types of light source, and different amounts of light sources, created different catchlights. Purists will tell you that there should only be one catchlight in each eye, to simulate the sun, or a window. Others – and the majority of people fall into this category – don’t give a monkey’s. But one thing that they will agree – if presented with the difference – is that having catchlights looks better than not having them. Not having them makes person’s portrait look flat. That said, if you’re trying to make a person look evil, no catchlights helps.

a final thought

Leaving people out of if though, looking straight at another can mean different things for different animals. You don’t want to look a gorilla in the eye. Unless you’re thinking, “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.” Which is likely to be accompanied by sounds of pain. Yours.

On the other hand, looking a tiger in the eyes says, “I see you.” In a “Don’t attack me because you’ve been spotted” sort of way. As opposed to “Peek-a-boo!”.

So why do we ignore what the animals themselves mean when painting or photographing them? Or even just when we’re looking at them? In all likelihood, it’s because we love to attach human traits to animals. Perhaps part of that is due to our being used to seeing animals either domesticated or captive. Which is a whole other debate, and one that’s way beyond the scope of this article.

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