“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.
“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.
“You are what you think. All that you are arises from your thoughts. With your thoughts, you make your world.” – Anon.
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.
“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:
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.”
Step 3: Next, you should adjust the eye color with the Adjustment Brush:
- 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.
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.
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.