Anything Photoshop or Photography


Image of a Malaysian Tiger at the Jacksonville ZooMy blog last week was a really technical one so this week I am going to talk about how to make eyes pop in an image. I have been so confused by the various techniques I see. Therefore I decided to try out a bunch of them – in fact I tried out 17 different methods, and I am sure there are many more out there. Some were older techniques and some newer, some are for images with good looking eyes to start with and some have no details and need more work. But overall there are many, many choices. This blog directs you to just a few of these techniques I considered to be the best. Since I am not a portrait retoucher, these are just the ones I would use on my personal work. The tiger above used the Exposure Adjustment Layer described below with a Sharpen Tool layer.

The main image I used for trying all these different techniques is one by Morgan McDonald at Unsplash called Portrait of a Young Lady – I just love this image, but the eyes are totally dark without obvious details so I thought it would make a good image to use. I am really not sure what color her original eye color is so different colors were used in the examples. The other image is a portrait of a family member who has beautiful brown eyes. I am finding most people have brown eyes which seem to be harder to enhance. Also, I tend to put all the eye layers in a group so they can be turned off and on and reduced in strength easier. So here we go:

The Best Overall Eye Sharpening Techniques

  • Exposure Adjustment Layer technique. I have been using this technique by Calvin Hollywood (a famous German Photographer and Photoshop expert) for a long time. It is by far the easiest and gives the best results for just a regular image with eyes that are relatively bright and sharp. It takes just a couple minutes to do, but is not so good on darker eyes. Just select the eye irises – I like to use the Quick Mask to select eyes since it is such a small area – make sure the brush opacity is at 100% and just press Q, paint in the eyes with the overlay color, and press Q to show the dotted line selection. Then choose the Exposure Adjustment Layer and the eyes will appear as white in a black layer mask. Now adjust the Exposure slider (equal to the Highlights in the eye), Offset (equal to Midtones), and Gama Correction (Shadows) to get a nice look. See my blog called How to Do a Quick Eye Sharpening in Photoshop for more info on this. To sharpen the eyes even a little more, add a New Blank Layer on top; then select the Sharpen Tool set to 30% Strength and paint over the irises. Below this subtle effect can be seen mainly in the overall brightness of the eye and eye color.

Image of Exposure Adjustment Layer example

  • Shadow & Highlights technique. This one surprised me as being this good! The tip is from Lindsay Adler, a famous photographer and retoucher, from a no longer available Scott Kelby Nappathon You Tube. It is very simple to do: Select the eyes and place them on a new layer (CTRL+J) like in first technique. Need to convert layer to a Smart Object (right click on layer and select in menu) so it can be adjusted later if needed. Go to Image -> Adjustments -> Shadows & Highlights command and set only Highlights amount set to around 70 for brown eyes and only the Shadows to 59 for blue eyes. If more of a color enhancement is needed, clip (press the first icon at bottom of adjustment layer) a Hue/Saturation  Adjustment Layer to the eye layer so only the eyes are affected in the image. Set to Colorize and add more color into iris if needed. This is a great way to change the brown eyes to blue or vice versa. Can add a Curves Adjustment Layer to add more contrast or use Gaussian Blur if too sharp. For the blonde, only the Shadows and Highlights command was needed and it really made her eyes pop. For the darker eye image, a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer was needed and clipped on top (ALT+click between layers to clip) but it does not look bad. There are other methods that will work better for on them.

Example of Shadows & Highlights results

  • Selective Color Adjustment Layer technique. Another surprise here and very easy to do – tip from KelbyOne‘s 100 Top Tips Magazine from a couple years ago. Select Eyes (I used the Quick Mask Tool as described above) and exclude the pupils. Load a Selective Color Adjustment Layer which puts the selection in the mask and everything else is blacked out. Change the blend mode to Linear Dodge (Add) and then adjust the intensity of the effect with a layer mask. In the Selective Color panel, set the Colors to Neutrals in the drop-down and just adjust the sliders. Very simple. I added a New Layer for the Sharpen Tool at 30% Strength and Sample All Layer checked to bring out the sharpness a little on both images. I found this technique does not work quite as well on the darker eyes, but still worked okay. For the blonde, the detail was just a little less striking than the Shadow & Highlights technique, but it was pretty close so I am not showing it. I would not hesitate to use this technique on an image.

