The Eyes Have It: Best Practices When Retouching Eyes for the High-End Market

by | 2 years ago

Eyes are incredibly important. They’re not only the instruments we use to see the world, but they’re also the first things we notice in photographs. We’re drawn to them, and we tend to judge people based on the appearance of their eyes. After all, “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” Hence, it’s incredibly vital to learn how to retouch eyes properly so the subjects in our images can look their best.

The aim is to make them look compelling but natural, and bright, but not so bright they burn into our screens. It’s worth noting that when we’re talking about eyes, it involves more than just the eyeballs. Therefore, in this article, we’re going to retouch eyes from a zoomed-out perspective and a close-up detail-oriented way.

Even Out the Eyes

The first thing you should do is zoom out and look at your subject’s face, concentrating on their eyes. Here are the main things you need to ask yourself:

  • Are catchlights present in both eyes?
  • Are the catchlights the same intensity?
  • Are both eyes perceptually similar in size?

If the answer to any of the above is no, then you need to correct it. If one of the catchlights is missing, or doesn’t have the same intensity in brightness as the other, then that eye will look darker. If the eyes differ in perceptual size, these “blemishes” are magnified in our minds when looking at still images; however, you need to judge this, based on whether the changes you make may alter your subject’s character to an unacceptable degree. Let’s get to work, shall we?

Step One: To even out the luminance of the catchlights (or to replace missing ones), simply turn to the Healing Brush tool (nested under the Spot Healing Brush tool in the Toolbar). This will adapt your sampled areas so no further cleanup will be necessary. Start by going to Layer>New>Layer, name it “New Catchlight,” and click OK to create a new empty layer on top of your other layers.

Step Two: Up in the Options Bar, set the Healing Brush’s Sample drop-down menu to Current & Below. Click on the brush preview thumbnail to open the Brush Preset Picker, and set the brush’s Hardness to 100%. Use the Bracket keys () on your keyboard to make the brush size just a little larger than the good catchlight. Then, while holding down the Option (PC: Alt) key, sample the better catchlight by clicking on it. Move over the other eye and click once to place the sampled catchlight on top of the existing darker one; or if there’s no catchlight, add one in the same position, relative to the pupil, as in the source eye.

It’s important to note that you shouldn’t place the new catchlight as if it were mirrored. When you’re done, zoom out to check if you placed it correctly. If your subject looks a bit cross-eyed, then undo by using the shortcut Command-Z (PC: Ctrl-Z), and place the catchlight in a slightly different position.

Step Three: The catchlights are now correct on this image, but it’s clear that the subject was squinting with her right eye (camera left), which makes it look like her left eye is bigger than her right. Here’s a simple way to correct this: First, click on the subject layer in the Layers panel to make it active. Then, grab the Elliptical Marquee tool (nested under the Rectangular Marquee tool in the Toolbar), and drag out a selection around the squinting eye. The selection should go up to the top of the eyebrow down to the top of the cheek below. Tip: While drawing the selection, you can press-and-hold the Spacebar to reposition it, and then release the Spacebar to finish drawing the selection.

Step Four: To separate the contents of the selection to a new layer, simply press Command-J (Ctrl-J). We need to Liquify the eye on this layer so, while the new copied layer is active, go to Filter>Liquify. The aim of this article isn’t to go into detail about how to use Liquify—many have explained it before me. The goal here is to use the Forward Warp tool (W) to open up the eyelids a bit and sort of spread them apart. Don’t worry about the size of the iris for now; we’ll fix that later. Tip: In order to see the main image layer in the preview area, turn on Show Backdrop in the View Options, set the Mode drop-down menu to In Front, and adjust the Opacity slider as needed. When you’re done, click OK. Double-click the name of this layer and rename it “Liquify.”

Step Five: With the Eraser tool (E), erase any unnecessary areas to blend the new morphed eye into place. It helps to use a softer brush (you can go as low as 0% Hardness) and erase to natural breakpoints, such as the start of the lid or where the eyelid starts to bulge out.

Step Six: This is great, but we now have a deformed iris and pupil; but the fix is pretty simple. Go back to the original layer with your subject, and using the Elliptical Marquee tool, select the iris of the non-warped eye, making the selection twice as big as the iris itself. Then, press Command-J (Ctrl-J) to copy it to a new layer. Drag this layer to the top of the layer stack, and rename it “Right Iris.”

Step Seven: Using the Move tool (V), drag the duplicated iris on top of the deformed one, and once again, use the Eraser tool to blend and clean up the duplicate. If the new iris’s luminosity doesn’t match the surrounding area then, while on the same layer, press Command-M (PC: Ctrl-M) to bring up the Curves adjustment. You only need to click on the middle of the diagonal curve line and drag it slightly up or down until the tones match. The most important part here is that the blending shouldn’t be visible. Anything else, we can correct later.

