My Most Common Portrait Mistake

My Most Common Portrait Mistake

Here, I managed to avoid making the mistake, by having my subject keep both eyes on the same plane.  The look is striking, in that the depth of field drops off immediately and the image softens dramatically after the area of sharp focus around the eyes.

Here, I managed to avoid making the mistake, even though I shot the lens wide open at f/1.2,  by having my subject keep both eyes on the same plane. The look is striking, in that the depth of field drops off immediately and the image softens dramatically after the area of sharp focus around the eyes.  Exposure was 1/6400, f/1.2, ISO 200. Camera was EOS-1Ds Mark III, with EF 85mm f/1.2.

We all make mistakes.  Even the best photographers I know make a mistake now and then. And usually, we all have one we can’t get seem to stop making. For me, it’s a different mistake for each type of photography, whether it’s a portrait, a landscape, or some other type of photography.  The secret to getting better as a photographer is overcoming these mistakes and to stop making them.

When shooting portraits, my biggest problem isn’t lighting, or posing.  My problem is with my own settings, especially when using my favorite portrait lens. That would be the Canon EF 85mm f1.2L II.  This is a lens with incredibly smooth bokeh, and a unique look, especially when shot wide open. And I do love to shoot it wide open.  But it does require some extra care when doing so, which leads to my most common mistake.

Camera settings my downfall

When shooting the 85mm f/1.2 wide open (or even close to wide open), and close up, your depth of field is paper thin. If you were to focus on an eyelash, the eye itself would be out of focus. It’s that unforgiving. When done right, it creates a beautiful image, where the eyes are the sole focus. When done wrong, it ruins the image beyond repair.  The mistake is easily fixed; it just requires that you pay attention as the pose shifts, adjusting the aperture to give you the proper depth of field. In addition, if that paper-thin depth of field is what you want, simply adjust the pose so that it works for the shot.

This is probably my least favorite mistake, in that it’s not something that can be fixed in post.  Sometimes things happen quickly and it’s not possible to turn the dial that quickly. But sometimes taking a deep breath, and mentally running through the settings, is a good way to ensure you get the shot you want.  Is my shutter speed fast enough? Or slow enough? Do I have enough depth of field? Or too much? Is my ISO too high for the lighting conditions?  Or not high enough? It’s a mental checklist that can take only a second, but can ensure that you get the image you want.

In this image, also shot at f/1.2, because the model's eyes are not on the plane, the right eye drops out of focus.  The effect is disconcerting, and a mistake I make more than I'd like. It would be so easy to turn the aperture dial and stop down enough to give me the proper depth of field. I just need to remember to do that.

In this image, also shot at f/1.2, because the model’s eyes are not on the plane, the right eye drops out of focus. The effect is disconcerting, and a mistake I make more than I’d like. It would be so easy to turn the aperture dial and stop down enough to give me the proper depth of field. I just need to remember to do that.  Exposure was 1/4000, f/1.2, ISO 100. Camera was the EOS-1D X, with EF 85mm f/1.2L II lens.

For this image, I stopped the lens down to f/5.6. This gave me enough depth of field to keep both eyes sharp, while the background remained out of focus.

For this image, I stopped the lens down to f/5.6. This game me enough depth of field to keep both eyes sharp, while the background remained out of focus. Exposure for this one is 1/100, f/5.6, ISO 100. EOs-1D X with EF 85mm f/1.2L II.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

Some Older Comments

  • Janell June 6, 2013 08:25 am

    This is one of my mistakes too!! I have found that I just have to be very persistent in checking my photo after I take it to make sure the settings are right before I get wrapped up in the moment. Great tips.

  • Subhash Dasgupta May 18, 2013 03:44 am

    useful article.

  • t-fiz May 14, 2013 10:49 pm

    Also, instead of stopping down to f4 or f5.6, either the model or the photog can just move a little further away, then crop in post, if need be.

  • Photographer Durango CO May 13, 2013 08:22 am

    I prefer the last image where there is more dof. The images with only one eye in focus aren't as appealing to me, and my clients wouldn't like it either.

