Having the subject look straight down the lens gives a feeling of direct eye contact when the image is later viewed. Just as in real life, eye contact is more arresting than a lack of eye contact – it captures your attention and is a form of communication in itself. However, it also demands more of the viewer, so a whole set of images containing eye contact can become tiring and repetitive. As with all the other elements of composition, variety is key.
There are two alternatives to through-the-lens eye contact; a subject looking off-camera but at something within the frame, and a subject looking off-camera at something outside of the frame.
When the subject is looking at something within the frame, such as an object or another person, it’s as though the photographer has captured a private moment candidly, rather than a posed shot. It can enable more of a story telling approach to image-making than with direct eye contact, as the viewer tries to work out the relationship between the subject and the thing they are looking at. The expression of the subject forms part of the story – is it a look of love, of fear, or intrigue?
When the subject is looking at something outside of the frame, this provides an unanswered puzzle for the viewer – what are they looking at? Again, the expression of the subject is key; if they look tense, the viewer will believe that they are anxious about the thing they are looking at, whereas a serene expression or a smile tells the viewer that the subject feels positive it. If the subject is looking towards the floor, this can imply shyness and modesty – this can be an appealing quality, which is why it’s a commonly used image set-up for a bridal portrait.
When viewing an image, our gaze follows that of the subject, so be aware that if the subject is looking out of the frame, then our eyes are pulled towards that point, creating visual tension. Harmonious compositions usually aim to keep the eye within the image, so leave plenty of space on the side of the image that your subject is looking towards.