Macro eye photography can be done without much effort or fancy gear. It’s amazing to see the intricacies of the human eye captured at such close range, and such attention-grabbing images do well on social media, too. While there is a bit of a learning curve, capturing eye photos is easier than you might think – and with a few simple tips and some practice, you can produce amazing images you might have never thought possible!
So without further ado, let’s take a look at my top 11 tips for beautiful macro eye photos:
1. Use a macro lens
This might seem obvious, but it’s worth saying anyway – just to manage expectations. While it’s possible to capture eye photos without a macro lens, you’ll struggle to get results that are intensely crisp, bright, and beautiful.
Macro lenses let you get very close to your subjects, and their 1:1 magnification capability is ideal for eye shots. There are plenty of macro lens options including some relatively inexpensive models. Third-party manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron also make great macro lenses that should not be overlooked.
If you don’t have a dedicated macro lens, try shooting with your mobile phone; many smartphones are able to get closer to subjects than common DSLR and mirrorless camera lenses.
Some smartphones even have a macro mode that is specifically designed for close-up shots, and this works great for eyes. While the results won’t be as tack-sharp or mind-blowing as images created by a dedicated macro lens, it’s certainly worth trying, and it may give you some good shots without the cost of true macro optics.
2. Use an adapter
If you don’t have a macro lens or modern mobile phone, there are some great middle ground options that won’t empty your wallet. Most cameras come with a kit lens that can use close-up filters to achieve significant magnification. A decent set of close-up filters can be purchased for less than $50, and while using them takes a bit of practice, you’ll be able to produce great results with a little patience.
There are other options, too, such as extension tubes and even adapters that let you use your lens backward. The latter might sound a little strange, but the technique works, and it’s a good way to dip your toes into macro photography without breaking the bank.
There are also inexpensive macro adapters for mobile phones – like the Olloclip – that work wonders; they’re amazing, not just for eyes, but for lots of close-up subjects.
3. Use autofocus instead of manual focus
Macro photographers often forego autofocus in favor of the precision gained by focusing manually. Why? When shooting close to your subject, depth of field is incredibly shallow, so you can often focus more precisely via the manual focus ring.
However, this technique does not necessarily apply when taking pictures of eyes. Human eyes have what’s known as saccadic movement, which is a continuous involuntary wiggle or vibration that happens several times each second. This movement, combined with the difficulty of holding a human head absolutely still, makes manual focus much less useful for eyes compared to static subjects like flowers and leaves.
I’m not claiming that autofocus will solve all your macro eye photography issues, but for people new to this type of photography, it will certainly make things easier. You might still find it tricky to lock focus on one specific part of the eye, but autofocus will help.
After enough practice, you might want to try your hand at manual focusing – but if you’re a beginner, then autofocus is a good way to start.
4. Skip the tripod and enable image stabilization
With most forms of macro photography, you will get significantly better results when working with a tripod. A tripod allows slower shutter speeds, smaller apertures, and low ISO values, which results in crisp, clear macro shots – provided your subjects remain still and easy to control. And that’s precisely what makes tripods a poor choice for macro eye photography.
It’s almost impossible to get human subjects to stay still enough to take a photo with a tripod. So instead of utilizing a tripod, harness the power of image stabilization; that way, you can handhold your camera and you’ll get much better results.
Many mirrorless cameras have sensor-based image stabilization, which means you don’t need an image-stabilized lens, but several macro lenses do offer stabilization. Either of these options will help you get sharp images without keeping your camera perfectly still!
5. Look for the light
While getting the light just right is critical for any type of photography, it’s even more important when taking macro shots of eyes.
First, find a large light source – then ask your subject to look in that general direction. If you are new to macro eye photography, I don’t recommend using a flash (bright light could easily cause your subjects to experience fatigue and eye strain). Instead, use a chandelier or other overhead light source and have your subject look in the general direction of the light source without staring directly at it.
Another option is to go outside and use the biggest light source of all: the sun. But make sure your subject doesn’t look in the sun’s general direction as this will cause harsh shadows and uneven lighting that is not especially flattering:
For the best photos, have your subject look away from the sun and make sure you can see the sky reflected in their eye:
6. Use windows as light sources
While you might think that the sun provides ideal lighting for macro eye photography, it can’t give you the beautiful shimmering catchlight reflection that macro eye photographers crave.
Short of buying umbrellas and other off-camera lighting gear, the best and cheapest way to get brilliant catchlight reflections is to use windows as your primary source of light. Windows will produce impressive catchlights in your subject’s eyes and help make your photos stand out from the rest.
The technique is pretty simple. Just position your subject so they’re looking in the direction of a window, either straight-on or off to the side.