  • Shane McDonald May 12, 2013 11:06 am

    I also make this mistake, but I did some tests on the lens to find out haw far to bring the aperture back to and now I know where my cut-off is for the focal plane for portraits.

  • Step May 11, 2013 01:40 pm

    I have pictures where the second eye is out of focus, and it works for me. I have pictures where both eyes are slightly soft and it works. Shot on medium format film totally wide open. It gives an interesting antique feel. I admit it was sometimes not intended, but I've learn somethings from those little accidents. My point is that I'm just not sure I would talk about mistakes. I think it gives a very rigid view of photography. Probably good for a certain type of commercial photographers, but when it comes to art, I'm not sure mistake is a good word. You could say that most of the times, portraits are more compelling if both eyes are in focus instead.
    That said, I can understand the frustration of loosing a good shot because it doesn't come out as intended, then all your advises are good and welcome. But photography is not a world with an intrinsic set of natural laws that you can't transcend. It's not a code of conduct that binds everyone who uses a camera. Art is about freedom, not the fear of making mistakes. But I'm not shooting weddings. Then I would probably be afraid :)
    Keep up the good work.

  • andre moulin May 10, 2013 07:46 pm

    An amateur photographer and not a portrait specialist, I find your advice very much to the point: clear and, thanks to the illustration, easy to understand. However, although I don't want to be too finicky, I wish to add that, while I find the face a photographic success, I am a bit bothered about the rest of the picture and particularly about the right arm and clipped hand. Are such details not essential in a really impeccable portrait ?

  • George Edwards May 10, 2013 06:16 pm

    So am I correct in saying: The sweet spot on my Nikon f1.4 lens being around f/4 or f/5.6 means it will look better than a lens that is not as fast at that aperture? For instance my Nikon f/3.5/5.6 lens will have it's sweet spot several stops higher, say f/7.3 or f/8? This would be another reason to use a fast lens event if you don't use the aperture wide open?

  • Nonono May 10, 2013 04:35 pm

    After reading/seeing this, I think I will NEVER shoot a portrait with 85mm lenses.

  • Sajid May 10, 2013 04:33 pm

    My Images almost always have a tint of yellow/orange in them..?
    CAN anyone help me pls..?

  • David May 10, 2013 01:16 pm

    Thank you for the article Rick. As an amatuer/ hobby photographer I enjoy getting the tips from the people on this website who take the time to prepare and post them. I do find it dissapointing when the critics get on here and post negative things about an image which doesn't really have anything to do with the article. So what if post production was used to blurr a picture or change the colour of the skin in the examples?? The pictures are demonstrating a point that you should check your depth of field and settings and depth of field issues.If the pictures are adjusted to demostrate the topic more clearly for people, why do people feel the need to gripe about it.
    Keep the articles coming as they help us less experienced photographers get better.

  • Chris May 10, 2013 09:21 am

    Aarghh, pictures 1 and 2 are really awful !!

  • Romy May 10, 2013 08:37 am

    Sometimes when you become comfortable with your style of shooting and all of a saden you have to switch and shoot at a very wide open Lense you tend to forget that the object of focus becomes very important. That is where I make my mistake quite often.

  • Wayne May 10, 2013 07:18 am

    I enjoyed this article Rick -
    @Justin, I feel as though there was a reflector on her face, to explain the difference in skin tones. I like it - makes you look right into her eyes. Then, after you've appreciated her face long enough, on to other areas like shoulders, etc.

  • Nicky thomson May 10, 2013 04:51 am

    I make the same mistake quite often too. Great to hear that I'm not the only one. Too many articles on DPS from photographers who like to suggest how great they are...

  • Tim Lowe May 10, 2013 02:31 am

    Good (although horrendously copy-edited) article. I used to make this mistake often as well. Shooting wide open in the studio also adds the complication of getting your strobes dim enough too. I found that shooting at f/2 or higher yields better and more consistent results. Saves a ton of money on portrait glass too.

