For the next few weeks, let’s push the envelope a bit and stretch our photographic technique. I’m taking these challenges from my e-book 32 Photo Etudes: Studies in Composition, Focus, Light, Motion

An etude (pronounced a-tood) is a technical study. The term comes from music. A photo etude is an exercise designed to enhance a particular photographic skill.

This week’s photo challenge is a focus etude.

Photograph Eyes

One exercise in the Focus section of my book 32 Photo Etudes is to focus on eyes. Whether you like to photograph people or animals, capturing the eyes are key. 

Our eyes go directly to any eyes in a photo, so it’s important to practice getting a sharp focus where it counts. The eyes help the viewer of the photograph connect with the image. When we look at an image with a person or an animal we look at the eyes first – we just can’t help it! 

Choose a living subject, a person or a pet works, and make sure you can see at least one eye. Living things have a tendency to move around, even if they are being cooperative, but your job is to keep the eyes in focus!

Snowy Bison (Lone Elk State Park. It was cold – really cold – when I took this photo, but the bison didn’t seem to mind.

A technical tip is to use an aperture that is sufficiently deep so that you get both eyes in focus – at least f5.6. If your camera has a good auto-focus, especially an eye-focus setting, try it or set a focus point on the closest eye.

Be careful that you’re getting the eyes in focus and not the nose, ear, cheek, beak, wing, etc. It’s super easy to miss focus!

Once I get the eyes in focus, I sometimes enhance the eyes through post-processing. I sometimes brighten and dehaze the eyes a bit. In this photo of my “GQ” cat (very handsome but not a lot of common sense) I emphasized his eyes using selective color. I used black and white for the photo but retained the color in his eyes. 

Photo Gidget
Portrait of our cat Gidget.

Notice that my cat has a “catch light” in his eye – a light in the room is reflecting on his eye, there’s a more subtle reflection in the first photo of a bison. This catch light helps the eye look alive.

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The eyes are particularly important in portraits. In a previous post about post processing portraits, I compared a photo of Naomi with her eyes in and out of focus.

Photo Eye Focus
Don’t look at anything but the eyes. The photo on the left was super-cute, but no matter how cute, it’s OUT – the eyes aren’t in focus! The photo on the right was also super cute and that one stayed IN.

Here’s the final photo of Naomi.

Photo Naomi has a secret
The in-focus eyes from above in context. Shhh, Naomi has a secret.

In street photography, wait for that moment when the person’s eyes meet yours. It takes a bit of courage to make eye contact, but the eyes hold the emotion – they hold the connection between people. The photo is so much more powerful!

This woman is selling rice used as part of ritual ceremonies performed along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

The focus this week is the eyes and I’m challenging you to go out and make eye contact with your subject, but there are other ways to approach this challenge. Eyes in art work or eyes on implied faces also work. 

These boats in Allahabad, India are looking at me.

I love those photos of really close macros of eyes. They’re disturbing but fascinating all the same. I’ve not tried these shots myself but I do have an equally disturbing shot of a sculpture in a local park by Tony Tasset.

“The Eye” sculpture by Tony Tasset in the Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, Missouri.

This week, challenge yourself to get in close and focus on the eyes. 

In each Photo Etude, the assignment is to create 12 photos, but for weekly challenges 12 isn’t necessary, just try your hand at the technique to get the hang of it. If you want to share multiple images to discuss with others, feel free to share on this Facebook Album.

Amazon Photo Etudes

If you want more photo etudes, the e-book is available on Kindle or directly through my website. To see a sample, check out the post I wrote when I published the book.

32 Photo Etudes Amazon