Recently, after a big wedding shoot, I had an awful surprise when I reviewed my images on my computer screen. Many of my really good family group shots were ruined by what I call “a pesky blinker.” You know them. He or she is the one person with their eyes blinking in an otherwise perfect group photo. Worse yet, they often have one or both eyes closed in photo after photo.
I first encountered pesky blinkers when, as a young camera guy, I took photographs at a big family wedding. Most of my photos looked great except for the group shots where in almost every frame the groom’s uncle – who had had far too much to drink – had his eyes closed.
Every photographer has had these blinking photo-bombers in their pictures. Since the problem is common, I wondered if anyone had ever researched a solution to it.
Diving into the Google, I discovered the pioneering “blinking”’ work of Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. These two scientists had (somewhat comically) looked deeply into the problem of blinkers and developed a mathematical formula to predict how many frames it would take to ensure that in at least one group picture everyone’s eyes would be open.
Blinking by the Numbers
To begin with, Dr. Barnes noted that blinks are independent and in a group of people posing for a picture, one person’s blinking does not influence or cause others to blink. Previous research had found that on the average most people blink ten times per minute and the average blink itself lasts about 250 milliseconds. During an exposure a camera shutter stays open for only about eight milliseconds.
Barnes’ formula (1 – xt)n is the probability of a good photo and that the number of photos required to get that shot is 1/(1 – xt)n. x is the expected number of blinks multiplied by the time (t) during which the photo can be spoiled and n being the number of people in the group.
For those of us who are not mathematicians, Barnes came up with a useful rule of thumb. For groups of less than 20: divide the number of people by three in good light and two in bad. That is, you need 6.66 shots in good light and 10 in bad light to get a non-blinking shot.
But this is rather unworkable with a very large group of say fifty people in bad light, which would require 25 shots to get a good “unblinkered” one. Svenson and Barnes for their groundbreaking research into blinking received the satirical Ig Nobel Prize in mathematics (2006).
Tips to Prevent Blinks in Photos
I’ve learned that one of the reasons people blink is nervousness. So, one way to reduce their blinking is to get them to relax before the shoot. For instance, I often ask people to stretch or to shake their hands or take a deep breath or two before the shoot.
I often resort to tricks to deal with the anxiety. For instance, I say that I will take the photo on the count of three. Then I slowly count one…two… and shoot. Snapping the shutter before three tends to catch people with their eyes open.
A variation of this deception is to say that I want to take a few test shots before the actual shoot. I then tell people to practice their smiles and while they believe that I am only doing “tests” shots I can actually get the group photo.
When all else fails I have on occasion resorted to the “Photoshop Guillotine.” This process involves finding a good shot of the pesky blinker, cutting out their eyes and pasting them over the shut “blinked” eyes.
In the end there will always be pesky blinkers and we photographers will have to continue to live with them. C’est la vie.