Photo tip: focus on the eyes

I've had several people ask me recently where to focus when taking insect photos.  Here's my advice.

Aim for the eyes.


A phorid fly sits atop a fungus, its compound eye slightly ahead of the focal plane.

The same fly with its eye in the focal plane.

The second photo should be more appealing than the first.  Indeed, the first looks out of focus.  Strictly speaking, though, this isn't true.

The top photo shows a much greater percentage of the body in focus than does the bottom photo.  Look at how crisp the outline of the fly appears in comparison to the blur of the body in the second photo.  In fact, a computer might even select the top photo as the better of the two based overall sharpness.

But we humans are not computers. We are social primates, and we naturally gravitate towards the eyes.

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A simple idea - nothing new here. You learn it on the first page of any photography book. But because you're such a great photographer and writer, you've made the point so well that I feel like I'm learning a secret for the first time. Keep up the great work.

Thanks for your kind words, Warren. Focusing on the eyes seems like an obvious point, yet enough people have asked me about it that apparently it isn't. Hence, this post.

Excellent reminder of a basic rule many forget (or never learn). When it comes to a focus point for the human mind, faces--especially eyes--take the cake. Get focused eyes in a photo and the rest becomes secondary.

And what a delightful little fly!

Typically I would agree, being able to gaze into the specimens' eyes gives it more personality. Now that I'm studying insect taxonomy my preference is to identify the fly, often requiring a full body shot. Good thing you take lots of photos...

When I give workshops, I always say that portrait photographers focus on the eyes and the lips. As long as those things are sharp people can accept the rest being less so. The same hold true with bugs.

It's also a good comparison when attendees ask about putting insects in the refrigerator to slow them down, I just tell 'em "that only works with toddlers"-