Cleaning Up Around and Inside the Eyes

We have our shapes locked in, so the next step is to clean up the eyes and surrounding area. It’s advisable to start from the outside and work your way in, leaving the actual eyeball until last. Feel free, however, to break the rules here and jump around. Our main tool for this process will be the Healing Brush. We’ll be sampling clean areas to replace blemishes and cover up anything we don’t want visible. Here are the main things we want to clean up around the eyes:

  • Make-up dust and mishaps
  • Blemishes (whiteheads, blackheads, etc.)
  • Stray eyebrow strands
  • Retouch small wrinkles in an age-appropriate way.

Removing wrinkles age-appropriately means to make sure that when you’re done, your subjects don’t look much younger than they actually are. A good way to do this is to heal lines that cross others or flow in a weird direction; but leave the uniform ones. With younger subjects (under 45), any wrinkles can be removed from the upper eyelid as they can almost give a droopy, thick eyelid feel that can be distracting. Once again, you should use your best judgment when deciding what to retouch, and not just follow the same steps every time. All of these can be fixed using the Healing Brush tool.

On the inside of the eyes, we should do the following fixes:

  • Remove eyelashes going over the eyeball
  • Remove specks
  • Cover up the rims of contact lenses
  • Remove veins.

Most of these are simple fixes for which you can use the Healing Brush and Clone Stamp tools. The best tool for retouching veins in the whites of the eyes is the Healing Brush, which blends just enough so that it kind of smudges everything in the whites. In this case, that’s not undesirable, as there shouldn’t be too much texture in the sclera (whites). Refrain from using the Clone Stamp tool for this task, however, as that will enhance the tones and introduce spottiness.

At this point, you can decide whether you want to remove any stray hairs going over the eyes. A good way to judge this is by looking at the particular image and asking yourself: Should it look clean, or can it have some unruliness based on the hairstyle, character, and type of image? To remove any strands, the combination of both the Healing Brush and Clone Stamp tools is best.

Draw Lashes and Brow Strands

After the cleanup is done, we can start adding lashes and filling in the eyebrows. Usually, this step is only necessary if the image you’re working on is more of a closeup beauty shot. Let’s follow along, however, because it’s worth learning how to do this.

Step One: Sometimes we need to add some additional eyelashes or fill in the eyebrows to make the face look cleaner. Go to Layer>New>Layer, name it “Lashes,” and click OK. Make sure, this newly created layer is on top of the previous adjustments; otherwise, it could cause some trouble. Grab the Brush tool (B) and use the Bracket keys on your keyboard to set the size to the same size as the base of an eyelash, usually around 1–2 px. Then, depending on the softness of the image, set the Hardness to anywhere between 30–100%. You can always set it to 100% and then soften the brushstrokes afterward.

In the Brush Settings panel (Window>Brush Settings), you only have to check on Smoothing and Shape Dynamics. In the Shape Dynamics section, if you’re using a mouse, set the Size Jitter to 0%, the Control drop-down menu to Fade, and the Control field to 50. If you’re using a drawing tablet, set the Control drop-down menu to Pen Pressure.

Note: When using a mouse, Fade causes the stroke to become thinner and thinner as you paint, until it fades away completely; therefore, the Fade value might need to be changed based on the image and the desired result.

Step Two: Next, sample an eyelash color using the Eyedropper tool (I), then start drawing the lashes one by one with the Brush tool. The Fade or Pen Pressure control settings will take care of the variation of the width of the line. With Pen Pressure, ease up on the pressure on the tablet toward the tip of the lash to make the line thinner.

Tip: It’s better to make the top lashes fuller and lusher than the bottom ones, as the bottom lashes are always shorter and less visible.

Step Three: After the lashes are done, while on the same layer, go to Filter>Noise>Add Noise. Set the Amount to 1%, Distribution to Gaussian, and check on Monochromatic. Click OK. This will introduce a slight amount of noise to make the lashes look a bit more natural.

If the lashes are too sharp, go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur, and apply a fairly low Radius to blur them a little.

Step Four: Let’s move on to the eyebrows! Create a new layer and name it “Brow.” Using the same settings on the Brush tool, sample a color from the eyebrows and start filling in areas where there are hardly any strands. It’s better to do this quite sparsely as we’ll use a less intrusive method later. Then, set the blending mode of the layer to Multiply or Darken (both work) and lower the Opacity (33% here) until the strands blend right in.

If the brow strands need to be softer, feel free to add noise and blur the additional brow strands (as in the previous step).

Treatment for Under the Eyes

At this point, we’re going to create a set of adjustment layers that we’ll use for two operations: dodging and burning using two Curves adjustment layers. One of these layers will treat the bags and dark areas under the eyes in a gracious, non-intrusive way that’s also nondestructive and looks natural. The other layer will be used to tidy up the eyebrows.

Step One: Click on the topmost layer in the Layers panel, go to Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Curves, name it “Burn,” and click OK. This will create a new adjustment layer on top of all of the previous layers and will also bring up the Properties panel. In the Properties panel, create a point on the RGB curve by clicking in the middle of the diagonal line, and then drag that point down about one segment on the grid. This should set the Input and Output values to around 128 and 65, respectively, but this doesn’t have to be precise. Click on the mask thumbnail for the Burn layer to make it active, and press Command-I (PC: Ctrl-I) to invert the mask to black, which will make your image revert back to its normal brightness.

