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I have often seen many people write critiques such as -

Subject is not looking in the camera so I don't feel connected!

on photos where the subject is not engaged in some particular activity like cooking, playing with an object, writing etc.

I also remember a photo where a boy was walking through a forest and looking elsewhere with the background somewhat blurred. That photo too had received the same comments.

What's wrong with subject not looking in the camera in these cases, and what do they mean by "not feeling connected"?

Can there be some cases where it makes sense for the subject to look in the camera? - no, I am NOT talking about ID/PAN card photos.

Please include example photos in the answers showing the difference between the composition effect when the subject looks in the camera and in the same scenario when he doesn't.

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It isn't necessary to have the subject looking into the camera. In fact sometimes the photo is all the better when the subject isn't looking into the camera. It all depends on what you want to communicate with the image you are making. If you want a natural looking subject that appears to be engaged in some type of activity (whether that is obvious by including it in the scene or implied by leaving it out of the scene) then the last thing you want is for the subject to look at the camera and acknowledge their awareness of being photographed.

enter image description here

On the other hand, when the subject does look into the camera the dynamics of the relationship between subject and viewer are turned upside down. Instead of the viewer choosing to look at an unaware subject, the subject now controls what the viewer sees.

enter image description here

You can even create powerful images with human subjects not even facing the camera.

"The waiting is the hardest part" enter image description here


You've asked several questions lately that seem to assume there is something wrong with your photos because they receive negative criticism. Here's the deal: No matter what you do if you put your photos out in the wild in places where they can be critiqued someone will have issues with the decisions you made when taking the photo. There has probably never been a photo made that has been seen by more than one person that doesn't have at least one negative critique! There is not always a single "right" way to take a particular photo. Yet many critiques come across as saying "any other way than the way I think you should have done it is wrong."

I'm sure there are critics who would find fault with Ansel Adams' "Moonrise - Hernandez, NM"! I'm sure there are plenty of wanna' be photographers that think Walter Iooss, Jr is a hack and that with the access he has had they could have captured better images! Steve McCurry's 1985 National Geographic cover photo of a green eyed Afghan girl probably has detractors as well.

There is not always a single "right" way to take a particular photo. Yet many critiques come across as saying "any other way than the way I think you should have done it is wrong."

Simply put, you can't please everybody. The only person you should be concerned about pleasing with your personal photos is... yourself. Study the masters, learn the "rules" of composition, realize for every compositional rule out there someone has done quality work by intentionally breaking it, and then go and shoot the way you want your photos to look!

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    FWIW, I don't see these questions as taking offense at critique, just wanting to know more about the reasons behind specific comments. – mattdm May 1 '15 at 20:48
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    @mattdm Even so, the reasons behind the comments are, at least in part, due to the fact that no matter what choices you make when creating an image there will be those that think you should have chosen differently. Perhaps I haven't articulated it as well as I would like, but I think with questions of this type it needs to be put out there that there is not always a single "right" way to take a particular photo. Yet many critiques come across as saying "any other way than the way I think you should have done it is wrong." – Michael C May 2 '15 at 14:07
  • @MichaelClark, That I definitely agree with. – mattdm May 2 '15 at 14:07
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There is absolutely no need to have the subject look at the camera. It's a question of style and preference. I've seen plenty of fabulous photos where the subject was looking at, beside, at 90 degrees from, and had their back turned to the camera.

Your critiquer has a very narrow perspective. I look at that photo and see "Is mommy watching?" and I wonder what is in the bag that she is not supposed to have.

If you have a portrait session with Medusa I recommend you not have the subject look at the camera.

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    For Medusa probably you can use live preview. Xo) Funny. – Rafael Apr 29 '15 at 20:30
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My thought is that there are actually relatively few cases where you do want the subject to be looking at the camera... pretty much only portraits, and only a subset of those. You don't want subjects looking at the camera when the purpose of the photo is to convey a sense of passive observation of something naturally taking place, as in some types of photojournalism.

When someone in a photo is looking at the camera, there's a kind of "breaking the fourth wall" that instantly changes the whole relationship of the viewer to the scene - there's an awareness of the camera, therefore whatever is taking place may very well be for the benefit of the camera. This applies to mobs in streets or pictures of kids doing what kids do naturally. So what you gain in "connection" you may very well lose in naturalism... unless you happen to catch the exact moment when "eye" contact first happens, from a previously oblivious subject - some of my favorite family photos are a result of that, now that I think about it. Thanks for making me think about it. :D

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+200

I don't see that there's anything "wrong" with the subject not looking at the camera, but there is an unavoidable and striking difference between subjects eyeing and not eyeing the camera. There are primal instincts to study a subject that is making eye contact: Is this person trying to engage me as an ally? Do they need help? Are they a threat? Are they eyeing me as prey? As a mate? Furthermore, depending on the circumstance, and sometimes informed by culture, it is fundamentally rude to return (or not return) eye contact. But if the subject is not looking at the camera the observer is free to just observe without any of those instinctive circuits being engaged.

For example, here's a busy subject, but contrast your reaction to the first version where her gaze is only slightly to the side of the camera with the second where she is looking directly at it. To me these are completely different effects: In the first case my eyes are free to wander the image. In the second case it is almost awkward to stare at anything other than her face – my eyes are drawn back there because she is looking at me and it feels like I'm ignoring her to not answer her gaze.

