Digital SLR Photography

An Eye For Detail: How To Photograph Close-Ups of Eyes

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

Macro photography has the amazing ability to reveal intricate detail in the natural and man-made world – from tiny bugs feeding on leaves to the delicate stamen of a blooming flower, abstract bubbles floating on liquid or every little groove and dimple on the head of a coin. But how about the fascinating beauty of the human body? Wait! Before you strip down to your birthday suit, I’m talking about your eyes!

Eyes are fascinatingly detailed subjects for macro photography and, just like fingerprints, no two people’s eyes are ever the same. They come in all manner of hues – some brown, some green, some blue, and some a blend of different colours.
Some people’s eyes are deep and vibrant, while others are detailed and intricate, with swirling patterns in the iris converging on the pupil. Can you see why it makes sense to point your lens at a willing subject’s oculi?

In order to do the eye justice you need two main ingredients: a light source and a dedicated macro lens. Tackling the latter first, a lens with at least a 1:1 reproduction ratio will allow you to photograph the eye in great detail. If you’re lucky enough to be able to get your hands on an even more specialist lens, such as the Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro then you can enjoy a staggering 5:1 reproduction ratio! For most of us, however, 1:1 will more than suffice.

If you don’t have a macro lens in your arsenal, then a close-up filters, a reversing ring or extension tubes will also allow you to see all the eye’s incredible detail. For lighting, both natural light and artificial illumination works. Controlling natural light is often tricky however, and as the eye is essentially a reflective sphere, you may end up with unwanted catchlights or busy reflections. Using continuous light or flash offers you more control, but the effects from each are different – continuous light can cause the pupils to contract, whereas using flash in a darker environment records dilated pupils.

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1 Position

First ask your subject to take a moment to clean around their eye and remove contact lenses – if they wish to wear make-up that’s fine, but a macro lens will exaggerate any clumps or goo, so a clean eye is often better unless their make-up is very tidy, or you fancy fixing it during processing. Place a chair against a wall and ask your subject to sit upright, with the back of their head against the wall – this prevents them from swaying back and forth too much and moving in and out of focus.

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2 Let there be light

Presuming you’re using artificial light (either flash or continuous), move your light into position and have a look at the effect that its positioning has on your subject’s eyes. Much like landscape photography, having the light on-axis with the camera flattens detail or texture within the iris, whereas strong side-lighting highlights detail. Pay attention to the catchlight too, and its position within the eye – you don’t want it blocking out too much detail, but at the same time having no catchlight makes the eye look unnatural.

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3 Focus carefully

With your light in position, secure your camera on a tripod, attach your macro lens and a remote release and turn on LiveView. Manually set your macro lens to its closest focusing distance and carefully move it into position, looking at the LCD screen to judge when your subject’s eye comes into focus. Once in position, ask your subject to sit very still and carefully fine-tune to focus whilst zoomed into the LiveView preview. You might wish to switch to mirror lock-up mode too, if available, for a sharper image.

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4 Settings

If using flash, set your shutter speed to your flash sync speed and adjust the flash power and aperture to give you a good exposure – aim for a mid-aperture of f/8-f/11 for maximum sharpness. If you’re using continuous light then aim to keep your shutter speed above 1/100sec to prevent blur, and increase your ISO, or light power (if available) to maintain a mid-aperture. Ask your subject to look straight ahead, and blink normally to stop their eyes from watering. Get your timing right and fire when their eye is open.