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5 Professional Eye Retouching Techniques

Note: We’ve provided a free Photoshop brush designed to increase the contrast between the edge of the iris and the white portion of the eye. You can find it under the “Increasing Brightness and Contrast” section below.

Have you ever looked at a beautiful portrait and noticed that the image didn’t feel right for some reason? Technically everything seemed to be in place; however something was missing or slightly off. Chances are there was a problem with the eyes.

Anatomy of the Eye - Eye Retouching in Portraits

Most people agree that the eyes are one of the most important elements of a portrait. Portrait photographers know that bright eyes gazing deep into the camera connect with the viewer while dull, lifeless eyes convey uneasiness and tension. A person can express joy and happiness or a contemplative inner struggle through their eyes.

In this guide you will learn several professional eye retouching techniques in Photoshop to enhance the vibrance, brightness and contrast of eyes in portraits.

(1) Removing Small Imperfections
Start by removing small veins and imperfections in the whites of the eyes. Zoom into the eyes (so that they fill your screen) and create a new, blank layer (Windows: Ctrl + Shift + N | Mac: Cmd + Shift + N). Select the Clone Tool, set the opacity to 25% and uncheck the “Aligned” box. Also be sure that Sample: Current & Below is checked and that the softness of the cloning brush is set to zero.

Cleaning the Whites of the Eyes - Eye Retouching in Portraits

Setting the opacity to 25% allows us to gradually build up the cloning effect. With the Clone Tool selected, Alt/Option click in a unblemished, white portion of the eye to select it as the source. Use a small brush to remove veins, specks and any other imperfections within the sclera. Repeatedly click on problem areas to remove the imperfections. Feel free to do the same with the iris and pupil as necessary.



Note: Be careful not to overdo it. You may choose to remove every blemish in magazine style portrait and leave some imperfections behind in a natural beauty portrait. The amount of retouching you do depends on how natural you want the final image to look. We’re accustomed to seeing some imperfections when we look at a portrait so it’s wise not to overdo it.

(2) Removing Unusual Colors Shifts in the Sclara
We expect the white portion of our eyes to be white, but that’s rarely the case. As you start looking closely at eyes (in Photoshop), you will discover red, yellow, blue and grey color shifts around the corners of the eyes. The hues depend on the age and condition of the eyes. Tired eyes may appear red and irritated while older eyes can look dull and grey. Even the color temperature of the light in the environment can be reflected back to you in the eyes. In this example, a light blue hue is present in the corner of the eye whites. There’s also some red in the pocket of the sclera.

Removing Color Shifts in the Whites of the Eyes - Eye Retouching in Portraits

To remove color shifts in the whites of the eyes, create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer by clicking the Hue/Saturation icon in the Adjustment Panel (shown below). Carefully move the Saturation slider to the left to approximately -50. This will desaturate the image without removing all of the color. Next increase the Lightness slider to approximately +20 (to lighten/brighten the eye whites).

Using the Hue/Saturation to Remove Color Shifts in Eye Retouching

Note: So far, we have made a global change that affects the entire image. In the next step, we will use a layer mask to isolate the adjustment so that it only affects the whites of the eyes using a white paint brush.

  • Using a Layer Mask to Isolate the Adjustment

Now we need to isolate the adjustment so that it only affects the eye whites. Adjustment layers come with a white layer mask built in. Keep in mind when you’re working with layer masks that white masks reveal the adjustment (allowing it to show through) while black masks hide it. In this case, we want the adjustment to only affect the white portion of the eyes. To do this we need to change the color of the layer mask to black (to hide the adjustment layer).

Make sure the white layer mask is selected (by clicking on it). Next press Ctrl + I (Windows) | Cmd + I (Mac) to invert the layer and make it black (and thereby hide the changes we just made).

Select the Brush Tool (keyboard shortcut B) and change the color to white. With the layer mask selected, carefully paint on the white areas of the eyes with the white paint brush. This will allow the Hue/Saturation adjustment we made to show through.

If you accidentally paint outside the white portion of the eyes, change the brush to black and paint it out (or hide it). Pressing the X key will switch the brush back and forth between white and black. The final step is to reduce the overall Opacity of the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to let some of the color show through (50% is usually a good starting point).

In the image below the red and blue colors shifts have been reduced in the sclara.

Removing Color Shifts in the Whites of the Eyes - Eye Retouching in Portraits

(3) Increasing Vibrance and Saturation
Now that we’ve cleaned up and brightened the white portion of the eyes, it’s time to boost the color saturation of the irises. Create a second Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and increase the Saturation slider to 20-30. Using the same steps as before change the layer mask to black by inverting it (Windows: Ctrl + I | Mac: Cmd + I) and isolate the adjustment to the iris portion of the eyes.

Increasing Iris Saturation - Eye Retouching in Portraits

Note: Too much saturation will make the eyes look unnatural. Anything over 30 is probably too much.

(4) Increasing Brightness and Contrast
A black rim runs along the inside edge of the iris. This rim is very pronounced and striking in some people while it appears faint in others. There are several ways to increase the contrast in this area. The first method enhances the existing contrast while the second introduces contrast artificially.

  • Using Curves to Increase Contrast

Open a Curves adjustment layer and create a soft “S” curve. As before, the adjustment layer comes with a white layer mask. Invert the mask to fill it with black (Windows: Ctrl + I | Mac: Cmd + I) and paint over the eyes with a white paint brush.

Create an "S" Curve to Increase Contrast in the Eyes

A Curves adjustment layer will increase the natural contrast and saturation in the eyes – below is an image showing the before and after using Curves.