(Click for uncropped image.) Looking to the side

Eyeing the camera

Note that the same holds true for animal subjects, and for mostly the same reasons: If the animal is looking at me I have to decide if it's a threat (or perhaps whether it's a meal that is about to run away). If it's neither then I have to decide whether to interact with it. The animal looking at the observer is making the same calculations. We know that and sense that. We are unavoidably engaged.

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    Having your example subject holding something vaguely menacing really drives the point home, so to speak. :| – junkyardsparkle May 1 '15 at 20:22
  • At the resolutions included inline with the answer, it looks to me like she is looking onto the camera in both photos. The difference to me appears more to be that in the first the observer is in a higher position relative to the subject and viewing from above the subject's eye level while in the second the viewer is just below the subject's eye level. – Michael C May 5 '15 at 23:33
  • @MichaelClark interesting that you found the height difference more salient. Of course I pulled these examples full-res so maybe that affected my "read." I just replaced the in-line images with crops to make her gaze easier to follow. – feetwet May 6 '15 at 0:37
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Humans have been shown to be especially drawn to the eyes, with some studies showing unique human response to just movement of the eyes.

While it will be debated for many years as to why, the fact is we look at the eyes of other humans in photos.

When we see photos of others, where their eyes are not looking into the camera, we tend to think about that the situation that the subject is in. But when the subject is looking into the camera, we tend to think 'that person is looking at me' and personalize the subject, attempting to make a linkage with that person.

So when the subject is looking away, we get information about a scene. When they are looking toward the camera, we get emotion from the scene.

While plenty of images bring emotion without the subject looking into the camera, you will find that many photos high on the 'emotion' list have a subject looking in the direction of the camera. So if you want to bring emotion into the image, have the subject look at the camera.

In +Michael Clark's example photos, in scene 1, we look at it and think "wow, they are having fun at the game. In scene 2, we think 'wow she is having fun at the game...wish I was there'.

1

As humans we grew up imitating other people's behaviour to figure out how to act/feel. When we see someone being happy we learned to feel happy - if they were sad then we felt sad. We found ourselves more strongly influenced when the person directed their emotion directly at us (i.e. direct visual contact). This "imitation game" happened even before we fully learned to empathise around the age of 3-5, so from that it appears that the ability to imitate is stronger or deeper-set than the ability to empathise - or in other words, imitation is kind of like a "doorway" to empathy, it makes it easier for us to empathise if we feel the pull to imitate first - and as said before this is stronger with direct visual contact.

So if the point of a photograph is to influence an emotional feeling in the viewer - and I think most would agree that the better rated photographs do this - then it seems logical that this can be more easily achieved through a medium we all grew up with.

Hence, some would consider photographs that have the subject looking directly at the viewer - described in your question as "straight into the camera" - are able to elicit a better "connection" with the viewer, and hence more easily influence their emotional feeling about it.

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In my experience, the viewer can intuit when the subject is actually intently involved with whatever they are looking at. It is my belief that someone gazing vaguely off into the ether somehow reflects that lack of involvement in their expression and it is that lack of involvement that the reviewer is responding to. I am a street photographer and try not to catch the subject's eye but to catch their involvement in whatever they are looking at.

enter image description here

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    I give up: Is your image an example of someone "looking intently" or "gazing vaguely?" If I had to guess I would say the former, but I think I can see it both ways. I wish we could setup a poll.... (Or could this be the next "what color is this dress?") – feetwet May 6 '15 at 1:04
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You have to understand two things:

  1. with whom your subject is communicating with and
  2. what is the emotion of your subject (whether spontaneous or posed).

So let's take up each:

  1. Your subject can communicate to
    • you as a photographer,
    • your camera, meaning the audience of your photo or
    • third party or parties, on or off the photo.

By communication I mean talk, shout, smile, show finger gesture or just even look, whatever there is.

  1. Based on the emotion of the subject, the eye contact will vary. There is an entire write-up of expressions per emotion that is too long to add here. But, e.g.
    • a sad person always looks away and down,
    • an angry person looks fixedly to the other person he is angry with,
    • an attacking person looks very directly,
    • a bored person is kind of de-focused and usually does not look to the other person, just a bit around that person, etc.

So, to answer your question:

Can there be some cases where it makes sense for the subject to look in the camera?

Yes! This is a very valid pose.

  • It can show connection to you as a person (e.g. you ask your girlfriend to smile at you)
  • You can ask the subject to look half smiling and inquisitively into the camera
  • You can photograph an angry barbarian waving his sword directly looking into the camera,
  • You can make a photo of a girl in a war area, completely shocked, eyes cried out, looking for sympathy,
  • You can make a photo of a CEO in a conservative setting
  • Or a photo of a professional who usually need to listen to people, e.g. a therapist, a consultant, an architect.

There are many ways, and looking into the camera can give a lot of connection, emotional attachment and depth to the photo.

Also, when subjects don't look into the camera, you have to justify why they don't. You have probably seen many "artsy" picture, with eyes looking into various arbitrary direction, and that just creates a completely chaotic feeling: what the hell this guy wants to communicate with this picture?? :-)

So just have your subject look into the camera, and use it wisely. Good luck.

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