Understanding the Human Eye and How To Retouch it Naturally

Understanding the Human Eye and How To Retouch it Naturally

I can assure you that this isn't another boring tutorial on how not to overdo eyes with Photoshop. Searching for the perfect method has come to an end. Before diving into the simple method, it’s crucial to understand everything about the human eye and how it reacts to light.

There are a few key points to take note of before attempting to retouch the eyes. By understanding the different parts of the human eye, any method of retouching can be used to successfully retouch it. Every person’s eyes are made up of the pupil, iris, limbus, sclera, cornea and eyelid. The pupil is in the dead center, and is always black unless there is a catch light over it. The surrounding area is generally lighter color and it is in some cases colorful. The darker outer edge is the limbus. This edge joins the cornea and sclera. 

The eye is an extremely incredible organ. Below are three important pieces of information as to how light and shadows work and how to make the most of this information:

1) The light source always enters one side of the iris and is refracted from the opposite side of the iris. When editing the eyes, aside from the catch light, the brightest part of the iris has to be from where the light exits. Remember that the catch light hints to where direction the light is entering. 

2) The eyelid naturally casts a shadow on the upper portion of the iris. This means the iris should NOT be equally bright throughout the entire circle. 

3) The only way the eyes will appear sharp, pop and look 3D is if there is contrast. Darkening certain areas of the eyes (pupil, limbus) is just as crucial as brightening the eye. (More on contrast + the illusion of sharpness HERE.) 


Here is where people struggle the most. When approaching the iris and limbus, it’s crucial to think of it like dodging and burning. Adding contrast to the limbus with one or two brush strokes or lightening the iris with one or two strokes will result in an amateurish retouch. When editing the eyes, build up the highlights and shadows. The transition between the shasows on the edge and the highlight need to transition smoothly. 

There are dozens of ways to dodge and burn the eyes. Here are 2 quick methods. Feel free to combine both for the ultimate results. 

Method 1 - New Layer > 50% opacity > Overlay blend mode. Paint with a white brush at a flow of 5% -  white will dodge, black will burn. 

Method 2 - New layer set to 50% grey > Overlay blend mode. Use Photoshop’s Dodge and Burn tool (O) set to midtones/highlights at a low flow and start paining. For the burning select the burn tool set to shadows. 

Bags vs Eye Shadow

One thing I wish someone had told me when I had started retouching was the fact that the shadow under the lower lid is NOT considered bags under the eyes, this is a wanted shadow that again, gives the eye area wanted contrast. 


All images and other portraits can be found on my Facebook Page

If you found this article helpful, chances are your fellow photographers will as well, feel free to share this article with them. 





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Previous comments

Very thorough piece! You have me wanting to go snag tons of eyes shots to practice editing.

Wow this was extremely helpful! Thanks for the tips.

Sid J's picture

I have bookmarked this article to keep it handy.
What would you do differently for black eyes?