I am trying to take pictures of my son (2.5yrs) and my other family members. They come out pretty well and sharp but when I see the portraits posted on Flickr and other sites, I have noticed that many of them have extremely sharp eyes. The eyes are the highlight of those pictures.. even in the kids pictures. I am never able to take pictures with eyes so extremely sharp.

Are they doing something different in the pictures or may be post processing? Not sure. I would love to know how to do that.

I have Canon 350D with 50mm 1.8 II lens. I also have Canon 100mm 2.8 macro.

  • can you add little more detail? like what camera you have? what lens? – Adarsha Mar 13 '11 at 20:12
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    If you could you post some sample images (use imgur to host if necessary and post a link) as well as to some flickr images which you think have sharp eyes, that would help us give you the best answer! – Matt Grum Mar 13 '11 at 20:13
  • I second Matt's request. It would be great to see some visual comparisons that demonstrate the difference you are seeing. Thanks! – jrista Mar 13 '11 at 21:09
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    Here're couple of my pictures: goo.gl/GXmeB and goo.gl/FSyfs – ashtee Mar 13 '11 at 21:27
  • As somebody else taking shots of an active 2.5 year old....a good flash unit helps immensely. – rfusca Mar 16 '11 at 1:13

12 Answers 12


No one has mentioned lighting yet: bright pixels are sharp pixels. Are you using an off-camera flash, exposing the subject and background properly, and capturing one round catch light in each eye?

  • +1 - Photo's lit with off camera flash almost always look sharper. – rfusca Mar 13 '11 at 23:00
  • I do not have off camera flash :( – ashtee Mar 14 '11 at 5:56
  • I may just be daft, but the linked example (the cat) doesn't use any flash, and is shot in very low light at ISO 12800 - what's the connection? – thomasrutter Mar 15 '11 at 3:41

Like this?

If this is the kind of thing you are going for:

  • Get close to your subject.
  • Get a light source behind you. It will be reflected in the eyes.
  • The center focus point is special, it's more accurate. Use it to focus on the eye.
  • Open your lens up (all the way to 1.8). Shallow depth of field can help you bring the viewer's attention to what's in focus (ideally, the eyes).
  • Shallow depth of field can make focus difficult: moving even half an inch can move your target (eyes) out of the plane of focus. Taking multiple shots can help ensure you get one shot in focus.
  • The 50mm 1.8 is an excellent lens for this kind of shot.

This shot:

  • The only post processing is cropping. Edited version here
  • Lit with an open window which, she is facing and I am sitting in front of (you can see my reflection in her eyes).
  • It's cloudy, so the light from the window is pretty even.
  • Canon 7D, 50mm, F2.0, ISO 800, 1/320

(This is largely a summary of what people have said above, so I upvoted those who already said these things).

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    ...also, stay away from fluorescent lights. Not even white balance can help you there. – Tristan Mar 14 '11 at 4:28
  • @Tristan: Check my answer. I hope you're not angry for I manipulated your photo a bit to make it an even better example of extremely sharp eyes. – Robert Koritnik Mar 15 '11 at 10:16
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    Nope, not angry. However, the point of posting an unedited image was to show what was possible without post processing. My answer includes a link to an edited version. – Tristan Mar 15 '11 at 14:59
  • -1 for opening the lens up all the way. While this can increase some relative sharpness because of the shallow DoF, almost all lenses are softer when fully open. Stopping down slightly can still retain alot of the shallow depth of field, but increase the actual sharpness. – rfusca Mar 15 '11 at 15:12
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    Yes, sharpness is technically greater when the lens is stopped down. One sentence in ashtee's original question stands out to me: "The eyes are the highlight of those pictures." It is relative sharpness he is talking about- a combination of technical sharpness and the viewer's attention. This is why you would want to open the lens up in this case and sacrifice some technical sharpness for increased viewer attention. – Tristan Mar 15 '11 at 16:03

Looking at the images you posted, the focus is not on the eyes. The two images are really not that sharp in general. Who knows what the AF selected, but it wasn't the eyes unfortunately. You need to do two things

1) When taking the shot, use a center focus point, focus on the eyes, then reframe and shoot. I would suggest taking several shots to improve your chances of a nice sharp image.

2) In post processing, you can sharpen the eyes further (either careful use of a sharpening tool, or add a sharpening layer and a mask so that sharpening is selectively applied to the eyes, eyebrows, lips. )

  • also, i would try to get the subject closer to the lens, it will increase the difference between the focused area (ideally, eyes) and the background - hence, sharper eyes! – JoséNunoFerreira Mar 14 '11 at 1:14
  • Selective sharpening on the eyes may bring out more detail on eyes that are already in focus well, but sharpening a blurry spot just makes it look worse IMO. – rfusca Mar 15 '11 at 15:14

As Matt Grum stated, sharpness is often a relative thing. I think a lot of really good head and shoulders portraiture is done with a very narrow DOF, so that focus blurs quickly as you move away from the front of the face.

