How to Edit Eyes in Photoshop


Learn how to add impact to your model’s eyes in Photoshop

When it comes to portrait photography, getting the eyes right is crucial. If you nail this step, the rest tends to fall into place. But how do you avoid making the whites of the eyes look unnaturally bright, as they sometimes appear on magazine covers and in commercial shoots?

In this tutorial, we’ll walk you through a quick and easy Photoshop technique for editing eyes that can be as subtle or as powerful as you make it.


Add a Curves Adjustment Layer and mask out everything but the irises

Step 1

A good general rule is that the focal points of your shot should be the highest-contrast areas. The first thing to do is to increase the contrast of the irises, leaving the rest of the image untouched.

Click on the Create new fill or adjustment layer icon (that’s the half-light, half-dark circle at the bottom of the Layers Panel). From the dropdown menu, select Curves.

In the Properties Panel (Window→Properties), drag the left-hand side of the diagonal line down a little, and the right side up a little. The lower-left side of the line affects shadows, and the upper-right side affects highlights.

Drag each enough to add some impact to the eyes, but not so far that subtle gradations of colour become lost.

This will have the effect of increasing the contrast across the entire image. However, we need to limit the effect to the irises. To do that, head to the Layers Panel and click on the white rectangle next to the Curves Adjustment Layer thumbnail. The white rectangle will have white lines around its four corners, indicating that it is selected.

This white rectangle represents a Layer Mask. When it’s white, the current Layer is fully visible. When it’s black the current Layer is fully invisible. When it’s grey, the current Layer is partially visible. We need to make it black, to hide the Curves Adjustment Layer.

Hit Ctrl+I (that’s Command+I on a Mac) to invert the colour of the mask. The white will become black and the Curves adjustment will become invisible.

Layer Masks are used to “delete” pixels in a non-destructive way. By painting black into the Layer Mask, you can “delete” pixels by hiding them. To restore those pixels, you just have to paint white into the Layer Mask.

Now, with a soft, white brush (B), paint over the irises and pupils. This will restore the Curves adjustment locally, increasing the contrast of the irises. Don’t paint over the whites of the eyes, or they could become unnaturally bright.

Step 2


Dodge the lower iris and any highlights

Create a new Layer (Shift+Ctrl+Alt+N) and with your soft, white brush (B), paint a small U-shape inside the lower half of the iris. Also, paint over any highlights in the eyes. Be sure not to paint over the dark perimetre of the iris, or the pupil.

In the Layers Panel, click on where it says Normal and from the dropdown menu, select Overlay. This will change the Layer’s Blending Mode from Normal to Overlay. Reduce the Layer’s Opacity to 15%.

Step 3


Burn the perimetre of the irises, the pupils, and the eyelashes

Create another new Layer (Shift+Ctrl+Alt+N) and hit D to return to your foreground and background colours to their default values of black and white, respectively. With your Brush Tool (B) still active, paint a thin black line over the eyelashes, around the perimetre of the irises, and inside the pupils.

Reduce the Opacity of the Layer to 25% and change the Layer’s Blending Mode to Soft Light.

Step 4


Sharpen the eyelashes, irises and higlights

Create another new Layer (Shift+Ctrl+Alt+N) and activate the Sharpen Tool (if you can’t see it in the Tools Panel, click on Window→Workspace→Photography and the Sharpen Tool icon will appear in the Tools Panel).

In the Tool Options bar at the top of the screen, make sure that Mode is set to Normal, and Strength is set to 50%. Tick Sample All Layers and Protect Detail.

Now, paint over the irises, eyelashes and any highlights in the eye, to sharpen them and make them pop a little more.

As with all retouching work, keep it subtle. If any of the above adjustments become too noticeable, simply reduce the Opacity of the offending Layer until the effect is perceptible, but not overpowering.

Image by Joe Gardner