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In this era of digital cameras with the ability to instantly view images, we’ve lost that feeling of suspense that came with waiting for a roll of film to develop at the lab and wondering if you’d gotten the perfect shot. You’d pick up the photos, anxiously open the packet of prints and hope that a pack of fire-eyed demons weren’t staring back, the dreaded red eye having ruined an otherwise perfectly good picture.
Red eye has been the scourge of shutterbugs since flash photography and color pictures crossed paths. In the digital age, “red eye reduction” is often one of the most-touted features of amateur photo editing software, a testament to the fact that increasingly sophisticated camera equipment is often no match for simple physics.
Red eyes only occur in flash photography (and occasionally under bright spotlights, but that’s pretty rare), and are more common in amateur photos than professional images. That’s not because pros employ some sort of special spell, but because they typically use “off-camera” flashes to illuminate their subjects with indirect light.
Direct light – the kind given off by point-and-shoots and cell phones – from “on-camera” flashes usually originates very close to the lens, so there’s a much bigger chance for red eye. That’s because the super-quick flash on a camera fires too fast for the eyes to react, so instead of the pupils constricting like they would when confronted with a bright light, they stay open and the light reflects off the back of the eye, which is, coincidentally, red.
The effect is worsened if it’s dark out, since the pupil is wide open to take in ambient light; in daylight, the pupil is usually small enough to keep red eye at bay.
Inside the camera, the digital sensor (or film, if you’re old-school), picks up the reflected red. The result: your fun night out is remembered as a scene out of a low-budget horror flick.
So how do you keep devil eyes out of your precious family photo album? Well, the easiest (albeit expensive) fix is to use a camera that can accommodate a flash further away from the lens. Whether that’s a DSLR with a “hotshoe” mount that puts the flash a few inches above the shutter or one of the various cords or radio transmitters that can fire a flash positioned away from the camera, increasing the angle of the artificial light will cause the flash to hit the eye indirectly rather than going straight in and straight back out.
Another option is to snag a camera with either physical or digital means of red eye reduction. Some models will pre-fire a burst of light to not only inform the camera’s sensor for exposure settings, but also give the subject’s eyes a split second more to adjust to the sudden brightness. Others use digital algorithms in-camera to find and fix red eye before you ever post them to Instagram.
Don’t want to replace your trusty camera? Try having the subject look slightly away from the camera – a foot or two to the side should do it – that’s usually enough to do away with the demon eye effect and still appear that they’re looking right at you.