The eyes are the most important part of a portrait, and the expression in the eyes makes the difference between a well-lit picture and a stunning portrait. You’ll notice that when people look into the camera you have about .026 seconds before the eyes start to glaze over. The eyes quickly look disengaged and even frightened. The majority of pictures posted on the internet have dull, uninterested eyes. But there’s a simple way to help you get fresh eyes in every picture.

“Look down at my toes, please.”

Whether I’m photographing old friends, clients in my studio, or strangers on the street corner, all of them hear me say, “Look down at my toes, please.” The first thing people do when you ask them to be in a picture is to look at the lens. The trouble is, you’re probably not ready for them to look in the lens, yet. You need to get the focus on their eye, and you need to make sure the rest of their pose and the exposure are looking good. You’ve got a few steps before you’re ready for them to look, and if they are looking the whole time you’re fiddling around with your camera then their expression is getting more and more dull and fake-looking. The smile goes from fresh to wilted, and the eyes start to look scared instead of engaged.

So, instead of letting them watch you mess around with your camera settings, ask your subjects to look at your toes. When you’re all set, just say, “Ok, look up here!” You’ll find that their eyes are more engaged and you can freshen their entire expression by adding directions. (Peter Hurley’s book, The Headshot, discusses this in detail, and I highly recommend reading it.) Try things like

  • Glance up here
  • Look up here curiously
  • Glance up here like a strawberry
  • Look at me and say your favorite child’s name
  • Take and release a big breath and look up here

You’d better be ready, though, because that .026 seconds of fresh expression goes by really quickly. I do this between every single shot. People are looking at my toes for the majority of our portrait session, but when they look up their eyes are engaged every time. You’ll find that people are more relaxed and appreciate the directions, and you’ll end up with more keepers and probably shorter sessions. They’re much more likely to break into a laugh, as well, so be ready to keep shooting after they look at you like a strawberry (whatever that means!).

By the way, the .026 seconds is an estimate rounded from the nearest blink ;)

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