Blinking is a problem that every photographer deals with and while it frustrates many, most photographers come up with little tricks to avoid the blinks, but even those tricks aren’t fool proof and usually don’t account for the real reason the blinks are happening in the first place.
So right out of the box — I want to debunk a common misconception. When you are shooting with flash — doesn’t matter if we are talking speedlight or studio strobes — the flash does NOT cause the blink that you photograph. It very likely does cause your subject to blink — but that blink happens AFTER the shutter closes.
Follow along — we are gonna use some math here — and I hate math — so I will keep it as simple as possible. We know that most speedlights and studio strobes have a flash duration of somewhere between 1/2,000 of a second and 1/10,000 of a second depending on the flash and the power setting at any given time. So when you are shooting with flash that is your effective shutter speed — even though most cameras today are designed to synchronize with flash at 1/250th of a second to accommodate the fact that when you press the button, the shutter opens, the flash fires and then the shutter closes. That’s why the flash duration is much faster than the shutter duration.
This means if we go with the longest flash duration of 1/2,000 of a second, the flash takes .0005 milliseconds. In case you are wondering — a millisecond is a thousandth of a second.
Reflexive eye blinks that are caused by the flash happen between 15 and 60 milliseconds AFTER the flash occurs. The reason for that range is that there is a high level of individual differences among people.
So if the fastest blink happens 15 milliseconds after the flash, the flash will have ended at least 14.0005 milliseconds BEFORE the blink begins.
So the FLASH is NOT the cause of the blink that you are photographing. The sound of your shutter is also not the cause of the blink you are photographing for similar reasons.
Facts about Blinking
Blinking is a reflex, which means your body does it automatically. Of course, you can make yourself blink if you chose, but most of our blinking is reflexive, and we do it subconsciously.
Blinking lubricates and cleans your eyes by spreading a cocktail of oils and mucous secretions over the surface of your eye. Blinking also keeps your eye safe by closing it to keep out dust, bright light, and foreign objects.
Babies and children only blink about two times per minute. By the time you reach adolescence, that increases to 14 to 17 times per minute. It stays at that number for the rest of your life.
You blink more when you’re talking, nervous, or in pain. You blink less while reading or when you sense possible danger.
What causes the blinks in photographs?
Most of them are a reflex that is triggered by anticipation!
When you have been repeatedly taking pictures of the same person they will develop a classically conditioned response to your finger approaching the button so their blink will be in response to your finger movement before you press the button.
Even if they can’t see your finger, if you tend to work and shoot with a certain rhythm, they can subconsciously pick up on the rhythm and blink in anticipation.
But that’s not all, a subject that is nervous or uncomfortable is going to blink more frequently — which further highlights the need to make your subjects comfortable and the need to communicate a lot while you are photographing them.
How to minimize the amount of blinking
Start by working very hard to keep your subject relaxed. Less stress means fewer blinks. So always put yourself in your subjects shoes — they are a human — not an object. Be talkative, be friendly, show empathy.
Try to avoid super bright lighting. It not only increases blinking but causes squinting which is not flattering.
You should NEVER talk to your subject about how much they are blinking — the minute you have that conversation, you make the person hyper aware of it, and then they are concentrating on their blinks instead of relaxing and thinking happy thoughts.
If you are photographing a subject with sensitive eyes, be sure to work your lighting accordingly. Don’t use the brightest lights that you can find. Remember empathy, show compassion for their situation, raise your ISO and use softer lighting.
If you are photographing someone who nervously anticipates your flash and blinks in anticipation you will have to work a bit harder. In this case I like to use a tripod and a wireless remote control so that they can’t see my finger and I also make it a point to vary my timing so that I am not predictable with my shooting patterns. Conversation is very important to help the person relax when using this technique. I want them to essentially forget about the camera. The more I can take the camera out of the equation — the less chance there is of them anticipating a shot due to nerves.
I know there are loads of articles and YouTube videos that recommend various solutions or “tricks”. Unfortunately they ALL overlook the cause and the psychology behind the blinks. Here are a few examples I found online that will work occasionally but not consistently, and they don’t solve the real problem — in fact most of them create other problems.
— Tricking your subject. Telling them that you are going to count to three and then taking the picture on two.
— Telling your subject to count to three but consciously blink of two.
— Having the person keep their eyes closed and on the count of three open them when you take the picture.
— Using TTL preflash with the idea that they will blink for the pre-flash and not the actual flash.
— Using bounce flash.
— Telling the person to have “bright eyes” by explaining that the expression means to think of something that makes them smile with a hint of surprise, like seeing a child do something for the first time.
And there are many more of these “tricks” on the internet. Tricks are not reliable. Most of those tricks require asking your subject to do something that has nothing to do with the intended emotion of the shot — so the expression and body language are off.
The solution is to work to put your subject at ease. Make a connection, show empathy. Don’t point out the blinking problem because it will only make it worse. If your subject is a serial blinker — use a tripod and wireless release so that they can’t anticipate the flash and then talk to them to keep their attention away from the flash.
The other kind of blinking subject
If you photograph enough people, you will also encounter the subject who knows they blink and is afraid that they will ruin the photos, so the minute you pick up your camera they become stiff, and they force their eyes open. Worse yet as you keep shooting — if you are paying attention, you will notice that they aren’t blinking at all, so that they don’t mess up a shot.
When I encounter a subject like this, I tell them that I want them to blink naturally. That it’s ok if we get some blinks. Now the challenge is — this person is worried about blinking and I have just told them to do something that is counterintuitive. If I want them to go along with me — I have to tell them WHY. By telling them why — I eliminate their concerns and make them a very willing collaborator.
So I explain, if I catch some blinks from time-to-time — that reassures me that you are relaxed and that your facial expressions are relaxed. Also, if you don’t blink your eyes will dry out — especially if you wear contact lenses and then your eyes will tear up — which will ruin the makeup and dry eyes will develop bloodshot lines really quickly.
No subject ever wants a stiff facial expression, or tears or messed makeup or bloodshot eyes. By taking a few moments to explain why — I have convinced them that I know what I am talking about, and they are very eager to try it my way, because my way is easier and requires much less effort.
Nobody makes you press the button. Once you press the button — you can’t be blaming your subject. A few blinks are good — but blowing the shot because of blinking — very bad.
Also, it is worth noting that if you just can’t master this and still seem to specialize in photographing blinks — a quick search at Getty Images will show over 2,600 images of people blinking. Shutterstock has over 20,000 images of people blinking — so maybe you could make a few bucks on the side selling those blinks as stock photos!
I hope that you found this helpful and that it has given you some ideas to help improve your photography.
Don’t forget, your BEST shot, it’s your next shot! So keep learning, keep thinking and keep shooting. Adios!
About the Author
Joe Edelman is an Olympus Visionary photographer and educator with a photography career spanning five decades. You can find out more about Joe on his website and be sure to check out his videos on YouTube. This article was also published here and shared with permission.
Image credit: Raisa Kanareva – Dreamstime.com