The eyes are the most important part of most portrait photographs. People want to see eyes that are in focus and bright, with light and good vivid color. If the eyes are gorgeous with big shiny catch-lights, the whole photograph becomes more appealing. In this tutorial, I will explain how to use Adobe Photoshop to make the eyes in your portraits “pop,” with whiter whites, brighter colors, and more visual appeal. This technique is useful for big “fill the frame” style portraits where you can see detail in the eyes. You should always start with a photo that is in focus, well-exposed, and already has some catch-lights in the eyes.
First I start by opening a photo and doing my basic editing; I complete cropping, and add levels or curves layers to adjust over-all photo color. Then I flatten the image in preparation for the eye work. I save sharpening for the very end, after I’ve completed any eye adjustments. If you sharpen before doing eye adjustments, this will change the pixels in the eyes and can make further adjustments look too sharp or too obvious.
1. Once your image is ready for the eye work, hit Ctrl-J (Command-J on a Mac) twice to duplicate the layer two times. Name the top layer “Top Layer” and the middle layer “Adjustment Layer.” Add a layer mask to Top Layer, then hide the Top Layer.
2. Select Adjustment Layer so it is active, then hit Ctrl-L (Command-L) to bring up the levels box. In the levels box, select the right-most slider that controls whites with your mouse. Drag it to the left and watch as the colors in the eyes change and get lighter. Once you have achieved a look that is lighter without being TOO light, select OK. Don’t worry if you’re not sure exactly how light you want it; you can adjust this later on.
3. Make your Top Layer visible again, and zoom in so the eyes nearly fill the screen. I usually zoom from 100% to 300%, depending on the size of the eyes in the photo.
4. Select the layer mask on Top Layer, because now you are going to use your brush tool to “erase” away the eye and reveal the lighter eyes below in Adjustment Layer. Make sure that your foreground color is black, and then select a soft-edged brush. I usually like a brush that is about 15 pixels in diameter, however, you should pick a brush that allows you to work carefully within the eye and avoid edges. Depending on your photo, this could range from 10-40 pixels. Carefully start to erase the whites and irises of the eyes, being VERY careful not to erase the eyelids or under-eye lids. Avoid the pupil and the darker outside edge-ring of the iris.
5. Once you have revealed the lighter parts of both eyes to your satisfaction, you can bring up the levels box again in Adjustment Layer and make the eyes lighter or darker if you choose. You can also adjust the opacity of Adjustment Layer to make the coloration more subtle.
Sometimes when you lighten the Adjustment Layer using the levels feature, too much red is revealed in the white part of the eye. If this is the case, click on adjustment layer to make it active, and then select Ctrl-U to bring up the Hue/Saturation box. Select “Red” and drag the Saturation slider to the left until the whites look appropriate. When it looks right, select OK. Sometimes, there might also be a blue-ish tint to the whites of the eyes. With brown eyes, it’s easy to fix this: click on adjustment layer to make it active, and then select Ctrl-U to bring up the Hue/Saturation box. Select “Blue” and drag the slider to the left until the whites look appropriate, then select OK. If the eyes are blue, watch the irises to make sure they are not losing blue color as the whites whiten. If this happens, you might need to address the irises and the whites in two separate masking steps. You can also work on this tint in another step of this process. NOTE: Don’t allow the eyes to get TOO white – adjust opacity of the Adjustment Layer if you need to, because over-whited eyes can be the death of an otherwise lovely portrait. When the eyes look good, flatten the image.
6. Now it’s time for some fine-tuning. Duplicate your layer using Ctrl-J, and name the top layer “Dodge and Burn Layer.” Leave the bottom one alone; it’s there as your backup. Once again, zoom in on the eyes until they fill your monitor. Use the Dodge tool to make select parts of your photo lighter. For example, if you want the iris of your eye lighter, carefully “draw” all around the inside of the iris (avoiding the darker edge and the pupil) with a soft-edged brush, about 15 pixels, with an exposure of about 6%. Keep the tool set to Midtones, and don’t go more than 6% or the changes will be too dramatic. If the whites of the eyes were too blue, or still look too dark, you can also use the Dodge tool in this step to lighten the whites further. Again, be careful not to make them too white.
7. Now, select the Burn tool, and a small, soft-edged brush. Again, with the exposure at around 6% and the tool set on Midtones, carefully brush around the outer dark edges of the iris a few times to darken them. If necessary, you can also darken the pupil area. Sometimes you may want to darken part of the eyelashes slightly too, but be careful with this to avoid the “I’m wearing super dark mascara!” look. If you want the iris DARKER, instead of lighter, you can use the Burn tool to carefully drawn on the iris to make it richer and darker. Adjust the opacity of the Dodge and Burn Layer if the changes are too prominent, and once you are satisfied, flatten the image.
8. Now for some iris sharpening! Duplicate your layer by hitting Ctrl-J. Name the top layer Sharpen Layer. With Sharpen Layer selected, hit FILTER > SHARPEN > SMART SHARPEN. When the Smart Sharpen box pops up, select Basic, Settings = Default, Amount = 80%, Radius = 0.8 pixels, and Remove = Lens Blur. Then select OK.
9. Add a layer mask to the Sharpen Layer, and fill it with black.
10. Now, the sharpening you just did on Sharpen Layer should be invisible. Zoom in on the eyes until they fill the screen, and select a soft-edged brush of about 15-30 pixels. With your brush color set to white, and the masking layer active, carefully trace the edges of the iris and the inside of the iris where you want the colors to be sharper. Be careful to avoid sharpening eyelids or under-eye lids. When it looks good, flatten the image.
11. Now for the final steps: You’re going to Dodge the areas just under the eye, and possibly around the entire eye, to make the a bit lighter. (Skip this step if you don’t need it.) Create a duplicate layer, call it “Dodge Layer,” and make it active. Select the Dodge Tool from the side toolbar. Use a soft-edged brush that is about 3/4 the width of the eye, and set the Range to Midtones and Exposure to 6%. Brush along the bags under the eye to lighter them a bit. If necessary, brush a second or third time. Compare to the unedited layer below, so you know when to stop dodging. If desired, dodge the area above the eyes, under the nose, or under the chin. Be careful not to over-dodge, as this will look obviously and splotchy. Once you are done dodging, flatten the image.
And you’re done! Since you’ve completed the eyes, you can proceed with any final overall color adjustments or sharpening. Now your portrait should have eyes with whites that are bright, irises that are clear with bold color, and a general vibrancy that pops without looking over-saturated or fake.
Keep in mind that this works best on photos where the eyes are LARGE, and on photos which will be featured prominently on a scrapbook page or album. The smaller your picture, the less need there is for eye work, and the less noticeable any eye changes will be.
Also remember that a light touch is better than a heavy touch, and often less really IS more. You don’t want the whites of the eyes to be so white that they are obviously out-of-place and obviously-whitened. You don’t want your iris to be so saturated that the color doesn’t match the rest of the photograph, and you don’t want the eyes to be so sharp that they are grainy or pixelated. When done right, this technique will have your viewers saying, “Wow, what gorgeous eyes!” and NOT “oh my, that person looks like a demon with those bright headlights there.”
How long does this take? Don’t be discouraged by the long list of steps. Once you practice this technique, it only takes a few minutes to edit a photograph this way, and since you only need to do this on a few, specially selected big-eye photos, there is no need to do it on EVERY photo.
Questions? Please ask me in the forums! I will check and answer any questions about “eye pop” or “eye technique” to provide help and feedback to you.