  • Phil Walkert May 10, 2013 02:26 am

    Hi.Your so right about the 'eye' plane. Have just looked at a pic I took yesterday and got it wrong. Your 'article piece' came just in time for me to retake and make amends. Keep your emails coming. All very much appreciated.
    Phil Walker, Perth, Scotland

  • Trevor Olner May 10, 2013 02:22 am

    The reason for using lenses f1.2- f1.4 is because when you stop down to f5.6, f8 is the lens is at its optimal performance for sharpness edge to edge of the frame. This has nothing to do with depth of field. I'm not so sure that this is as critical with digital cameras as it is for film as a negative is enlarged for prints. Most DSLR's have a large dimensional size compared to a negative. Say a digital a camera that produces a 10in x 8in file at 300 dpi without any engagement in the film world the nearest would be a 10in x 8in view camera negative.

  • Paul May 10, 2013 02:11 am

    Thank your for this article.

  • Pedro Genaro May 10, 2013 01:05 am

    Justin, you just nailed it. Focusing the eye which is closest to the camera should help in most cases. Very nice article!

  • Michael Quick May 7, 2013 10:42 pm

    Great article, Rick! I'm guilty of doing all the above! LOL.

  • Justin May 7, 2013 04:56 pm

    Nice article Rick. There may indeed have been very little retouching, but someone with a makeup brush did a little too much pretouching, I'm guessing? The difference in skintone between her face and her shoulder is pretty extreme. Other than that it's a lovely portrait. That said, I would agree with Helen above - you don't necessarily always want your subject's eyes square to the camera for compositional or other aesthetic reasons. If that's the case, at wide apertures a good rule of thumb is to focus on the eye nearest to the camera. The reverse can work too, focussing on the far eye, that is, but only if the composition calls for it. For example if you're framing much closer than a head-to-shoulders shot.

  • Scott Goh May 7, 2013 04:15 pm

    good post but its something i am aware of but will do it too.

  • Rick Berk May 6, 2013 11:44 pm

    Ari- There is NO gaussian blur on her face in that shot. She has an exceptionally clear complexion. Jyoti required very little retouching in fact.

  • Ari May 6, 2013 02:24 pm

    Great post indeed, I suffer from this same issue and would always assume my autofocus system was failing me. I recently stopped my habit of using center point focusing and recomposing my shots, because even a slightest change in camera position/angle will change the plane of focus.
    Now, about that last portrait... while I appreciate you for sharing your experience of making mistakes, I must call you out on the shotty retouching of that last image. It's hard to appreciate the sharp eyes with all that Gaussian blur on her face... yikes.

  • Robert Catto May 6, 2013 12:52 pm

    Of course, the problem (most often) is that cameras come equipped with focus screens which are essentially only visibly accurate to f/2.8; so you have to change to the High Precision Focus Screen just to SEE whether you've got focus or not otherwise the allowable level of 'slop' or visible focus inaccuracy means you can't actually tell what you've got, until you zoom in on the screen on the back. (That's not to say the AF system is inaccurate; just that you really have no visual confirmation through the viewfinder.)

    The tradeoff is, if you have lenses that are slower than f/2.8, they'll appear darker with the high precision focus screen - they'll also be shown at their maximum aperture rather than the brighter, but less accurate screen that comes with the camera.

    Here's Chuck Westfall's column about it - that's where I heard it first: "...because of the design of the microlenses on the surface of the Ee-A, the depth of field shown through the viewfinder never appears be shallower than approximately f/2.8. Therefore, when using a lens faster than f/2.8, the depth of field in the resulting photograph may be shallower than what's shown in the viewfinder if a working aperture larger than f/2.8 is selected." (I'm really not sure whose explanation is clearer! Hopefully one of us has explained it well enough...)

  • Rick Berk May 6, 2013 07:20 am

    @Sam, no, I didn't add blur in post. I think partly what you're seeing is the difference between hair in shadow and in sunlight, but also, even at f/5.6, the depth of field for this lens with this subject distance is only a couple of inches. She was just over 3 feet away from me when I took that shot. I have Just enough DOF to keep both eyes sharp.

