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It's All in the Eyes: A Quick Way to Create Mesmerizing Portraits

Eyes are windows to the soul. It is no wonder that when we look at portraits, our eyes usually go first to the eyes of the subject. Most people judge how good or bad a shot is based on the quality of the first thing they see. For these reasons, the eyes are extremely important to portrait photography. In this article, we share a technique for getting your portrait subject’s eyes perfectly in focus using Eye Detection AF on the EOS R. (Reported by: Haruka Yamamoto, Model: Haruka Shimoyama)

Girl lying down with flower

EOS R/ RF50mm f/1.2L USM/ FL: 50mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/1.2, 1/100 sec, EV+0.7)/ ISO 250/ WB: Auto


Taking portraits? Eye Detection AF helps you nail the focus easily

You might have gotten the focus perfect for one shot, but when your model changes his/her pose and you recompose your shot to match it, it’ it’s back to square one. And at the same time, you also have to direct the model, find the perfect lighting angle, get the exposure right…With so many things to think about at the same time, it is only natural to feel a little stressed out.

Eye Detection AF on the EOS R makes the job easier: It automatically detects and tracks the eye that is closer to the lens, so that you don't have to go through the hassle of manual focusing every time you recompose. It’s particularly useful for taking close-ups of faces.


Eye Detection AF in action: How I got the top shot

The image on top, which suggests the idea of the girl relaxing in the comfort of her own room, was shot indoors. She was posed lying down on the bed in order to make the best of the light shining through the thin, white curtains in the room.


Finding the right place to focus: Usually, but not always the eye in front!

Eye Detection AF automatically focuses on the eye that is nearer to the lens. This is perfect for most scenarios, since focusing on the eye that's nearer to you is one of the rules-of-thumb of portrait photography.

However, for this shot, I wanted the flowers that she was holding to attract equal attention. The  shallow depth-of-field meant that they were blurred out when the focus was on the eye closer to me. I therefore decided to focus on the other eye instead, as it was about the same distance away from me as the flowers.

With Eye Detection AF, it was easy to change the focus: I simply touched the screen to select the other eye. Eye Detection AF detected the pupil and shifted the focusing frame accordingly.

Bonus: The focus sticks even when the subject’s face is horizontally-oriented, like in the top image. This allows you to achieve a near-100% rate of successful portraits, at least where focusing is concerned. It is extremely useful especially when shooting at maximum aperture, or with a shallow depth-of-field (like the one at f/1.2 in my shot).


Girl lying down, flower out of focus

Failed shot
When the focus is on the model’s left eye (the one nearer to me), the flowers fall outside the depth-of-field and become blurred.


Particularly useful for close-ups of the face

When shooting full-body portraits, Face + Tracking AF alone should be able to achieve precise focus. But when you have a close-up of the face, the depth-of-field is shallower, and Eye Detection AF would be more effective. Remember to enable it!

Screenshot of Eye Detection AF menu

You can enable Eye Detection AF in the AF menu.

Touching the other eye to change focus

Eye Detection AF automatically establishes focus on the eye that is nearer the lens. To focus on the other eye, select it on the screen. Eye Detection AF detects the other eye, and the white focusing frame will turn green when focus is established.


Great for capturing expressive eyes that tell a story

When you shoot portraits, you want to make sure that your shots clearly and powerfully conveys the subject’s personality and/or emotions. When it’s the eyes that are particularly expressive, it helps to take a close-up so that only the face is in frame.

In such shots, it is especially vital for the pupils to be properly in focus. The image below was shot at 40cm, the closest focusing distance on the lens used. I needed the focus to be extremely precise in order to achieve the correct tension. If it was the slightest bit off, her expression wouldn't look the same. However, the relatively shallow depth-of-field made focusing more challenging than usual. Eye Detection AF is wonderfully useful in scenes like this.

Close-up portrait with powerful gaze

EOS R/ RF50mm f/1.2L USM/ FL: 50mm/ Aperture-priority AE(f/1.2, 1/100 sec, EV +0.7)/ ISO 250/ WB: Auto
Establishing focus on the front eye with the aid of Eye Detection AF, I managed to capture this fleeting but powerful gaze that the model threw my way.

It’s amazing just how you can capture something compelling about a person by simply nailing focus in the right places. Establishing focus on the pupils can be much harder in practice than it seems, but with the EOS R’s Eye Detection AF, the camera basically does the job for you. This gives you the room to focus on other aspects, such the lighting or your subject’s facial expressions, paving the way to even better portrait photographs.


Need more portrait photography tips and recommendations? The following might interest you:
Why the EF85mm f/1.8 USM is Ideal for Portrait Photography
Portrait Photography: 3 Aperture Settings Favoured by Professional Photographers
[Part 1] Let’s Start Bounce Flash Photography
Step by Step: How to Capture Dramatic Portraits Using Backlight from the Window
How to Shoot Creative Night Portraits with the EOS R

For more articles and reviews of the EOS R, check out:
In Focus: EOS R


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Haruka Yamamoto

Haruka Yamamoto

Born in Tokyo, Yamamoto is a freelance photographer who shoots for a variety of mediums that include magazines, CD jackets and advertisements. She also has her own blog, where she posts shots from an ongoing photography series “Otome-graphy [Maiden-graphy]”, which seeks to remove existing stereotypes of young women as well as address Yamamoto’s own issues about aging. A collection of these shots was published in book form in 2018.