I'm a hobby photographer, and I've just picked up "rules of thumb" and "tips&tricks" here and there.

I have a 50mm f1.4, and I love it.

But due to the extreme shallow depth of field (at f1.4), I sometimes experience that "the other eye" is unfocused. As a hobby photographer, I have learned that one must always focus on the eyes when shooting people, but I wonder if it's considered to be "amateurish" when only one of the eyes are in focus - or if that is considered to be a "cool" effect.

As the "artist" of the photo, I know that it's "my call" wheter I like it or not, but whenever I try to consider the effect, I'm a bit blinded by the extreme shallow depth of field, and thus I think it's a bit cool, but still a bit wrong.

Are there any guidelines here?
enter image description here
(click the image to view full size)

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    I don't have an answer i'm afraid but its something that i've often had to deal with. Usually I take the shot back a stop or two to 1.8 or 2.4 if its out of focus because it usually doesn't look quite right for me. Curious to hear what other people think as well! – NULLZ Feb 7 '13 at 13:00
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    I have some comments about that photo: It doesnt bother me that the one eye is oof, but it is more the mucus and some goo on the focused eye and the look of the edge of the right cheek that's distracting. – Michael Nielsen Feb 7 '13 at 13:23
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    @Michael: Yeah. It's a photo for the wallet when we grow old, not a photo for the wall in the living room... You'll just have to look beyond that goo for the sake of the essence in the question ;-) Thanks for mentioning that the unfocused eye is not distracting. – Jørn E. Angeltveit Feb 7 '13 at 13:32
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    For me the distraction is the green color cast on the side of the nose caused by a differently colored light source to camera right. – Michael C May 16 '17 at 5:24

What should be in focus is the subject of your image: that which you wish to call to attention.

When it comes to people as the subjects, our ingrained behavior is to look at the eyes. This where we look when talking to someone, its what is the focus of our attention. Therefore, when looking at a photo of a person, we notice immediately if the eyes are out of focus...it makes the image look 'not quite right'. Usually you hear such things as the image being 'soft' if the eyes are out of focus. In fact, if only the eyes are in focus, almost no one will complain about your image being 'soft' even though, in fact, it is quite soft.

Having both eyes focused is a creative decision, but it may impact the acceptance of your image. Adjusting the distance or aperture slightly will bring the other eye into focus, as well instructing your subject to move their head, so this is completely controllable. Of course, I suspect your shot is a candid, and you had no control of your subject's head.

You should become familiar with the DOF or Depth of Field calculations, and understand how this impacts your photography. The excellent DOF Master is a great place to start. For example, with your 50mm, wide open at f1.4, at a distance of 1 meter, you have 2cm of focus to work with (assuming APS-C camera). anything more than 2cm out of the plane of focus will be blurry. Play around with the distances and aperture settings to learn the limits of your lenses. For example, by simply stepping back half a meter, you would gain 2.5 more cm of focus distance, and the other eye would easily be in focus.

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  • I deleted my anemic post, cmason has done a much better job of saying the same thing. Thanks cmason. – Dave Nelson Feb 7 '13 at 13:52
  • Yes. It's a candid photo. Most of my photos are... This is probably taken in a Spanish market place while I'm trying not to loose any of my other kids :-) – Jørn E. Angeltveit Feb 7 '13 at 13:59
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    I added some info on Depth of Field calculations, as that is important to understand, and a key 'rule of thumb' – cmason Feb 7 '13 at 14:10
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    Thank you very much for the additional DoF info. As a hobby photographer I only know the concepts very well (I think), but I have never studied the details and actual effects of the various combinations of focal length, distance to subject and aperture... (Thus I often go for the extremes: "I really want a shallow DoF, so I'll just use A-priority at f1.4" - even if that might be unnecessary in many situations.) – Jørn E. Angeltveit Feb 7 '13 at 14:23

You are right in that it is partly subjective. Generally speaking the closest eye should at least be in focus, but both looks 'better'.

Stopping down your aperture a little will help with this, while still keeping the blurred background. It will also likely have the happy consequence of making the image sharper - most lenses have a 'sweet spot' a stop or so down from wide open.

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I'd say there is no rule saying the MUST be in focus. It is up to your artistic freedom. I don't see why it has to be the closest eye that has to be in focus. Let's say you take a photo of a person glaring through a wineglass with one closed eye. You place the head to the left with the closed eye leaning more left but being closer and the glass in 1/3 right, then you might want the open eye and glass in focus, and a narrow DOF to keep the viewer focus on the action of the eye inspecting at the glass intensely.

If you stop it down to get more DOF then you start to get a harsher bokeh with the aperture blades in highlights. If you have a Canon, their 50mmm 1.4 has a busy bokeh. You'd need the 1.2L version to get a better rendition, or go for a vintage 15 rounded blade lens. I don't know Nikons. Pentax 50mm 1.4 has 8 round blades like the 1.2L Canon, but still pretty annoying with highlights.

You can also get a tilt lens and tilt the focus plane. You might also get a too sharp image if you stop down, which means you need more retouching in post. Portraits can benefit from soft focus.

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This decision is up to the photographer as you said. Liking it or not is also subjective.

If you ask my subjective opinion about single eye focus, I would say depth of field is really cool and the photograph with both eyes focused are better.

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  • Thank you. It's always nice to lean towards the "it's my piece of art". It really is - in all ways. I take photos for my own sake, not for everyone else. I was just wondering if this was "not recommended - by the book"... – Jørn E. Angeltveit Feb 7 '13 at 20:49

Just because you have a 1.4 lens doesn't mean you have to shoot wide open, when you have a large subject-to-background distance as you have in this image. You could shoot at f/4 or probably f/8 and get a nice result.

I like the image as it is, with one eye focused, but I think it would be better shot at f/4+, so that both eyes are in focus, and if you'd moved and reframed to replace the distracting background (blue blob thing) with something more neutral, maybe some trees or grass or a plain wall.

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  • Thank you for these suggestions. I know (deep inside) that I don't have to use 1.4, but as I mentioned elsewhere: I kinda tend to lean towards the extremes since I don't have enough experience/knowledge about the relative DoF in various situation (focal length/distance/aperture). I also experience that 1.4 gives the photography that extra shallow DoF you wont get with "regular kit lenses", so I like to experiment with those settings (below f2.8) when I have that fixed 50mm attach. And as I shoot various stuff (eg. in a market place), a potentially nice "kid portrait motive" appears... – Jørn E. Angeltveit Feb 7 '13 at 20:42
  • The question I ask myself at the end of the day is: "Is that a nice effect or is it all wrong (and not "by the book")...?" – Jørn E. Angeltveit Feb 7 '13 at 20:43
  • Don't get me wrong, I just acquired a 1.4 and I shoot at 1.4 as much as possible! Why have it if you don't use it. But clearly we need to realize that it's not for every situation. Also you may want to bracket apertures in these situations, as you can't always see through the viewfinder exactly how the background will look in your image - photo.stackexchange.com/questions/21152/… – MikeW Feb 7 '13 at 20:54

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