David Saffir: Portrait Retouching: The Eyes Have It
Jan 2013 03

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
  • Color

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.

Inspect 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. Although some retouchers will leave these alone, I prefer to eliminate or soften the visual impact of most of them. (you’ll know if you’ve gone too far – you’ll start seeing that “vampire” look…)

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 edit blood vessels in the white of the eye

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: use the lasso tool, and outline the whites of both eyes. It’s probably better to zoom into around 200 percent for this, and make the selection accurate. 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

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 (some people go as high as 400 percent). Select the burn tool and use a soft brush. Set the mode to “shadow” in the top 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 carefully 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 eyelashes, eyebrows, etc.

Use the burn tool to enhance eyelashes, 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

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

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, and keep the layers intact.

David Saffir is a commercial and fine art photographer and printmaker, located in Southern California, and a well-known speaker at workshops and conferences across the US.