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.