That said, you can control exactly what is in focus if you wish. Auto focus is by default performed by testing multiple focus points, which can nail focus on "the face" as a whole, however it won't do so well if you need to focus on one small part of someones face, such as your son's eyes. You can take more control by explicitly selecting a single AF point, and by using "focus and recompose".

Its best to use the center focus point, as it is usually a cross-type focus point that can detect sharpness in multiple planes (usually horizontal and vertical, however some use the complimentary oblique diagonal planes). If you have the option, reconfiguring your camera to separate the AF trigger from the shutter button can also help. You can often redirect AF control to a button on the back of the camera, so it can be triggered independently of the shutter and meter. Place the selected AF point on an eye, find and lock focus, then recompose the scene the way you want it, and meter & expose with the shutter button. (If you do not have the option of separating your AF control from your shutter button, just depress the shutter half way when focusing, keep it half-depressed while recomposing, then fully depress when you are ready to take the shot.)

That said, I would like to support Jerry Coffin's comment to Matt's answer:

Many have not only been sharpened, but had the brightness and saturation "enhanced" as well. These don't increase sharpness, but can draw much more attention to the eyes.
- Jerry Coffin

Sharpness is a factor of two things: contrast and acutance. Contrast itself can be a factor of two things: difference in brightness, and difference in color. Bright and dark areas of an image next to each other will create contrast, and at a fine resolution, can create sharpness. Complementary colors will also create contrast in their own right, even if they are the same brightness. Acutance is the harshness of edges, and is usually the way we adjust sharpness in our images during post-processing...by adding acutance along fine edges.

Even without sharpening, you can enhance apparent sharpness by enhancing the color of your photos. This is usually done by boosting saturation, or, if you have it, vibrancy.

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    This sounds like a good place to point out that a lot of those "holy crap!" high-end beauty shots and portraits start out on a camera that doesn't have an antialiasing filter over the sensor (true of most medium format cameras/backs). We mere mortals trade a bit of built-in softness in order to avoid the headache of moiré everywhere, but it does mean that we have to put back the acutance we lost in the process. – user2719 Mar 14 '11 at 7:11
  • Aye, @Stan makes an excellent point. Our low-resolution Bayer sensors in our APS-C and FF cameras do have AA filters that soften things a bit. It should be standard practice to add a small amount of additional sharpening at the beginning of post processing, as well as any necessary output sharpening before rendering to final media (be that digital or print.) – jrista Mar 14 '11 at 17:00

Sharpness can be a relative thing, if you use a wide aperture to get a shallow depth of field, the eyes will seem much sharper if everything else is blurred so you could try that, although it only really works with single subjects if the DoF is very thin.

I suspect the most eye-popping (pun intended) images on flickr have been sharpened in photoshop. They might have applied extra sharpening just to the eyes.

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    +1. Many have not only been sharpened, but had the brightness and saturation "enhanced" as well. These don't increase sharpness, but can draw much more attention to the eyes. – Jerry Coffin Mar 13 '11 at 20:33
  • As @Jerry Coffin stated, enhancing saturation does not necessarily increase sharpness from an acutance perspective, however it can increase color contrast, and contrast is also an element of sharpness. I think image enhancement can indeed play a big role in the apparent sharpness of a "final" image. – jrista Mar 13 '11 at 21:09
  • I have tried taking pictures with 50mm at f1.8, still, when it comes to capturing my son, it never so happens that his eyes are sharp. – ashtee Mar 13 '11 at 21:25

My first bit of advice would be to get closer. These pictures have a lot of space around the subject. That's not necessarily bad, but if you really want to bring out the eyes, making them a larger part of the picture is a good first step. Finally, I'd mention lighting: light from above tends to leave eyes in shadow which tends to hide them. You just about need light at eye level to really show the eyes well. You want it off the camera though. If the light comes directly from the camera, all the texture is hidden. A large light source from somewhat off camera show a great deal more texture, increasing the apparent sharpness.

Just for fun, I did a bit of editing on one of your pictures. First, I cropped it a bit tighter. Second, I spent five minutes or so on one eye, but left her other eye alone, for easy comparison. None of it was done with a sharpening filter though -- the changes I made were all to things like brightness, saturation, etc. Her cheeks do look a bit posterized, but that was already the case.

enter image description here


I've done some editing on your photo. Maybe it's more extreme as it should be but I wanted to point out what can be done in post processing in software like Photoshop.


Except for the marks on her left forearm and a tiny spot on her cheek. Original



What has been done?