Step Two: Now, duplicate the Burn layer by pressing Command-J (Ctrl-J). Double-click on the duplicated adjustment layer’s name and rename it “Dodge.” In the Properties panel, modify the curve to be the inverse of the Burn curve by dragging it up one segment above the middle of the grid. You’ve now set up a standard high-end dodge and burn set of Curves adjustment layers.

Step Three: You can zoom out of the image, as this isn’t going to be about details. Switch to the Brush tool, and select a big, soft (0% Hardness) brush. Up in Options Bar, set the Opacity to 100% and the Flow to 1%. In the Brush Settings panel, turn off Shape Dynamics. This will allow you to build up the effect as needed.

Step Four: Select the Dodge adjustment layer’s mask by clicking on it in the Layers panel. This will make sure that anything you do will happen only on the mask. Press the D key to reset your Foreground and Background colors to their defaults. Since you’re on a mask, they’ll be set to white and black, respectively, which is good, as we need the Foreground to be white.

Using a big soft brush, start lightening the areas under the eyes. Since the Flow is at 1%, it will take a bit of time to build up the effect, but this allows for an organic, well-blended result. Just lighten the dark areas to your liking, and vary the brush size if necessary. The areas shouldn’t be over-lightened, as it’s natural to have a bit of gradation. Some people tend to lighten this area so much that the three-dimensionality of the bottom eyelid simply disappears. The bottom of the eyelids definitely must not be removed. Remember, a face still has to read like a 3D object.

Tidy Up the Eyebrows

To finish the eyebrows, we’re going to use the same method as we did for under the eyes. This time, however, we’re going to work on the Burn Curves adjustment layer.

Step Five: Select the Burn layer’s mask thumbnail in the Layers panel and grab the same soft brush, but this time set the size to around the size of the gaps in the eyebrows you need to fill. Just as before, start painting with 1% Flow and those gaps will be filled in.

Tip: If you switch between the Dodge and Burn layers when doing the cleanup of the eyebrows, you can shape their edges to correct their silhouette as well.

While holding down the Shift key, click on each Curves adjustment layer in the Layers panel so both layers are selected. Then press Command-G (PC: Ctrl-G) to group them. Name the Group “Dodge and Burn.”

Lightening the Eyes

It’s usually necessary to lighten the eyes to a certain degree because of how they were lit and how they’re positioned in your subjects’ faces. This can be done in three easy techniques. Any of these techniques can be omitted and fine-tuned, but using all of them can bring incredibly natural results.

Step One: We’re going to start with a more global selection. Switch to the Lasso tool (L), and set its Feather in the Options Bar to a higher value, 30–60 px. (This will depend on the size of the image.) Trace the area around one of the eyes. The selection should start right under the eyes where you previously lightened and should go up to the bottom of the eyebrow. On the sides, it should be a bit bigger than the eye. Hold the Shift key and select the other eye. The Shift key will add the new selection to the current one.

Step Two: When you have the marching ants around both eyes and their surrounding areas, choose Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Curves, which will create a new Curves adjustment layer with a mask that’s based on your selection. In the Properties panel, once again, grab the middle of the diagonal RGB line and pull it up slightly until you have the desired result. This will lighten not just the irises, but also all the shadows around the eyes, bringing more attention to them. As with all of these edits, make sure not to overdo them. It should be just a touch lighter than before.

Step Three: The next step is to zoom in a bit, grab the Elliptical Marquee tool and, while holding down the Shift key (to create a perfect circular selection), select one of the irises. Don’t worry about it overlapping the top eyelid.

Step Four: Create another Curves adjustment layer, but this time in the Properties panel, grab the top-right end of the diagonal line and slowly drag it to the left. (You may have to zoom out to be able to keep it at a natural level.) This will elevate the highlights of the iris along with the catchlight.

Tip: While adjusting the curve, cover the other eye with the Properties panel so the difference between the adjusted and unadjusted eye doesn’t interfere with your perception.

Step Five: When you’ve found the perfect value, select the Curves adjustment layer’s mask in the Layers panel and, with a semi-soft brush and the Foreground color set to black, paint away the areas you don’t want this adjustment to affect (make sure to set the Flow back to 100% in the Options Bar). Then, press X to make the Foreground color white. While using the same brush, move to the other iris and paint over it, including the pupil.

Next, to lighten the whites of the eyes, lower the Opacity of the brush to 50% in the Options Bar. With the same semi-soft brush, paint over the whites of both eyes. This will nicely and gently brighten them and it shouldn’t look unnatural. If it produces an overly bright effect, then try it again using a lower Opacity.

As you can see, using simple techniques can achieve amazing results. It’s just like making an omelet: it’s not hard and the tools are simple, but the right technique can really elevate it. As with all articles on retouching, there’s always more to learn. The techniques shown here can be complemented by some color correction in the whites of the eyes and some grading in the irises to make them pop more. Thankfully, this magazine and the KelbyOne online courses are the perfect place to start if you want to learn more.