The Best Techniques for Eyes with No Details

These are for the not bright and clean eye images. The second technique looked very good on the blonde image also, but helped the dark eye image much more, so I placed it here.

  • Zoom Noise Eyes Effects: Glyn Dewis, one my favorite Photoshop experts out of Britain, recently created a really good video called It’s All about the Eye – 3 Photoshop Techniques where he presented this technique and it  worked great on the dark eyed image. As you could see, the dark eyes have very little detail so it really needs to be created in the eyes. I thought this technique is totally ingenious. You can get all the steps in the video – he even tells you where in the video this technique starts – so if you are interested, check it out. It involves using the Radial Blur filter in PS. I found this technique had to be done twice, once for each eye, to look right. On the image below, the detail was so sharp that a Gaussian Blur filter set to 1 pixel was used to soften the lines a little. I was totally astonished at how natural this looks

Image of Eyes with detail added

    • Curves Adjustment Layers technique. Check out this older B&W Photography Class on Udemy by David Nightingale that is really good called The Art of Black and White Photography-Enhancing Your Subject’s Eyes – it can be found usually for $10 and has 6 hours of instruction. This may be the best Black and White Eye brightening technique that also works on color images. Basically the technique uses one Curves Adjustment Layer to over-lighten the image, then painting back the eyes in a black layer mask and using a low opacity brush to paint a little lightness around the eyes. Then select just the eyes and open a second Curves Adjustment Layer to add contrast back into the eyes (layer mask will be black and eyes will be white in mask). Can further add color back into the eyes by clipping a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer to the top Curves Adjustment Layer and adjusting the sliders. An easier way is to add the color is to choose the Green Channel in the RGB drop-down menu and pull up and left on the curve – the eyes turn green! Change to the Blue Channel and hover over the eye in the image with the Target Adjustment Layer (TAT) on upper left side of Curves Panel – see where the dot shows up on curve and pull up from there.  To get the eyes Brown both the Red Channels and Blue Channels had to manipulated and it does not look as good. The eyes set to a green color using this method is extremely striking I think – I may have over-killed this effect a bit.

Curves Adjustment Layers example

More Sharpening Techniques

  • A different popular technique which is similar to the above involves adding two Curves Adjustment Layers and just changing the blend modes to Screen for the irises and Multiply for the pupils. Adjust the layer opacities afterwards. On some images this works just great.
  • On a New Layer try painting in white on top of the irises – then set the layer to Overlay blend mode – duplicate it if not bright enough and reduce the top layer opacity.
  • Another technique is applying the Dodge Tool on a duplicate layer of the image – just paint in the irises using 12% Strength and Midtones. Adjust the layer opacities as needed. This technique did not work at all on the darker eye image.
  • Several experts think the fairly recently improved Sharpen Tool set to a Strength of 30% and Sample All Layers now works really good for eye sharpening.
  • Try using the Unsharp Filter with the Amount around 100 and Threshold set to 3 and apply it several times – then use a black layer mask and paint back the sharpness to what is needed.

Just remember that you can do several things with these different techniques. Try applying two different methods if needed. Put a New Blank Layer on top of the eyes and use the Sharpen Tool to get an even better look sometimes. Try adding a different Adjustment Layer on top of a single layer group and see what it does. Use the Blend If sliders in the layer styles.

My bottom line – I will continue to use the Exposure Adjustment Layer as it really ranks right up there as the best around. Definitely will use David Nightingale’s technique on black and white images and sometimes on regular ones if the image needs a little lightening lift around the eyes. For dark eyes with little detail, definitely try the Zoom Noise Eyes Effect first. I know there are several techniques I have missed but this seems to be a pretty large batch. I hope this will help you next time you get stuck with the eyes in an image. Maybe one of the techniques will work when another does not.

Try putting some of these techniques to use on one of your images and see which one you like best. I was pretty surprised that the one I had been using all along was the best for me. Have a great week!…..Digital Lady Syd


One response

  1. Thank you for this. This is awesome!

    01/29/2018 at 9:53 am

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