Using Curves to Enhance Contrast - Eye Retouching in Portraits
  • Using Photoshop Brushes To Increase Contrast

David Cuerdon teaches a method of artificially rebuilding the pupil and inside edge of the iris using Photoshop brushes. In this case, part of the catchlights are being reflected back in the pupil. This is a bit distracting, but it can be quickly fixed using a standard circular brush in Photoshop.

Create a new layer (Windows: Ctrl + Shift + N | Mac: Cmd + Shift + N) and select a small, circular brush. Set the foreground color to black and change the hardness of the brush to 80-85%. Adjust the brush size (using the right and left bracket keys) so that the brush is slightly bigger than the pupil you’re working on.

Free Pupil Photoshop Brush

Next stamp the brush directly over the pupil. Chances are the brush stroke will need to be resized. Select the Free Transform Tool by going to Edit -> Free Transform (Windows: Ctrl + T | Mac: Cmd + T). Grab a corner of the brush stroke and drag inward or outward while holding the Shift key down. As you adjust the circle, holding the Shift key will keep the shape from being skewed.

Next we’re going to add more contrast to the iris using a special brush I’ve created. The brush is designed to mimic the inside edge of the iris.

Download the Iris Brush for Photoshop
Download the Iris Brush
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Note: Save the brush somewhere convenient on your computer. Next double click the brush file to install it in Photoshop. You’ll find the iris brush in the Brush Preset Picker. The brush will probably be very large when you first select it. Use the left and right bracket keys to adjust the size of the brush.

Just as with the pupil, select the iris brush from the Brush Preset Picker and resize it so that it’s about the same size as the iris you’re working on. Create a new layer (Windows: Ctrl + Shift + N | Mac: Cmd + Shift + N) and select black as the foreground color. When you’re ready, stamp the brush over the top of the iris.

The brush stroke should be the exact size as the iris you’re working on. If you find that it’s too large, use the Free Transform Tool to carefully resize it (Windows: Ctrl + T | Mac: Cmd + T). Remember to hold the Shift key while resizing the brush stroke.

Here’s a before and after using the two brushes:

Using a Customized Brush to Enhance Eyes in Photoshop - Eye Retouching in Portraits

(5) Removing the Original Catchlights and Replacing Them With New Ones
If the portrait you’re working on was taken in natural light, the catchlights may not be very pronounced. This next step involves adding catchlights using a Photoshop brush.

Note: It may make sense to leave the natural catchlights alone in character portraits or everyday candids. On the other hand, you may want the eyes to look absolutely perfect if you’re working on a magazine style image. Each image requires an individual, measured approach. Replacing catchlights is an optional step. If you’re happy with the existing catchlights, feel free to leave them alone.

  • Removing the Original Catchlights

Before replacing the catchlights, we should remove the existing ones. Using the Clone Tool, sample a clean area of the iris and carefully clone out the catchlight. Since the iris is circular, you may have trouble find a sample spot that matches the area you’re trying to replace. If that’s the case, you may need to use a selection technique to cover up the catchlight.

Look for a portion of the iris directly opposite of the area you’re working on. Use the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) to select a sample (be sure that the main image is selected in the Layers Panel when you make your selection). Copy the selection to a new layer (Windows: Ctrl + J | Mac: Cmd + J) and activate the Free Transformation Tool (Windows: Ctrl + T | Mac: Cmd + T). Now right click in any portion of the rectangular selection and select Flip Horizontal.

Using the Free Transformation Tool to Clone Problem Areas in Photoshop

Use the Move Tool (V) to move the copied selection into the area you’re trying to replace. All that’s left is the create a black layer mask (Layer -> Layer Mask -> Hide All) to hide the selection (as describe before) and then carefully reveal it using a white paint brush. The trick to making the selection match the area you’re trying to replace seamlessly is to paint the layer mask starting from the center using a soft, white brush.

  • Creating New Catchlights

Create a new layer (Windows: Ctrl + Shift + N | Mac: Cmd + Shift + N) and select a small circular brush. Set the foreground color to white and change the hardness of the brush to around 85%. Adjust the brush size (using the right and left bracket keys) so that it’s the about the same size as the catchlight you’re attempting to replace.

When you’re ready, stamp the iris with the brush. As we’ve already practiced, you can use the Free Transform Tool (Windows: Ctrl + T | Mac: Cmd + T) to resize the brush stroke. Once you’re happy with the size of the brush stroke, you can press and hold the Alt/Option key to skew the brush stroke so that is looks like the catchlight you’re attempting to recreate. Below is a before and after showing the new catchlight.

Using a Brush to Enhance Eye Catchlights in Photoshop - Eye Retouching in Portraits

Final Thoughts
Whew! We covered a lot of ground. Don’t feel overwhelmed if some of what we discussed still confuses you. Learning how to use layer masks can be daunting. Photoshop is a program that takes time getting comfortable with. You may need to go over the steps several times before you get the hang of it. Practice, practice, practice!

One final note; be careful not to overdo it! Portrait retouching looks more realistic when it’s not taken too far. All of the enhancements we made were done on adjustments layers. Don’t hesitate to pull back on the opacity of each layer to help hide your tracks. Have fun!

About the Author: Steve Paxton lives with his wife and two children in the Seattle area. Steve has been a photographer for over 20 years. His experience ranges from wedding and portrait work to landscape photography.

Steve owns and manages the F/Stop Spot; a website dedicated to supporting photographers of all skill levels. You can find more of Steve’s work at Paxton Portraits.

2 Comments

  1. Hi I tried to use the Iris Brush in PSE10 but it says the file is wrong. Is it available only for specific photoshop programs?

    • I Nadine! I am sorry you’re having trouble. The brushes on the F/Stop Spot only work in the regular version of Photoshop (not in Elements). I apologize for the inconvenience.

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