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How can I consistent achieve tack sharp images, when wanting to focus on eyes in a portrait? I am always using single focus and moving the focus point to the eye and recomposing if necessary. What else would you recommend or what factors can get in the way of a crisp portrait?

This is in the situation of a natural light portrait, no flash, and auto focus settings. I want to achieve a tight shot with the focus precisely on the eyes. Thank you all for your help!

  • Note that by recomposing you are likely adjusting the focal plane, so it's no longer on the eye. – Dan Wolfgang Mar 26 '15 at 13:11
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    Are you using manual or autofocus? Are you interested in just the eyes (low depth of focus - large aperture) or the entire face? Are you using artificial illumination or just natural light? Continuous or flash? All these things may affect the "best" (most useful to you) answer. – Floris Mar 27 '15 at 14:21
  • Hm, I haven't thought about how recomposing could adjust my focal plane-thanks for the insight! – Jay Mar 28 '15 at 7:27
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In addition to damned truth's answer, using live-view and zooming in on the eyes will allow you to ensure your focus point is exactly where you want it to be. Focal lengths between 80mm and 105mm offer a flattering perspective for portraiture, a 50mm prime on an APS-C crop-sensor body will give you the equivalent of an 80mm lens. Primes are nearly always sharper than zooms, which again will help in your quest for that "tack-sharp" image.

  • This works for me for still life photos, but how do you do it with portraits? My main concern is usually with catching a great, natural but appealing expression, and saying "Okay, don't move a muscle — I'm zooming in to focus on your eyes!" seems directly counterproductive. – mattdm Mar 28 '15 at 12:28
  • @mattdm, no this isn't going to work for everyone as it depends entirely on your approach to photography. It's clearly not going to work for street photography as an example, but that wasn't the original question. I'm used to working with live-view and it only takes a couple of moments extra to home the LV in on the important focal area and so this technique works for me. Additionally, this avoids having to recompose after focusing on the eyes in non-LV mode. If the OP is suggesting doing this then they're obviously not in a hurry, so using LV seems viable in this situation - IMHO – Darkhausen Mar 28 '15 at 15:10
  • I wasn't meaning to criticize; just a genuine further question. If you think that it really isn't an aspect of this one, maybe I'll ask it separately. – mattdm Mar 28 '15 at 15:11
  • @mattdm - using LV is definitely off the cards for kids and animals, and I get why it wouldn't work for you - trying to capture natural expressions with a dynamic subject requires a more dynamic approach which rules out LV. I do think this could work for the OP though, given the fairly specific nature of the question... – Darkhausen Mar 28 '15 at 15:24
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Ensure your subject is well lit and try to use a fast enough shutter speed that you have no chance of motion blur (i.e. mush faster than the usually suggested 1/focal length). Or use a tripod, remote shutter release or and the mirror lock up function of your camera and avoid touching your camera immediately before the shot is taken.

Ask your subject to stay as still as possible when you are taking the photograph

Stop your aperture down to somewhere close to your lenses sweet spot (I think this is usually around f/8 - f/11).

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    Expounding upon aperture, make sure you don't close down too far or you'll start to suffer image softness due to diffraction. Furthermore, you'll find some lenses have sweet spots as wide open as f/5.6, usually fast(er) lenses. – bmhkim Mar 26 '15 at 21:45
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I approach this problem by thinking of what can lead to blurry images, then eliminating those factors.

Given your parameters, you will be sometimes shooting in low light with a long lens. That means opening up the aperture (reducing depth of field) or reducing shutter speed (increasing the chance of camera shake or subject movement), both of which can make it harder to get sharp portraits.

A high-quality stabilized lens, pro-level camera with many focus points and good high-ISO performance, good handholding technique (ideally a tripod but that won't work for active subjects) and knowledge of the DOF at any aperture/focal length/distance combination are all useful.

Practice your focusing and handholding technique. Since you want to use natural light, learn how to find the most and best illumination (open shade outdoors, window light with reflector fill indoors). Avoid low-light situations or use artificial light if it's dark.

Focus and recompose is fine IF you know that your initial focus point is in the same plane as the eyes. Remember that lens DOF is not flat, it's curved.

Finally, don't just shoot a couple of frames. I personally shoot a lot of images so we have a lot to choose from. It's easier to get a hero pick from fifty exposures than five.

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