How Capturing Expressive Eyes Can Be The Key To Good Portraiture


Paul Kostabi

If you look at some of the most famous photographs in history, such as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl, or much of Irving Penn’s work, you might notice there’s one thing that they have in common, a powerful emotion in the main subject’s eyes.

While this is far from a steadfast rule, if you’re doing portraiture, street photography, or photojournalism, catching a powerful expression in the eyes can be the difference between a mediocre photograph and the best photo you’ve ever taken.

If you watch a person’s eyes and wait, you can see when they are experiencing something, recalling a moment, or feeling an emotion.  That sometimes split second is when you need to take the shot.  You can create an amazing composition with gorgeous lighting, but if there is no expression coming through from the subject then the photograph will be lacking.  And that expression often begins with the eyes.

It could be a fleeting glance away from the camera as the subject recalls a story or a powerful gaze into the camera.   A momentary glance from the eyes can portray strength, fear, romance, nostalgia, confidence, glamour, and so many other emotions.

A good trick to elicit these emotions is to get the subject talking about a meaningful moment in their lives.  The more time you are able to spend with them, the more they will open up and the more opportunities you will have to capture these emotions.  Or with some, you can even simply state the emotion and they will be able to portray it (“Give me confidence!”)

So the next time you create a portrait, make sure to pay special attention to the eyes.

Pushups, Rucker Park

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James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

Some Older Comments

  • John Michael August 22, 2013 08:46 am

    And if that doesn't work, you can allways put on a smile. :)

  • Mridula August 15, 2013 03:34 am

    This is the third article on portraits I read this week on DPS. I am going to give it a try and my family is going to be the first victim.

  • Luke August 14, 2013 04:29 am

    This is the number one thing that connects us to the subject of a photo!

  • Steve August 13, 2013 05:30 pm

    When capturing close up wildlife shots it is also important to get the eye well in focus and as prominent as possible

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