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3 Simple Ways to Create Stunning Eyes in Your Portrait Photography

portrait photography with beautiful eyes
Image model credits, clockwise from top left: Chris Milligan/Fremantle Media, Rachael Lever, Danny Spannerz/East Brunswick Tattoos, Tiffany Diaz

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Reclusive Hollywood legend Marlon Brando would always close his eyes when paparazzi tried to take his photo. He knew that without his eyes open the image wasn’t worth publishing.

The eyes are the single most important feature of any portrait. Beautiful eyes can make even the dullest portrait mesmerizing. Poorly lit, out of focus eyes, or eyes that lack connection, will weaken the impact of a portrait.

Here are my three favorite techniques to make eyes really stand out in your portrait photography.

1. Light

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman

Eyes look best when they are lit well, with beautiful catch lights. Catch lights are the reflection of a light source in the eyes. The size, shape, and brightness of your catch lights depend on the light source you use.

An eye lit by windows
Two large, frosted windows from my studio create beautiful catch lights. Model: Bryana Karanikos
Naked Flash on camera
Diffused on-camera flash creates a slightly softer, rectangular catch light.
Eyes lit by a medium softbox off camera
A medium softbox, off-camera and positioned at 2 o’clock, gives a soft, natural catch light.
Badly lit eyes
Poorly-lit eyes without catch lights look cold and a bit creepy.

2. Expression

You are what you think. All that you are arises from your thoughts. With your thoughts, you make your world.” – Anon.

Comparison of portrait photography with bad and good eyes
Model: Tiffany Dias

In the image on the left (above), Tiffany’s eyes are cold, and she looks nervous. After I gave Tiffany a visualization exercise, her eyes became warm, confident, and connected (see the right image above).

How you communicate, connect with, and direct your model is key to capturing a great expression in the eyes. If your model’s smile isn’t genuine, his or her eyes will appear cold and dull-looking. If your model is nervous or distracted, this too will be reflected in his or her eyes.

One technique I use to create a great expression is visualization. I ask my model:

If you could be anywhere right now, doing anything, where would that be? Tell me about that moment. Who is there? What does it feel like?

Once your model is in the moment of their visualization, their body language and expression changes.

3. Post-production

Be willing to give that extra effort that separates the winner from the one in second place.” — H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Post-production can lift your portrait photography from good to great – when it’s done well. The key to great post-production is to avoid overdoing it. It’s easy to get excited with all the tricks and enhancements that post-production software offers. It’s addictive, and much like opening a jar of Nutella, it’s very difficult to control yourself once you’ve begun.

I try and use the overnight rule when it comes to retouching. Once I’ve worked on an image, I won’t look at it again for at least a day. I find that my eyes constantly adjust to the modifications I’m making, so it’s more difficult to see when I’ve gone too far (which is also what happened when I dressed in the ’80s).

Here’s a step-by-step technique to enhance eyes using Adobe Lightroom:

Before and after images of eyes
Before and after: I’ve used Lightroom to make the eyes sharper and brighter and to enhance their color.

Step 1: Import your image into Lightroom and use the Basic panel in the Develop module to edit your shot. In this case, I’ve used one of my own beauty presets.

Eyes edited in Lightroom
eye adjustments in Lightroom
Here are the basic adjustments I’ve used for this image.

Step 2: Zoom in on the eyes (“B” in the image below) and select the Adjustment Brush tool (“A” in the image below). You can also select the Adjustment Brush using the keyboard shortcut “K.”

Adjusting the eyes in portrait photography

Step 3: Next, you should adjust the eye color with the Adjustment Brush:

Adjusting the eyes in portrait photography
  • Increase the Temperature slider (A) to make the eyes appear warmer in tone.
  • Increase the Exposure slider (B) to brighten the iris.
  • Increase the Shadow slider (C) to bring more detail into the shadow area.
  • Increase the Sharpness slider (D) to make the eyes appear more detailed.

Adjust only the colored part (the iris) of your subject’s eye (highlighted in red in the image above) and set the brush to have a slight feather and a low flow so you can build up your adjustments slowly.

Step 4: Next, select a new Adjustment Brush (A, below), increase the Sharpness slider (B, below) by +22, and paint over the colored part of the eyes, eyelashes, and eyebrows. This will really make the eyes stand out.

Adjusting the eyes in portrait photography

Step 5: Finally, select a new Adjustment Brush. Set the Exposure slider to -29, and increase the Clarity to +10. Paint around the edge of the iris. This will darken the area slightly and give the eye more definition.

Here, the final portrait was imported into Adobe Photoshop, where I did a basic skin retouching to remove a few small blemishes.

Final image with beautiful eyes

And that’s it!

I’d love to hear about your techniques for enhancing eyes in portrait photography, and it’d be great to see some examples. So share them in the comments!

Gina is the author of several dPS eBooks, including Portraits: Making the Shot.

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Gina Milicia
Gina Milicia

has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years. She has photographed some of the world’s most high-profile people including royalty, billionaires and A-list celebrities. Often travelling the world, Gina also runs photography workshops and private mentoring sessions. You can sign up for her free ebook on “Portrait and Post Production Essentials” and see more of her work here. Check out her podcast “So you want to be a photographer” on iTunes.

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