*The Eyes Have It.

Eyes are not only a window, but a roadmap.  I’ve always felt that I can tell a lot about a person based on the shoes they wear, and the kind of person they are by their eyes.  Eyes tell you a story, they paint emotion and can determine the power of a portrait.  Of course there are many, many other elements to pay attention to, but a good portrait quite often starts and ends with the eyes.  Even in snapshots, making sure everyone’s eyes are at least open is one of the first things you check when glancing on the LCD screen right?  Assuming we’ve captured a shot with eyes open wide, getting them to pop can make the difference between a good portrait and a wow shot.  Here are a few techniques that I use, and have found from others, that can help make those eyes stand out.

Let’s start with light. While the concept of lighting a portrait is worthy of a few encyclopedias itself, I’ll address a couple basic concepts and common problems.  Redeye…  This occurs when a light source is directed into a dilated pupil which then reflects off of the red tissue inside our eyes, reflecting right back at the camera.  Easiest way to avoid it?  Don’t use flash on the camera, or near the camera axis.  Move your light source to the side, or above/below.  Redeye is a great reminder for lighting in general.  Light reflects off of surfaces at an angle mirroring that at which it travels toward the surface it is being reflected off of.  (this is also a biggie with glasses)  Just move your light source to a 45 degree (or greater) angle away from the camera axis and you can usually say bye bye to reflection, unless of course you have the reflective surface angled in such a way that it will then reflect that light toward your camera.  My goal for lighting, taking the eyes into consideration, is to get good light to illuminate them.  This can be by way of natural, or controlled light.  Like anything photographic, the quality of light will ultimately determine the quality of your picture.  What one defines as “quality” is entirely up to the individual, but in the case of portraiture (and eyes especially) we want to stay away from harsh, hard lighting (ie: direct midday sun, etc.) if possible.

For our example, I’m using a shot with a nice young lady named Jenn.  I’m also using one that I had planned to do some post processing work to.  She obviously has naturally beautiful eyes, and for this shoot I used a large softbox high camera right (as seen in the catchlight in the top right of her eye).  I tried to make sure I got enough light into her eyes so that I could bring out the color in all their glory later (by my “final” image above).  In retrospect, it could have helped if I’d have used a nice white reflector directly below her face to bounce more light into her eyes, but that would have taken away from the moody light falloff that I was going for on her face, so, in comes the post processing.

Processing the eyes. Okay, so we have a nice picture with well lit eyes, what if we want to take it a step further? There is no right or wrong amount of processing as far as I’m concerned.  That said, you need to keep your audience in mind.  Does the viewer really want to see someone whose eyes look like they’ve been replaced by some off color fire balls searing through the frame and eating away at their sense of reality?  Perhaps not, but depending on what it is that you’re going for, it is up to you to decide.  In most cases, in my personal opinion, less is more.  I don’t normally like to lie with my photography by creating something that didn’t exist in the first place out of context, unless I do (like the floating in photoshop tutorial :)), so with most portraiture, or normal shots, a little ocular enhancement is all that I go for to give a bit more attention to where I want the viewer to be looking.  When looking at pictures of people, where the people themselves are the main subject, eyes are a very natural point that we are drawn to (well, for most of us anyway…) and as a photographer, we can use this to really draw our viewers in.

The techniques here are done in Photoshop.  If you don’t have Photoshop, some of these concepts can be replicated (kind of) in Aperture or Lightroom by way of adjustment brushes and levels adjustments.  As per normal though, Photoshop is king when it comes to image manipulation and enhancement, so if you don’t have Photoshop, I’d suggest looking at GIMP (which is a free Photoshop like program).

Click on any of the versions to see them larger.  Here is our starting image without any adjustment made:

Straight out of the camera

Simple Eye Brightening I use this technique on so many shots.  It is a great, quick and easy way to help lighten up your subjects eyes, this is almost all that I feel is needed in many shots.

+ Simple Eye Brightening

  • First, with your image open in PS, duplicate the background layer (either drag the background layer over the ‘new layer’ icon at the bottom of the layers palate, or  CMND/CNTRL + J).
  • With that new layer highlighted, change the blend mode from “Normal” to “Screen.”
  • Next, hold ALT/OPT and click on the Add Layer Mask icon (the circle in the square at the bottom of the layers palate) which will hide the Screen layer.
  • With the Layer Mask selected (the black square to the right of the image in your duplicated/screen layer), paint with a soft white brush (B) inside the irises and whites of the eyes to lighten them up.

I tend to use a 100% opacity on the brush itself for the irises and about a 35-50% opacity brush for the whites of the eyes and adjust the overall effect by decreasing the layer opacity.  If it looks or needs a bit of adjusting, you can always switch your brush to paint the black back in to decrease the effect in the mask.  Using Aperture, or Lightroom, you can use a Dodge(Lightening) adjustment brush to similar effect.

Simple Color Enhancement – This is a simple next step if you feel that you would like to boost the color of the eyes.

+ Simple Color Enhancement

Change the blend mode to overlay or soft light after painting your color on a blank layer

  • Add a new, blank layer above your background layer (SHIFT + CMND/CNTRL + N).
  • Paint with whichever color you’d like at full opacity over the irises.
  • Switch the blend mode from “Normal” to either “Overlay” or “Softlight” to see how it looks, adjust the layer’s opacity to suit.

Above, I painted the entire eye with a light sage green color, then toward the middle I added a yellow and right around the pupil I painted with an orange to enhance the natural color of Jenn’s eye.

Add a Highlight and/or Catchlight.   It can help to give more depth and dimension to an eye if you can see a shift from highlight to shadow creating a directionality of light.

+ Hightlight and Catchlight

  • Much like we did above with the Simple Color Enhancement, we will add a highlight by painting with white on a new, blank layer (SHIFT + CMND/CNTRL + N) and switching the blend mode to “Overlay.” The effect will be obvious as soon as you switch the blend mode, so if needed, go into your history panel and delete the last few steps if you want to start over.
  • To add a catchlight, follow the same commands, but use a hard(er) edged brush, painting with white and place a dot, square, or shape in one corner of the eye keeping in mind the direction of the light (if you don’t want to be called out anyway).

Sharpen the Eyes. Any sharpening technique will work better if the portion being sharpened, is in sharp focus to begin with.  A viewer will normally be drawn to the sharpest portion of an image first.  With portraits, over sharpening globally can be bad, but you may want the eyes to stay nice and sharp.  Here is another thing to think about, by contrast a softer area will make a sharper area stand out more.  Try duplicating your background layer and applying a gaussian blur (1 to 2 pixels) just to take the edge off.  Add a layer mask and paint out the eyes making them sharper by contrast.  (this is also a very quick and dirty skin softening technique…)  Depending on the shot, different sharpening methods may look better than others.  On my final shot, I used both an Unsharp Mask (100%, 2pixels, 4 levels) and a toned down version (15% opacity layer) from my Smart Pass layer from the Free Photoshop Pop action tutorial (the action is downloadable HERE at Presetpond.com).  I used the ALT/OPT + Layer Mask to remove my sharpening from the entire image and painted the sharpening, with a soft white brush, back into the eyes.  Again, moderation can be key.  Use those opacity sliders to your advantage.

Using cool tricks like Rita’s free Coffeeshop Eye Sparkle Coffee with Morgan action downloadable HERE will add even more dimension to your eyes and is also a great way to help sharpen by way of defining contrast.

+ Coffeeshop Eye Sparkle

Using two adjustment layers, you can adjust the brightness (similar to what we’ve done above) and a cool adjustment layer that adds a glossy shine to the eyes, both adjusted by painting in the effect in provided layer masks.  Very cool.

Again, here is the image before, and after all the adjustments applied:



As you may see, I also softened her skin tone in the final image to allow the eyes to pop.  So that is that.  I’ve certainly gone a little overboard with my processing to make a point on this particular shot, but with a soft hand, you can use various combinations of these techniques to really draw your audience in.  Happy Halloween!  See if you can’t use a couple of these effects to transform your costumed friends into crazy eyed ghouls, or sparkling, sultry versions of Snooki, or whomever is popular this year. 😉

As always I’d love to try and answer your emails, questions or comments.  Fire away!  And, if you feel so inclined, drop your results in our flickr group pool.




A few other tutorials:


Free Contrast Pop Action

Floating in Photoshop

Adding a vintage, aged feel to your photos

Bleach Bypass in a couple simple steps

Rembrandt Lighting


The 5 minute Jill Greenberg Effect 

Composition a-la Gaudi 

Capturing High Dynamic Range






12 thoughts on “*The Eyes Have It.

  1. Very nicely written article Tyson, although I’ve come to expect this level of quality in your posts since frequenting your blog!

    Whilst I don’t have any studio lighting (or studio for that matter!) and any portrait work really only extends to my kids (no attractive models), it is good to know that since I’ve been using the same techniques to process my keepers for years, I must have been doing something right!

    You’ve highlighted a number of very useful and powerful techniques, but I think the key lesson here is that you don’t need to globally apply filters and adjustments – you get far better results by only selectively applying adjustments to specific areas via layer masks, and of course by experimenting with different blending modes.

    I appreciate this post concentrates on the eyes and you only briefly mention skin smoothing, but obviously, the same basic principle applies there too – duplicate, blur, hide, paint back in. Very powerful technique.

    Everyone who owns Photoshop should give your step-by-step techniques a try – easy to do, fun to experiment with, and ultimately it will make your portraits look much better!


    • Thank you Alisdair!

      I often use the eye lightening technique on many a shot that was taken no where near any controlled studio lighting. The Coffeeshop action is also a great one stop shop for most shots too, lit naturally or otherwise.

      Yes, skin techniques are a whole other post, which I can try to get to sooner than later.

      Thanks again and I hope all’s going well.




      • All going well thanks Tyson!

        The Lensbaby Composer with Tilt Transformer is finally on it’s way, along with a Metz 48 flashgun (both ordered earlier today, woohoo!) – needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to “seeing in a new way” with my GH1.

        I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for some flash technique tips, and once I get some bendy pics I’m happy to present publicly, I’ll be sure to post them in the TRP flickr pool.


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