Category Archives: 5 – Eye Contact and Expression

Eye Contact and Expression

It is commonly said that the eyes are the key to a successful portrait but that doesn’t mean that the subject always has to stare out of the portrait directly into the Camera lens. For this exercise I wanted to create portraits that showed the three main approaches to directing the subject’s eyes in a portrait. These are:

  • Direct eye contact – The subject looks directly into the camera lens
  • Looking out of the frame – the subject looks at something or someone outside the frame
  • Looking into the frame – the subject looks at something or someone in the frame.

Again I choose to take self-portraits for this exercise so that I could spend as much time experimenting as I liked without my subject getting bored. I’m not sure that this was always true I think you can see from some of the portraits below at times I was perhaps not concentrating as much as I should have been and there are signs of bored in some of my expressions.

The first pair of pictures is an active of contextual portrait which tries to capture my life when I am travelling on businesses. Sitting in a hotel room late at night working on my laptop with notes scribbled on a hotel pad and a rental car map of the area. In the first picture I am looking directly at the camera whereas in the second (or right-hand one) I am looking at the screen of the laptop in the bottom right of the frame. I very much prefer the second portrait because although it really captures a narrative with the scene of me somewhat focused on working. To me the image on the left although the eye contact is good the overall image really just looks contrived, as indeed it was. If I cropped both of the pictures to be just head and shoulders portraits, I think the one on the left would work much better.


The second set of pictures I took below show me lounging in a hotel room on a sofa in front of a television which is just out of the frame on the left. In the first picture I am watching the television with my eyes looking out of the frame I think this portrait works quite well because the shape of the sofa and the walls behind it generate the impression that I am looking into the room at someone or something. Again the shape of the background emphasises that I am looking at into the room directly at the camera in the middle picture. Whereas in the third picture looking over my left shoulder hints at a narrative of being disturbed by someone entering the room.


The next two portraits were taken with me sitting in the same position but with a longer focal length to achieve a head and shoulders portrait. I think I was also getting a little distracted at this time because although the eye contact is strong in the portrait on the left the expression is really one of disinterest of even irritation. I am not really sure what to make of the portrait on the right, the corner in the wall behind me makes it clear that I am looking into the room but there really is not enough context for there to be much of a narrative to workout here.


Finally, I wanted to experiment with small changes in eye direction and I created the two portraits below in the one on the left I am looking directly into the camera where as in the one of the right I was trying to focus my gaze about a foot to the right of the camera. This turned out to be much harder than I though but I think the difference is still visible in the portraits.

To me the portrait on the right epitomises a feeling of “why am I here or why am I still taking these self-portraits” The direct focus of the eye on the lens and the expression give the portrait on the left a very strong feeling. Whereas to me the portrait on the right comes across as a much softer and happier image at least in part because the eyes are not directly gazing into the lens and fixing the viewers focus onto them.


Even though the work in this exercise is not the greatest set of portraits I believe that I learnt a lot from creating it. I was really surprise looking through the large number of pictures I took how much difference small changes in my head positioning and eye direction made to the finished portraits.