Photo Editing: Enhancing Eyes

So far in this new photography journey of mine, my favorite types of photos to take are portraits. I have two adorable little people living in my house with me, so I have plenty of opportunity to snap portrait photographs. I have learned a few little editing tricks that improve how my portraits look, and one of those tricks involves the eyes of the subject. Making eyes "pop" can do wonders to a photograph.

There are a handful of different techniques I use to enhance eyes, but this one is by far my favorite. It is not the fastest, but the end result is the most appealing and dramatic. I also like that I'm not playing around with Saturation, Hue and/or Color. One thing to keep in mind about using this method is that it is very easy to achieve an end result that looks too dramatic, so be cautious of the power this method holds!

This is a photo of my beautiful oldest son, with eyes sharply in focus and after a little bit of photo editing in Lightroom. I never edit eyes in Lightroom. This is something I always save for last because Photoshop has much greater capabilities in this area.

I exported the photo out of Lightroom and opened it in Photoshop. Elijah's eyes already look beautiful in this photo, but making a few tweaks can really make them stand out.

First, I zoomed way in so that his eyes took up most of the window. Then I made sure my Layers palette was visible (open this by going to Window/Layers), my paintbrush tool was selected and white was the foreground color on the toolbar Color Palette. (All circled in red below.)

The first thing I always do before I start editing, no matter what I am working on, is make a copy of my Background layer. I do this by clicking on the Background layer and then choosing "Duplicate Layer" from the drop-down menu on the upper right side of the palette (or drag the entire layer over top of the "Create a new layer" button at the bottom of the palette). This way if I ever get to the point where I feel like I have messed up my image completely, I always have that original Background Layer to start over with.

For this exercise, I also created a new layer by choosing "New Layer" in the same drop-down menu (or click on the "Create a new layer" button at the bottom of the palette). You can see that "Layer 1" showed up in my palette.

Ensuring that Layer 1 is selected and that the paintbrush tool is still selected, I "painted" over Elijah's eyes. I had my paintbrush set to have no hardness so there were soft, feathered edges. I left a teeny tiny bit of darkness around the edges of the irises. (And yes, I do realize this looks super creepy!)

Tip: Easily decrease the size of your paintbrush by hitting the [ key and increase the size of your paintbrush by hitting the ] key.

For this photo I used a brush with a diameter of 40 px.

Once the eyes were painted white, I selected "Overlay" from the drop-down menu on the Layers palette.

And whoa! My son suddenly looks like a recently-fed Cullen! As much as I love the Cullens, I don't want Elijah to resemble a vampire, so I needed to tone this down.

I dropped the Opacity down to 25% on the Layers palette.

Much better! I played around with this a bit, sliding the Opacity way to the left and way back over to the right and then everywhere in between, to see what looked best. Every photo will need a slightly different Opacity setting, so it is just a matter of doing some playing to see what looks best.

Once I was positive that I loved the Opacity setting, I clicked on both my Background Copy layer and Layer 1 on the Layers palette (do this by holding down the Shift key) and then selected "Merge Layers" from the right-hand drop-down menu.

Now my recent eye adjustments were all on one layer, so I could continue making other adjustments to the eyes on this new combined layer.

I like to do a little burning and dodging at this point, so I first clicked on the Burn tool (circled in red below). Brush size around 20, Hardness: 10%, Range: Shadows, Exposure: 10-15%.

I wanted to bring out some of the dark shadows from the outer rim of the iris and the pupil. The path I took with my mouse is drawn in red.

Now I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to lighten up the middle tones a bit, so I selected the Dodge tool (circled in red below). Brush size 20, Hardness: 10%, Range: Midtones, Exposure: 10-15%.

The path I took with my mouse is over the main part of the iris, drawn in red.

I repeated the burning and dodging processes on the other eye. Once I was satisfied with how the eyes looked, I selected the lasso tool from the toolbar and I set the Feather to 5 px.

I then "lassoed" both eyes, leaving a tiny bit of iris on the outside of my lasso. Hold down the Shift key to add to a lasso (selection) or to create an additional lasso, and hold down the Alt key (Option on a Mac) to subtract from a lasso. Any adjustments I made at this point would apply only to the space within my lassos, or selections.

It is not vital that the lassos be perfect. As long as most of the iris and pupil are within the selection, it will turn out fine (thanks to the feathering). Lassoing definitely takes some practice.

Under the Filter menu, I went to Sharpen and Unsharp Mask.

I made sure the Preview box was checked so I could see the adjustments in real time on the eyes in my photo. Then I moved the Amount, Radius and Threshold sliders around until I was happy with the sharpness of the eyes. In this case, I thought the following settings worked great.

I clicked OK.

I did a Deselect (Ctrl or Cmd D), and a Fit to Screen (Ctrl or Cmd 0) and then I admired Elijah's newly enhanced eyes!

Before eye enhancement:

After eye enhancement: