Friday, May 6, 2011

Outdoor Eyes

Take a quick look at the side-by-side images above...without studying the details, on a quick impression which one looks better to you? If you're like most people, you'll like the one on the right better, without really knowing why. The thing is, they're identical in every way, except for one small detail: the eyes.
When shooting outdoors on a bright day, the pupils of your subjects will contract, which makes their eyes look less appealing and a bit "squinty." There's a very easy way to give your outdoor eyes a much more appealing look, and it only takes about 30 seconds to do.

Over the years I've heard photographers relate lots of "tricks" to try to get bigger, more appealing pupils on their subjects outdoors in bright light -- have them close their eyes until just before you click the shutter, have them look down for a few seconds, and more. The problem is, all of these tricks make it harder for the subjects to relax and look natural, and they require good timing on the part of both subject and photographer. In the digital age, there's a much simpler way to give your subjects more appealing outdoor eyes.
The image above is a crop from an outdoor portrait shoot I did a couple of weeks ago. A beautiful location, soft light (from three Sigma flashes in umbrellas, see this article for details), and relaxed, happy subjects. The portrait is very much a success, but because of their small pupils their eyes lack punch and appeal. To make them look much more appealing, follow the few simple steps below:

Open your full-resolution image file in Photoshop (or your favorite editor). Add a new blank layer on top of the main image, and set the blending mode to "Overlay." Select the brush tool, set the color to black (#000000), the opacity to about 80%, and the brush hardness to around 70%. Zoom in 100% (or even 200%) on the image so you have a good close-up view of the subject's eyes, and adjust the size of the brush so that it's about the size the subject's dilated pupil would be.

Position your brush (as in the image above) right on the center of the subject's pupil in the image, and click once to make a new "pupil." If it's not quite dark enough, keep the brush in the same place, and click again. The idea is to have a natural looking pupil, with fairly soft edges -- big enough to make the eyes look better, but not so big as to cover up the color in the subject's iris. The image below will give you a good idea of what your new layer should look like, with about the right softness to the edge and the right size.

If your edges are too hard, you can use a *very little bit* of Gaussian blur on your overlay layer (about 0.6 pixel radius) to soften them up. If they're too soft, don't try to sharpen them -- just delete the overlay layer, make a new one, and try again with a slightly harder brush setting.
If your new pupil goes over part of the subject's eyelid or the bottom of their eye, don't worry -- it's important to have the new pupil exactly centered on the smaller existing one, even if it covers up some eyelid or skin. Just add a layer mask to your overlay layer, get a black brush, and paint on the mask where the new pupil overlaps skin to hide it from those areas. Once you're pleased with the size, softness, and masking of the new pupil, adjust the opacity of the overlay layer, reducing it to somewhere between 80-90%, so the effect doesn't look harsh and fake.

That's it, you're done! Flatten the image, and continue on with any other editing you have to do. A crop from the final "eye editing" image is shown above, with new pupils applied to the eyes of both subjects.
I don't know if others have come up with this idea before (it would surprise me greatly if somebody hadn't already thought of it!), but I haven't seen it described anywhere. I came up with it one day while editing some outdoor shots, done on a really bright day, where my subject's pupils were very tiny black spots, and didn't look at all appealing. Adding enlarged pupils make the subject look much more natural, and it only took a few seconds. Now I routinely use it on most of my outdoor portraits. It sure beats trying to get your subjects to close their eyes until just before you shoot, they can relax and have fun while shooting, and so can you. Next time you shoot outdoors, give it a try and see how you like the look!


  1. Paul, what a great tip. when needed, I have bloated the eye in PS's liquify.

  2. Paul, that is an awesome "trick" I will enjoy sharing with my DP high school students. Your portrait tutorials are gems. Thank you for sharing!