Bette Davis Eyes

The eyes are what give a portrait life. They've been edited in this photo to make them pop. Learn how below.

As I’ve mentioned before the most important part of a portrait are the eyes.  They are what give life to the photo and really give a portrait its human qualities.  That is where all the emotion lies and if the eyes aren’t in focus it greatly detracts from the photo.  That should be your main goal when focusing for portraits and as long as you get the eyes you’ll be in good shape.  Once you’ve got your shot with the eyes in focus there is one little trick I like to use in Photoshop to enhance the effect of the eyes.

With beautiful eyes you really want to take advantage and make them shine.

When the sun is your light source shining from above a shadow can be cast over the eyes. Brightening them gives them sparkle.

The biggest problem with our eyes besides the fact they like to blink at inopportune photographic moments is that they are sunken into the eye socket.  Our eyes have a natural light blocker and if the light isn’t coming in just right they can appear grey and listless.  Of course the best way to get rid of this is to have a light source that shines on the eyes or a reflector to put an extra bit of light in the eyes.  This however is not always practical and in a lot my candid shots of people the eyes are not as bright as I would like causing a dull, unhealthy look.  Luckily this is easily fixed with a quick little edit in Photoshop.

Before editing the eyes.

The after photo. It's a simple edit, but has a great impact on the life of the photo.

This is by far one of the most common things I do when touching up portraits.  It’s quick, easy and quite effective despite it’s simplicity.  Open up your image in Photoshop and make a duplicate layer of the image by going to Layer->Duplicate Layer.  Select the duplicate layer in the layers panel and adjust the brightness/contrast by clicking on Image->Adjustments->Brightness/Contrast.  Now boost both of the values to make the eyes pop to your liking.  I usually use a brightness value of around +35 and a contrast value of around +15.  This makes the eyes brighter and more lifelike, but at the same time it messes up the rest of the photo so you need to create a layer mask.  While holding the ALT key click on the ‘Add Layer Mask’ button at the bottom of the layers panel.  This will create a black layer mask and make the adjustments you just made disappear.  What a layer mask does is pretty simple.  When applied to any layer the parts of the layer mask that are black will be blocked and the parts that are white will show through.  The layer mask is completely black so we need to paint out the part where the eyes are so that they show through.  Zoom in on the eyes, click on the paint brush tool and select white as the color.  With the layer mask selected simply paint over the eyes and the brightened eyes will shine through.  This may seem pretty subtle while you’re painting, but you will be surprised by the difference it makes.  Once you’ve painted over the eyes zoom out and deselect the duplicate layer to see just how dramatic the effect is.

Create a duplicate layer and adjust the brightness and contrast to make the eyes shine. (Click to see enlarged photo)

Create a black filled layer mask and paint over the eyes with white to let the brightened eyes show through. (Click to see enlarged photo)

It is however possible to overdo this.  You don’t want the subject looking like they’re possessed by some otherworldly spirit (what I like to call the “there is no Dana only Zuul” effect).  When I zoom out after painting the eyes and notice that I went a little overboard I simply adjust the opacity down of the adjusted layer until it looks nice.  And conversely if the effect isn’t enough you can up the brightness and contrast some more until you get something to your liking.  As a little note there are professional plugins you can get to brighten and clean up eyes automatically for Photoshop.  I personally don’t care for the results and find them a little too artificial for my tastes.  There are others who swear by them so it’s a personal choice, but the plugins can be kind of pricey.

Be careful not to overdo the effect. It can look a little unnatural. There is no Dana only Zuul....

Another before. The light is coming from above so the eyes are left in shadow.

The after.

Adjusting the brightness of the eyes only takes a minute and can add such a spark to your portraits.  It amazes me how such a simple edit can have a profound effect on the end image.  I utilize this method on almost every portrait that I shoot when I’m editing. This is an easy step that you can add to your bag of tricks that will greatly enhance the effectiveness of your portraits.

Without actually telling you probably wouldn't know the eyes had been brightened. This was shot with flash bouncing off the ceiling so the eyes were in shadow.


~ by Rick The Stick on July 20, 2010.

2 Responses to “Bette Davis Eyes”

  1. […] the emotion and personality in the photo (to learn how to improve the eyes in the photo check out  So when you’re trying to focus make the eyes your target.  Now how exactly do you make […]

  2. I totally agree with you that the eyes are the most important part of the portrait.
    During post-processing I always brighten them up a little too. I use the Dodge Tool because I think I have more control than with Levels. I sometimes increase saturation of them too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: