Portrait Retouching – The Eyes Are Everything

Like many photographers, I feel that the eyes are the most important part of a portrait. They draw the viewer in, and create a mood or feeling that’s evocative and memorable.

Assuming we’ve captured what we want in-camera, we move on to image editing. We want the eyes to come to the front of the image we’ll be working on here, so step by step I normally edit:

White area
Eyelashes and eyebrows
Iris and pupil contrast

With practice, this takes only a few minutes. Here’s the image with the eyes retouched, just to get you started. Please remember that there’s more than one way to perform this task in Photoshop – this method works well for me – but don’t hesitate to experiment if you think improvements are possible.

Eyes retouched - model Sarah Muldorfer

Back to the un-retouched image. Zoom in to at least 100 percent. At the outset we will work on one eye at a time, and then switch over to adjusting both in tandem.

Look at the white part of the eye. Most people will have some red areas in the inner corner, and some will have capillaries, or blood vessels showing here and there (as shown by arrow). Although some retouchers will leave these alone, I prefer to eliminate or soften the visual impact of most of them.

Use the patch tool in very small bites, (see image) or the clone stamp at reduced opacity (say 20%). A step-by-step approach will give results that look smooth and natural. Do this work on a new layer, so that if you do go overboard, you can reduce the layer opacity and thus the retouch effect. Be sure to edit both eyes so that they match reasonably well.

Use patch, spot, or clone stamp to control blood vessels

If you are pleased with the results, you can go to the next step, which is to reduce overall redness in the eyes. It’s simple enough: using the lasso tool, outline the whites of both eyes. Its probably better to zoom into around 200 percent for this, and get the selection close. Take care not to include the surrounding eyelids or iris of the eye.

Once selected, feather your selection to 4-6 pixels. Now create a hue-saturation adjustment layer. Select the red color range in the drop down at the top of the dialogue box, and reduce red saturation by a few points. This is always a judgment call – too little, and not enough effect. Too much, and the low saturation will look unnatural.

Use hue-saturation to control redness in eyes

Keep your selection, and switch to the “Master” choice in the hue-saturation drop-down. Now increase the lightness by 4-8 points, depending on appearance.

Now for the eyelashes and eyebrows. Go to the menu bar and go Select>Deselect, or keyboard Command/Control>D.

Again, zoom in to at least 200 percent. Select the burn tool and use a soft brush. Set the mode to “shadow” in the menu bar for a brunette, and midtone for a blonde. Set opacity to 10-15 percent, and reduce the brush size to about the width of a medium-sized eyelash.

Now brush accurately and trace each eyelash. You’ll find that they firm up and become a bit darker, just the ticket for emphasizing the shape and importance of the eyes. Use the same brush and carefully trace the eyeliner along each eyelid.

Use the burn tool to enhance eylashes, eyebrows, etc

Unless you are working with a model that has blonde hair, make the same brush bigger, just a bit under the size of the eyebrow. Again with opacity at around 10 percent, trace the eyebrows so that they are more clearly defined and offer a little more contrast. Again, we are working to draw attention to the most important part of the face.

Using the burn tool, make sure you are using “shadow”, and make the brush the same size as the pupil, again 10 percent or a little more. Make the pupil a little darker, again to improve contrast.

Next we are going to trace the outer edge of the iris with a very small brush. Using the burn tool, adjust the brush size so that it is quite small, just enough to trace a line around the iris. Set opacity to less than 10 percent; this depends in part on eye color. A moderate increase in darkness around the circular edge of the iris will do the job.

Use the burn tool to gently trace the edge of the iris

Next, we’ll put the finishing touches on the iris. Switch to the dodge tool, and set opacity to around 6-8 percent. Use midtone mode. Zoom in nice and close on the area of the eye. Set the brush width to slightly smaller than iris width.

Directly opposite the catch light, dodge the iris just a bit. GENTLY Lighten up an area a bit larger than the catch light. This will help balance composition in this area, and give the eye more depth and dimensionality.

Dodge the iris to balance the catch light

Last, if you want to enhance or change eye color: select a color in the color picker (sea green, sky blue, warm brown, etc). Select the paintbrush, and again set the width smaller than iris width. In fact, it pays to be a little conservative with brush size here, so you don’t skid off and colorize something else.

Using normal mode, and opacity of around 10 percent, paint carefully within the iris. In this case, I used a touch of green, which complements her hair and fair complexion.

Now back to our finished eye retouch – note how the eyes come forward in the image, drawing your attention and enhancing the camera presence of the model. Try it out; remember to take small to medium sized steps, and work on layers. Save your work as a psd or TIFF file with the layers intact.

Eye retouch completed - now on to the next step

Next time, working on retouching skin and preserving natural textures.

Link to New Workshops, Including Photo Workshop in the Palouse, June 2012

14 thoughts on “Portrait Retouching – The Eyes Are Everything

  1. “Sincerity is the quality where your imperfections show.” Edward Espe Brown
    Buddhist baker, talking about the beauty in our imperfections. The realness and sincerity in being human.

    As we age, we get lines and wrinkles, and blood vessels show in our eyes. That’s real. That’s nature.

    Plastic is not sincere or natural. It doesn’t age…

    making women into perfect plastic ageless china dolls for marketing consumption serves whom?

  2. Very nice David.

    Clear, simple and easy to follow illustrations make this a lesson that will prove valuable to any photographer taking his/her first steps into the art of subtle portrait retouching.

    And your absolutely right. The eyes are the first thing our brains choose to focus on in a portrait. Probably built into our DNA.

    I do believe that people or corporate clients seeking the services of a professional portrait photographer expects a modest level of retouching. (It has long been a part of the portrait photographer’s process.)

    Documentary photography is an entirely different animal that I believe falls within Linda Wolf’s portrait concerns. In those instances, the harsh realities of life and the toll it takes on the human body are fundamental to the story and should not be manually or digitally altered.

    Just my two cents.

    Tom Hubbard
    Portland Metro Photographic News

  3. The truth of portrait photography is not to be found in a but rather in all. There is no right way, except that that serves the answer to the question at hand.

    You can certainly have a style or look and as Linda and Tom point out perspective is everything.

    David, Why use a enhancement with brushing rather than curves and levels with a mask revealing only the desired areas; lashes, whites, pupils?

  4. Pingback: Top Photo and Printing Posts of 2010 – and 100,000 visitors! « David Saffir's Photography and Printing Blog

  5. Question: How does the subject feel about this image? If she is happy or excited about the results then your mission is accomplished. I have my own views about the true definition of photography and the intrinsic value relating to the craft….but the fact is this art form is more than one dimensional and should not be limited to just my point of view. I am a jazz pianist and I’ve met some musicians who favor “bebop” and some who prefer “swing”. Both styles are interconnected bc they represent the same genre of music. If you enjoy lines and wrinkles in your images or you feel it represents your style of photography, go for it. But others may enjoy or prefer the opposite and it doesn’t diminish the creativity or make it less of an art form. Great image and your tutorial is clear and concise.

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