Focus on the Eyes, and you are Fine

The eyes are very expressive on insects, animals, and people; photos of any type strongly benefit from having the eyes in focus macro or not!

Focus, focus, focus; the essential part of macro photography since it can make the difference between an excellent photo and an alright photo. Due to the shallow depth of field encountered when taking macro images, one little millimeter too far back or forward can make or break your picture! For every macro shot I take of an insect, if I can see its eyes, that is what I’m trying to get in focus.

Example out of Focus

Here is a photo that I took of a dragonfly where I didn’t nail the focus; at first glance, it looks like an alright photo

Same Dragonfly in Focus

See the subtle difference between the two? Sharp eyes draw immediate attention and make the picture “pop.”

The beautiful thing about this trick is that you don’t have to worry about the focus and detail of the rest of the insect, getting the focus on the eyes takes care of the rest.

Focus Tip 1 - Multiple Shots

I’ve found that even when I feel like I achieved the perfect focus, I will take extra shots and review them. With the shallow depth of field, small movements make a big difference. You can miss the focus from a light breeze barely moving your subject, breathing, pressing the shutter button, unconsciously swaying (I do this all the time).

There are two techniques that I use for taking multiple shots to achieve focus:

Continuous Shooting while Moving the Depth of Field

Focusing this way is the same concept as “spray and pray,” but with a methodological approach. The basic idea is that you get as close to your subject as possible in manual focus, move a little forward to where it is out of focus, and take pictures one after the other as you move backward. The goal is to capture each sliver of a focus zone throughout the subject back to front. After you are finished you then go through each photo and find the one with the eyes in focus. Here is the step by step process:

  1. Set your camera focus to Manual focus
  2. Manually adjust your focus to 1:1 or as close as you can focus
  3. Move the lens towards the subject until you see the eyes in focus
  4. Move slightly closer to where the eyes are no longer in focus
  5. Take a photo, slightly move backward, take a photo, and repeat
  6. Review the photos and try again if you did not get the focus
There is a specialized form of macro photography, called focus stacking, that uses this same concept, but instead of hand holding the camera, a tool called a focus rail allows one to move the camera forward and backward.

Rhythm Shooting

The vast majority of the time I use rhythm shooting to get tack sharp eyes when I shoot. This technique is also helpful for seeing and capturing different perspectives of flowers. This technique requires an intentional backward and forward movement between in focus and out of focus. The concept is to get close to your subject, get it in focus, and then move ever so slightly backward and forward where you can see the subject in focus in the middle of your movement.Here are the steps:

  1. Set your camera focus to Manual focus
  2. Manually adjust your focus to 1:1 or as close as you can focus
  3. Move the lens towards the subject until you see the eyes in focus
    1. Move forward and backward gently and slowly
    2. You will physically be moving less than 1 millimeter
    3. You will need to move slow enough, so you see the eyes come into focus and go out of focus
  4. Repeat this movement until you feel the rhythm of when the subject is in focus
    1. The consistent movement allows you to anticipate the timing of the focus
  5. Press the shutter button at the moment you know the subject’s eyes will be sharp
  6. Repeat this nice and slowly several times and review your photos to see if you nailed the focus

Tripods exist because it is challenging to stand completely still, this technique allows you to be in control of your slight movements and is much easier than trying to hold completely still.

Focus Tip 2 - Manual Focus

Manual focus is the way to go for macro photography due to the shallow depth of field. Even with autofocus, you’ll typically move a little right before you take the shot. I like my Canon 100mm macro lens since it has the switch between manual focus and autofocus right on the side of the lens for easy access. If you are not familiar on how to switch to manual focus, search on the step by step for your particular camera, if you are using a DSLR with a macro lens there is a good chance that there is an autofocus toggle on the side of the lens. If you are taking macro photos with your phone, iPhones with IOS 8 can focus manually, and there is also the Camera+ app that has this option as well. The Samsung S9 camera app has the Professional mode which allows you to focus manually; there is also a free app called Open Camera on Android that will work for this.

Steps for manually focusing:

  1. Disable autofocus on your camera/use manual focus mode
  2. Adjust the focus to the closest focus point, e.g., 1:1 on a macro lens
  3. While looking through the viewfinder or at the screen move the camera towards your subject until it is in focus
  4. Snap a photo

Focus Tip 3 - Aperture / F-Stop

Using a larger F-stop number (a smaller aperture opening) increases the depth of field which will make focusing the eyes much easier. A larger depth of field will also get more of the insect in focus allowing more detail to be visible in the photo. Since less light enters the camera with a larger F-stop number, to get the best photos you will need to use a flash; see the lighting section.

Using a larger F-stop between f/14 and f/16 has given me the best results, I have found that when I go f/18 and higher, I start to lose some sharpness in the eye pattern.

Natural Light

This photo was taken at F/3.2 without a flash, notice how the antenna are out of focus and the background is blurry. Natural light is challenging to use when you are trying to get a lot of details. Most people start out doing macro photography by using natural light only.

When using natural light, keep an eye on your ISO; the higher this gets the more detail you will lose. If you can get the eyes in focus with your aperture wide open you can capture very stunning pictures with a dreamy feel.

Using a Flash

This photo was taken with F/13 with a flash, notice the extra detail and that the flower petal is also more in focus. A larger F-stop when using a flash will also create a black background if there is nothing behind your subject. I like to angle photos so there is something in the background to reduce the amount of darkness. The black background also can be used to set the tone of the photo for a different artistic mood.

Changing the background

This photo was taken at F/14 with a flash and a flower in the background. Notice how I get the best of both worlds (detail and dreamy).