Knowing When to Focus on the Eyes

Point-and-shoot digital cameras have autofocus modes. You point the camera at the desired subject and as the shutter is gently pressed the camera quickly focuses and then captures the picture. The camera does all of this thinking. If the subject is always placed in the very dead center of the frame a camera generally does an exceptional job.

Let’s face it. As a photographer the desire is to get your message in focus. And, this is what we’re going to concentrate on here. After spending a number of years in both education as well as behind the photographic retail counter you understand that this focus point can quite subtle. Sometimes this subtlety seems small on the surface until you have the image enlarged. Then, it becomes a sore thumb. What is subtle on the surface can end up being quite powerful.

Taking this one step further let’s say that the goal is to create a portrait of a certain someone who is special to you. The finished product will be a 16”x20” enlargement that will be end up in a picture frame and placed on a highly visible wall in a home. At the same time you really want the camera to do all the work for you when it comes to focus and exposure.

A head and shoulders shot in soft window light will be best. The subject’s nose will be positioned in the middle of the frame. By default your camera will focus on the tip of the nose making it the sharpest area in the image. Yet, even with enough light to handhold the camera will result will be a focused tip of the nose and soft or out-of-focus eyes.

There’s a saying that states that eyes are the window to the soul. Applying this to photography if you could choose one sharp area and only one sharp area created by these photo conditions is a sharp tip of the nose the right thing? Wouldn’t you be better off having the subject’s eyes in focus and not the tip of the nose?

Here’s a quick technique to use. Once you’ve practiced a little this process will seem so familiar. Point your camera towards the subject’s eyes and press the shutter halfway without releasing the shutter. Your digital camera may confirm focus by either a faint beep sound and/or a confirmation light visible in the display. When a shutter is pressed half way it tells the camera to focus on a specific area as long is not released. Without releasing the shutter compose your picture. Now even with the subject’s nose in the center you’ve told the camera to remember that you wanted the eyes, which are not in the middle of the viewfinder, to be sharp. Once you’ve got the picture the way you want it press the shutter all the way down to get the desired effect.

Again, remember that if for some reason you accidentally release the shutter before pressing it all the way down the camera will forget the focus point. Just repeat this easy technique and you’ll be good to go.

Jumping back a moment if small pictures sized 4″x6″ or 5″x7″ are the final goal focusing this way may not seem to be such a big deal. However, when you go to prints of bigger sizes everything becomes more noticeable. If the nose is in focus and the eyes are not you may no longer like your picture and neither might your subject.

Take some time off and go to a museum, surf online, or even read a book about some of the portraits taken by the masters. Look inside the images and see what is sharp and in-focus and what that means to you. Also, think about how the message might have been altered had it been taken with different elements in focus. Museums that showcase a lot of statues offer a great environment where to practice situations where the focus is delicate and specific.

When it’s all said and done the more you use your camera the more that you will see big improvements in your own skills as a photographer. In a sense every time you press the shutter you’re out there practicing the craft.

*As you learn more about photography and your camera you will learn that everything has an exception to the rules. This is a starting point.

**Some digital cameras can be placed in a state of “constant” focus where they constantly focus on whatever is in front of the lens. Do note that your batteries will exhaust more quickly in this mode.