Avoid the Red Eye Effect

"How do I get rid of red eye in my photos?" is the second most common question I get from readers.(The most common, of course, is "Are you as handsome in real life as you are in your photo?" and the answer, of course, is yes.) A while back I offered some advice on how to deal with red eye after the fact in "Combat Red Eye," but it's better to avoid getting it to begin with. This week let's look at five simple ways to minimize red eye when you take the photo.

1. Brighten the Room

Let's start at the beginning. Red eye usually happens in low light, when your subject's eyes naturally dilate to let in as much light as possible. When you fire your camera flash, the light passes through the open pupils and bounces off the back the eye, looking red.

Red eye is mainly a result of the dramatic difference in brightness between ambient lighting and your flash. That's why you'll never see red eye in a photo taken outdoors in bright sunlight. To minimize the possibility of red eye, then, take your picture outdoors, or inside near a window where there's natural lighting. At night, brighten the room by turning on all the lights you can.

2. Use the Red Eye Mode

If you're stuck in a dimly lit room or outdoors at night, then it's time to turn to your camera for help. Your camera's red eye reduction mode (which is usually identified by an eye-shaped icon) fires the flash several times quickly right before the picture is taken, forcing your subject’s pupils to close down to a smaller size, thus minimizing reflections.

Of course, your camera's red eye mode can help, but it's no cure. You might still get some red eye even in this mode. And remember that the picture hasn't been taken at the first sign of flash, so hold the camera steady. And it's a good idea to warn your subject to hold still for a few seconds, to be sure the camera is really done taking the photo.

3. Don't Let Light Reflect Directly Into the Camera

The difference in light levels between flash and room light is only part of the problem. Another factor is the angle of the reflected light. Think of light like balls on a pool table: If you can keep light from reflecting directly from the subject's eyes back into the lens, you win.

If your flash is, like most, permanently mounted on the camera, then you don't have a lot of options. One thing you can try: Ask your subject to look away from the camera. Imagine a line that runs from the camera lens to your subject. The greater the angle between your subject's eye line and that lens line, the less red eye you'll see in your photo. Turn that law of physics into an advantage, by staging some artistic portraits in which your subjects aren't looking right at the camera.

4. Move the Flash Off the Camera

You might have a camera with a hot shoe connection for an external flash. This is the Holy Grail of red eye reduction--by moving the flash off the camera, it allows you to get the flash out of that lens line I mentioned in tip #3, so you can effectively eliminate red eye reflections. Mounting a flash on the hot shoe helps. Even better: Use an extension cable to hold the flash off to the side. If you have an external flash unit, you can probably also "bounce" the flash off a wall or ceiling. Reflected light is much more diffuse and will do wonders for your photos.

5. Clean It Up Afterwards

You'll still end up with red eye in some photos. You can't always shoot in great light, and sometimes you'll have to take some pictures with the camera's built-in flash. When that happens, you can use the red eye tool in your favorite photo editor to blot out the red.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Row Boats," by Jolene McAlister, Allison Park, Pennsylvania

Jolene says that the array of colors caught her eye as she walked on a dock in Bar Harbor, Maine.

This Week's Runner-Up: "Ladybug" by Robert Specht, Los Angeles

Robert got this shot with a Canon Digital Rebel XTi.

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

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