The Eyes Have It

Tricks of the Trade . . . One frame at a time

Last month we talked about staying aware of our subject and the environment when we're photographing. This month I'd like to dive into something specific to focus on.


This Month's Focus

Eyes often communicate much of the emotional depth in our portraits. They’re called "windows to the soul" for a reason, right? For us to see into those windows we've got to have some nice light.

The on-camera flash many cameras have will put light right IN our subjects’ eyes. However, it often results in the red/green/glowing eye effect I'm sure you've seen. And unless it's Halloween, that’s usually not the look we want.  

Glowing eye happens when your light source is very close to your lens — as is the case with many on-camera flashes. Such light bounces off the back of the subject’s eye instead of reflecting off the front, which most of us non-optometrists prefer to see.

Many cats and dogs have a reflective surface on the back of their eyes that improves their night vision. Whatever color your pets’ eyes glow is actually the color of their reflective surface. Us humans just have boring red blood vessels back there.

In the future we'll discuss how to minimize that effect when using a flash. Meanwhile avoiding the glowing eye effect is another great reason to use natural light. 

Using natural light does require more awareness and thinking, but that work pays off with more creative options. The key to developing your awareness is experimenting. Watch the light, watch your subject’s eyes to see when they light up, and when the light starts to make them squint.


Watch what's reflected in their eyes. The center of the eye in the photo here is mostly blue instead of the typical black. That’s the sky reflecting off his eye.

If you're photographing outside on a sunny day, early or late in the day when the sun is low on the horizon is a great time to experiment. When inside, window light can be great. Situations where the light is roughly at eye level are perfect for showing off lots of detail in the eyes. It gets more challenging when you're outside with the sun directly overhead. But you can still get great photographs. 

Sometimes a small shift in the position of your subject’s head can make all the difference. For example a small tilt up can be enough to pick up light from above, giving a whole new look to their eyes.

If your subject is watching a toy or treat you have in hand then try moving it around and watch how the light changes in his or her eyes. This is a good way to practice "speed-reading" the light — most of my 4-legged subjects tire quickly of the "follow the treat" game. 

Feel free to practice on your 2-legged friends as well, of course! You don't even need a camera, just watch their eyes and see how the light plays.  

Class Recap

  • Try the exercise
  • Send your photos from the assignment to: Please put “Spot Photo Class” in the subject line
  • Got to Photography 101 on Spot's website to see your photos and those of your fellow students
  • Share your great work with your friends!
  • Check out David’s tips and comments
  • Meet David here in October for your next session!

David Childs is a professional photographer, photo journalist, instructor, and animal advocate. You can see his work or contact him at

Study with David live! His pet photography classes are offered at Oregon Humane Society. See his website for details.

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