Here are adjustments I've done in Photoshop

  1. Channel Mixer to adjust colour because due to artificial light source your photo is way too green. The best indicator of how much white balance is off is to have some white/grey part in the photo. In your case it's the white wall behind the girl (or white table top under her arm). Adjust colours until the white/grey thing gets into greyscale range.
  2. Exposure adjustment on the eyes - I overexposed eyes only by +0.7 stop (just iris not whole eyes). This makes the eyes brighter which enhances eye colours
  3. Added sharp white marks on eyes to artificially enhance light reflection in her eyes. This makes eyes seem more sharp as they actually really are.
  4. Copied the image as a new layer, run filter: Filters > Other > High Pass (1px) and then set layer mask to Overlay and set transparency to 75%. Overlay masked High Pass filtering most naturally sharpens images. But don't exaggerate.
  5. Adjusted histogram curves, to lighten the whole image a bit to lighten the face, which is the focus of attention.

I hope this helps tweaking your images.

Everyone's free to comment on my editing of course. Any input is always welcome!

The other image

The other image (posted by @Tristan Moss) is a much better example for eye sharpness manipulation because it really requires just a tiny bit of work. The image is for my taste a bit underexposed, so I adjusted exposure. But the best part is that eyes can really be edited to extreme sharpness that actually pop out razor sharp (you can see both images here side by side for comparison).

Super Sharp Eyes

(@Tristan Moss I hope you don't mind the adjustments on your photo)

  • Nope, not angry. However, the point of posting an unedited image was to show what was possible without post processing. My answer includes a link to an edited version. – Tristan Mar 15 '11 at 14:57
  • @Tristan: It does yes. But to my opinion it doesn't differ so much from an unedited version because they're not side by side for comparison reasons. – Robert Koritnik Mar 15 '11 at 15:53
  • The side-by-side is nice. – Tristan Mar 15 '11 at 16:26

Don't focus, then reframe. Focus on the eyes using the center focus point, then shoot and crop in post. If you reframe, the focus will be off.


You have prime lens, which is the first step towards the results you want to achieve.

Now some tips:

1) You need to make sure your subject is well lit when taking portraits. Catch light (a bright spot in the eye) is a must if you want the eyes to look beautiful and full of life. Have you ever seen a moment when you looked at somebody eyes in real life and saw them pop and look extra bright because of the way the light was hitting the eyes? If you didn't, you need to start observing.

Both natural (window) light and artificial (flash) light can give you good results as long as the position is chosen right.

With window it's very simple, just position your son as close as possible to a window and make sure he is facing it or at least half-facing it.

2) Make sure you focus on the eyes, not somewhere on the face, but exactly on the eyes.

3) Use at least f/2.8 as with f/1.8 it will be harder to catch the right focus as children move a lot.

4) Make sure you don't go below 1/50sec, unless you have a very stable hand and your son doesn't move for a moment.

5) Post processing is another must. You need to select irises and play with Levels, especially highlight level should be increased. Also you can increase sharpness and contrast by doing a bit of dodging and burning on the irises. Don't forget to sharpen the eyes in the end.

6) As you don't have an off camera flash, better if you stick to using natural light to take portraits of your son :)

Here are two examples of portraits I took using window light, first two shots where taken indoors, third one was taken outside and there was a silver reflector on the right hand side just out of the frame to bounce the light on the subject:

P.S. Without post processing those eyes wouldn't look the way they are ;)

Self portrait using natural light Male portrait using window light Portrait outdoors with reflector


You should also consider the following mechanical factors which could be causing unsharp photos:

1) subject movement, I am thinking of your young son in particular and your shutter speed might be too low.

2) camera movement, your hand holding technique might not be ideal and the shutter speed might be low.

3) inaccurate auto-focus, this is quite common and becomes readily apparent with shallow depth of field at large apertures.

You can test for these issues as follows:
a) take photos with your flash on. This will freeze hand and subject movement. If it is still unsharp you may have an auto-focus problem.
b) take photos with camera tripod mounted to test whether hand movement is causing the problem.
c) take photos of a focusing chart to determine if your auto-focus is accurate.

A final note about camera movement. People often sway slightly forward and backward while composing the photo. In particular you might sway slightly after you have acquired focus lock. With the shallow depth of field at large apertures this can play havoc with the focusing. I say this with feeling because some of my photos have been ruined in this way.


If your camera allows you to select the focus point, then focus for the eye, not just the face, or to the person. That should give you a crisp sharp eye.


I second the suggestion to improve the light. In your second photo, there is very little difference between the dark brown iris and the black pupil. You could try to bring them up in post, but you really want to get more light on the eyes when you press the shutter.

The other suggestion I have, which may not be relevant, is to stop your lens down. I can't see what your aperture was, but lenses are almost always softer when the aperture is wide open. I like to shoot around ƒ4, which I find is a good compromise between speed and sharpness. If you’re shooting wide open (or close to it), you will lose a lot of sharpness.

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