  • Rick Berk May 6, 2013 07:02 am

    @Rob Hooft- I prefer the faster glass f/2.8, f/1.4, f/1.2, because I CAN go wide open when I want to. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II has a unique look to it, even when stopped down. When I shoot it wide open is almost looks dreamlike. I just have to be careful that I keep the subject's eyes on the same plane when I do that. It's simply a matter of paying attention to what I'm doing. I'm not saying stop down EVERY time I use the lens. Just saying that I need to pay attention to the pose and to my settings to make sure I get the shot right.

  • jay May 6, 2013 04:16 am

    Good post.
    A lens' sweet spot is, in my experience, a couple f stops smaller than it's widest opening.
    So 4.0 or 5.6 is a good setting for fast lenses and portraits provided there is good distance between subject and background..

  • Diana P in The Woodlands, TX May 6, 2013 01:08 am

    Excellent post with good photo examples to clarify the points you're making. I've not done any portrait work myself, but this is incredibly pertinent for still life work, also.

  • David May 6, 2013 12:37 am

    Great article. I find the comments on glass speed vs. focus interesting. Do most photographers add blur in post processing? Is this an option/substitute to really expensive prime lenses where you are looking for sharpness and bokeh. I apologize if this question is sophomoric but, I'm just entering the world of prime lenses.

  • Sam McConkey May 5, 2013 03:17 pm

    great post -- i make this mistake all the time and kick myself. question: the final image shot at 5.6 -- you added blur in post, right? at 5.6 it seems like your DOF is shallower than in reality. the hair on the camera right side of her face is soft, but the (farther away) hair on the left appears in focus. just want to put some perspective on what happens in camera when you stop down...again, thanks for the great article and reminder!

  • Zachery May 5, 2013 02:51 pm

    You only need to stop down for closer shots like these examples. As you back away from your subject the depth of focus expands reasonably quickly. If you were to stand back far enough to frame a whole person standing, say, in a busy crosswalk or something, you could open up wide and still have them, their eyes, etc. all in sufficient focus while blowing everything else out and giving a really cool isolating effect that smaller aperture lenses can't achieve.

    But, just because your lens can shoot at larger apertures doesn't mean that's all it can do. Many large aperture lenses also become extremely high quality optics at smaller apertures.

  • Walker Uhl May 5, 2013 10:30 am

    Great Question Rob, I was wondering the same thing.

  • Martin May 5, 2013 09:35 am

    It's a nightmare when that happens, especially when it turns out that it could have been the best photo of the bunch!

  • Andrew Smth May 5, 2013 07:44 am

    Well like he said, it's only really a problem if the eyes aren't on a parallel plane, in which case you may want to close down a bit. Plus if the second eye is just a touch blurred it doesn't really bother me personally, though there's defiantly a limit. Also, while it's not a huge concern for me(again as I'm not a pro or super fussy pixel peeper) there's also the consideration that lenses tend to have a "sweet spot" for quality usually somewhere between the widest and narrowest apature. Not to mention creamy bokah and low light bonuses of course.

  • Rob Hooft May 5, 2013 07:28 am

    Lacking such fast glass, I don't normally have this problem.... Can you explain to me why you would prefer a f/1.4 or f/1.2 lens if you need to go down to f/4 or f/5.6 anyway for a realistic portrait?

  • Cramer Imaging May 5, 2013 06:46 am

    This definitely sucks when you miss the focus. I hate coming home and finding a prize shot is blown because my focus was off. I prefer working with deeper DOF because of it. Maybe I should branch out a bit.

  • Andrew Smith May 5, 2013 05:21 am

    This one gets me all the time too, it bugs the hell outta me. I love my 50 1.4 but damn you have to be super careful and it's so hard to tell if you nailed focus on the back of camera. Hope I get the hang of this one day soon!

  • helen sotiriadis May 5, 2013 03:24 am

    if one does this inadvertently, it's a mistake -- deliberately, it's not.