Eye Contact and Expression

A portrait can be greatly affected by something so seemingly obvious as eye contact and expression. The act of looking in to or away from the lens has a large bearing on how the photograph is read by the viewer. This can be used by the photographer as a tool for telling a story within the frame. Some photographers will always want the subject to be looking in to the lens (Steve McCurry), others would prefer indirect eye contact and others for the subject to be looking away completely (often found in Street Photography portraiture). I have found that I have to make sure the subject is looking in to the lens as, without a viewfinder on my camera, my head and therefore eyes are, more often than not, in contact with the subject’s eyes or at least in their eye-line. This means they will generally naturally look at me rather than the camera lens. I illustrate this below. The first image is that of the subject looking straight in to the lens, the second of her looking just above at me instead.

In to lens

In to lens

At me, just above lens

Above the lens

The difference is quite subtle, but the viewer will implicitly pick up on it such is the ability of perception by the human eye and brain for reading somebody’s face. In my assignment ‘Contrasts’ for The Art of Photography, my tutor immediately picked up on a portrait I had submitted as part of the project. The little boy I had photographed was looking at me rather than the camera. I hadn’t even noticed this and had probably made the assumption that he was looking in to the lens rather than really ‘looking’ at the image myself. Here it is.

Above the lens

The eye line is subtly above the lens and yet now I know, I can’t read it in any other way. The subject is communicating with me rather than the camera which, in this situation is not what I want. This is a portrait that works only if the subject is looking directly in to the lens and therefore directly at the viewer, whom I (as the photographer) am trying to communicate with.

The subject, of course, can also look completely away from the lens. This doesn’t mean they aren’t communicating with the viewer, just that the photographer is trying to tell a different story.

Looking away 1

Looking away 1

Here the subject is looking directly in front of her, slightly downwards. She looks lost in thought, but relaxed. Her body position hasn’t changed, but her expression is a little more relaxed. This is a quite a passive shot and not really asking much of the viewer. She is gazing in to the large space  (negative space) in front of her, which is quite natural. This eye-line ‘fills’ the frame. There is no dynamism being built by the angle of the head or the expression.

Looking away 2

Looking away 2

Again, quite a relaxed expression but the direction of the gaze starts to engage the viewer in to wondering what the subject is looking at. She is also looking in to an unnatural part of the frame. As a viewer, it makes for more comfortable reading of the image if the subject looks in to the negative space as per the previous image. The expression suggests that, whatever has distracted her it isn’t terribly exciting.

Looking in to lens 1

Looking in to lens 1

Without asking her to, the subject’s expression has changed as I have asked her to again look in to the lens, this time with her head tilted at a quizzical angle. This is a slightly stern look that is almost questioning the viewer about something.

Looking in to lens 2

Looking in to lens 2

Head and chin almost pointing towards her toes, the subject now looks suspicious about the viewer’s presence. She is looking directly in to the lens, but the head is pointed away form the camera. I feel, as a viewer, that I have been caught doing something I should not have been. It gives the impression that I have probably lingered too long taking photographs.

This is a subject that has almost limitless opportunities for different types of eye contact and facial expressions, different nuances to be read, not to mention that throughout this series of images the torso hasn’t even moved. It is something that must be born in mind every time I lift the camera to my eye to make a portrait of someone (or, indeed, something).

Many thanks to the lovely @natashabailie!

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