Then move in close to get your macro shots (try photographing from different angles with your camera). With a bit of experimentation, including different window sizes and shapes, you will quickly find a setup that works for you and results in beautiful eye photographs!
7. Start with f/8 and then go wider
If you’ve never used a macro lens, you might be surprised by how narrow the depth of field appears when working at close distances.
Try shooting a portrait subject from a conventional distance at f/2.8, and you can usually measure the depth of field in inches – but when shooting at wide apertures while doing close-up photography, the depth of field is measured in millimeters.
This makes it tough to keep the eye sharp, which is why I recommend just using a smaller aperture, especially if you’re a beginner. An aperture of f/8 is a great place to start; it’ll help you keep the depth of field under control, and it’ll also ensure that your shutter speed doesn’t drop too low and the ISO isn’t too high (provided you have decent light).
Once you have some shots you like, you can always increase the size of the aperture and try going for a shallow depth of field effect, but it’s always good to start at f/8 (or even narrower) and widen the aperture from there.
8. Use a fast shutter speed (but not too fast!)
Nailing image exposure is a balancing act. You have to find the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO sweet spot to get the picture you want – and while there are situations where you have a great deal of wiggle room, it does help to remember some specific guidelines when doing macro eye photography.
One key guideline: Use a shutter speed that’s fast enough to freeze motion, but don’t make it so fast that you must shoot at a high ISO or an ultra-wide aperture with no clear benefits.
Human eyes move around a lot, even when just staring straight ahead. Most people reflexively move their eyes at least three times a second without even thinking about it, and this can cause some challenges when taking close-up shots of eyes.
Therefore, it’s best to keep your shutter speed between 1/60s and 1/200s. Shutter speeds slower than 1/60s run the risk of blurry shots due to eye movement or camera movement, and shutter speeds faster than 1/200s aren’t really necessary since you aren’t trying to capture fast action.
9. Use Auto ISO
If there’s one thing you can sacrifice when finding the right exposure settings for macro eye photography, it’s ISO. Modern image sensors are so good that you can take great shots at high ISOs – even at ISO 6400 and beyond.
Plus, post-processing software like Lightroom and Luminar has excellent noise-reduction algorithms that you can use to polish up your images.
Of course, lower ISO values will always result in cleaner images with greater editing flexibility, but a sharp high-ISO picture of an eye is better than a low-ISO shot that’s blurry because of a slow shutter or because it has a too-shallow depth of field.
I recommend you use Auto ISO so your camera adjusts the ISO (but you set the limits). If you use a modern crop-sensor camera, you can comfortably set the maximum ISO value at 6400. And if you use a modern full-frame camera, you can set the maximum ISO as high as 12,800 without significant issues.
Note that, once the Auto ISO reaches its set limit, it will automatically reduce the shutter speed instead of raising the ISO. This is a great way to think about things like lighting and composition without worrying about ISO. Let your camera handle it!
10. Edit the iris
Post-processing is a major component of nearly every photographer’s workflow, and it’s important to consider how you can use software tools to make your macro eye photos look as good as possible.
The iris, or colored portion of the eye, is where your viewers will look when they first see your macro eye photography shots, so do a bit of editing! You can use Lightroom or other software to punch up the crispness, contrast, and saturation of the iris (or you can change its color altogether).
Lightroom has an Iris Enhance masking preset that is a great place to start; it adds a touch of brightness and clarity to the iris that will immediately catch the attention of your viewers. You can play with the sliders to customize the effect to your liking, and you can even create a new brush preset that can be used on the fly.
Another trick is to use a Hue adjustment to alter the color of the iris, which can be an effective way to subtly enhance your images and make an impression on your audience.
11. Brighten the sclera
The white portion of the eye outside of the iris is called the sclera, and you can do some simple sclera editing to really make your macro eye photos stand out from the rest.
You won’t find a Lightroom brush preset to adjust the sclera, but you can easily find a combination of sliders that suits your taste and does what you need it to do. Start by bringing up the Exposure and the Whites, then play with the Highlights slider, too.
The results you get from editing the sclera won’t be immediately noticeable, but they will add an extra level of polish and refinement to close-up shots of eyes. You can use the Heal tool in Lightroom, Photoshop, or any other image editor to remove the thin red veins in the eyes, too.
Macro eye photography: final words
I used to think that macro eye photography was beyond me. I believed that it was something beginners and casual photographers could not achieve. I thought you needed thousands of dollars, a dedicated studio, and a team of models to get stunning images of eyes – but that’s not the case at all.
Even entry-level DSLR and mirrorless cameras can capture amazing shots of the human eye, and if you don’t have the right lens, you can use inexpensive close-up filters or even a smartphone. All it takes is a bit of practice and a little study.
Do you have any tips or favorite macro eye shots you would like to share? Leave your advice and images in the comments below!