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A Desperate Plea to Stop Screwing Up Eyes Using Photoshop

One of the most common retouching catastrophes I see on a day to day basis is an overzealous attack on eyes. Like over-baked HDR, obnoxiously over-retouched eyes have become almost ubiquitous among less experienced retouchers. Awareness is the first step to recovery, so in the spirit of painting a big obvious flag in front of all of you eye ruiners out there, take note. Your models will love you if you learn how to make their eyes look amazing without making them look like they belong in an episode of "Stranger Things."

Stop Making Eye Whites Glow

Why is it that so many photographers want to make the whites of the eyes perfectly white? It is one of the most obviously obnoxious things that you can do. I know that your goal is to retouch a model into looking like a perfect version of themselves, but in what world are perfectly flat, white eyes a reflection of a perfect human? You would need to stick lightbulbs in their eyes to achieve such an effect in real life. Stop screwing with the tonality of eyes whites, they have shadows because they are round in shape. By flattening out the eye as if it has no three-dimensional shape not only do you make the image look incredibly strange but you also are making the eyes look cartoony. Furthermore, it's important to remember that a viewer instinctively is drawn to the brightest point of the image; if you are making the eye whites so bright that they distract from everything else, there is a problem.

Fixing up eye whites is pretty easy and requires very little special attention. If the model has too many veins, simply clone them away the same way that you do blemishes on the skin. If the model's eyes are too red then adjust their color or reduce their saturation the same way you fix discoloration in the skin. Do not reduce saturation to zero; even the most perfect eyes don't become magically black and white.

Stop Making Irises Look Like They Belong to a Possessed Alien 

The iris is often the most important part of a portrait. It conveys the most expression and is what drives the most connection to the viewer. When you make eyes look like they are straight out of that unfortunately poor film, "The Host," you do succeed in drawing attention to the eyes, but instead of drawing attention to beauty or character you draw attention to the impossibility of the effect which shatters the credibility of your photo. Increasing the brightness of irises can be an incredibly helpful tool but don't overdo it. Learn restraint and pull back the opacity of your effect heavily. The goal should be to draw attention to the eyes but the viewer should never actually notice the effect consciously. Rather, they should only think about how amazing your model's eyes are.

Stop Changing Irises to a Uniform Color

As retouchers we often encounter situations where changing the hue of an eye can be a strong asset to a photo. Moving to a rich blue or green can be a beautiful change, just ask Peter Jackson; Frodo wouldn't have been Frodo without his ridiculously blue eyes. The biggest mistake many retouchers make when trying to accomplish an eye color change, however, is that they simply mask the iris on a hue/saturation layer then hit that magnificent colorize button to uniformly make the entire iris the exact same hue. At a glance, it works great but there is a strangeness to it that isn't quite right. This is because no eye has a single uniform tone. Even the bluest or greenest eyes have a variety of green or blue tones within them. In order to address this, the easiest solution is to pull back the opacity of your adjustment layer. Not only does this make the effect more subtle, it also allows the original color of the eye to subtlely mix with the colorize layer so that you are able to retain a diversity of hue within the iris. While we are on the subject, also don't over saturate eyes when you do this. A pupil shouldn't look like it is filled with Kool-Aid.

Point Light Sources Make Horrible Catchlights

This is a major pet peeve of mine that you probably will struggle to unsee now that I'm about to point it out. There are a huge array of situations that can cause a tiny specular highlight to reflect right in the middle of the pupil. The most common cause is an unmodified speedlight or another light source within line of sight of the model. Always clone them out. Bigger catchlights do a great job of adding a beautiful twinkle to the eye but tiny little specular highlights only make it look like there is some sort of white dust right in the middle of the model's eye. This is very distracting to the viewer as we are so instinctively mortified by objects in our own eyes. Most viewers won't be able to tell you that it is that little white dot that is distracting them but they won't feel as connected to the photo until you remove that nasty little highlight. 

Learn to Step Away From the Computer

While working an image we tend to desensitize our vision to the effects that we have applied to that image. Thus, we tend to apply thicker and thicker layers of effects just so we can still see that those effects have been applied. This phenomenon is at its most severe when it comes to eyes. Before finalizing images always make a point of spending some time away from your computer to then re-evaluating your effects before doing your final export. Most of the time you will find you have overdone it and need to pull back the opacity of the effect to create a more natural blend. Taking the example image used throughout this article, my original edit for it was a tad over the top — though I never went quite as far as any of these obnoxious examples that I had to shatter my heart. Upon re-evaluating, I heavily drew back the impact of the effect and am much happier with the final image as a result.


Like almost all aspects of retouching, getting great eyes is about perfecting subtlety. The eyes are such an important aspect of a portrait that you need to learn how to get them right or your photography will forever suffer. Study how light interacts with the eye and learn how to augment in a way that looks natural. Unless you are literally doing a special effect on a character that is supposed to look like an alien, a general goal to not make your model look possessed is probably a good one to follow. The best advice I can offer is to always pull back the opacity of an eye effect. In this regard, too little is always much better than too much.

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Scott Hays's picture

If this isn't an article that needed to be written about... let's say from the beginning of Photoshop and people learning this could be done, it never was. Unless someone is purposely trying to go for something way out there; eyes just require almost nothing. If they weren't shot right to begin with, you usually can't save them.

Great article...

Martin Moore's picture

so true.

Michael Kormos's picture

I kind of like them (the overdone eyes). It's this type of photoshop butchery that differentiates Facebook/Instagrammers vying for "likes" from professionals. You'll be hard pressed to find a reputable online/print publications (editorial or commercial) where this type of post production work would get approved by the art director in charge.

These things may be considered cool by social media photographers who are eager to share "before-and-afters", but you'll never see them in a photo gallery or magazine. At some point, quality control takes over and separates the two.

Mr Blah's picture

But when it's time to 'shop up the "fat" in the tighs and arms, the standards are so low there is an example of it posted here about ever 2 months...

Jeff Morris's picture

Nice article! Short, sweet, and to the point. I personally like to add a touch of iris glow as well as some saturation if the model's eye color is on the muted side, but I long ago stopped messing with the whites of the eyes (although I DO live in Colorado where weed is legal, so a bit of desaturated reds helps).

A good follow-up article would be how NOT to edit teeth. :D

Jason Lorette's picture

Agreed on the teeth!

Mr Blah's picture
michael buehrle's picture


Ken Welch's picture

Hey, Ryan, you began your article by mentioning that you see these catastrophes on a day-to-day basis (and it must be quite frequent as you've titled your article a desperate plea). What part of your photography activities is it that results in you encountering all these train wrecks?

James Moxley's picture

I believe he's referring to social media such as instagram, facebook, 500px...

Ken Welch's picture

Ah, OK. I don't know him personally, I thought he perhaps curates / moderates incoming pictures somewhere and in the interest of increased productivity needs to find a way to reduce the levels of shots like these. If that were the case I guess a plea would be a good way to start, after which (sometimes more desperate means are required) he'd have to ban the people submitting them. But I suppose it's like how I react each time I see Comic Sans; while I myself don't have a stake in it, I wouldn't mind if someone developed a virus to delete the font files from wherever they're encountered.

David T's picture

Scroll down to featured photos and you will find a few examples :)
Although it might be inteded with some, like the "AI" composite.

Ben Perrin's picture

Yeah, I used to do the whiten the eyes and teeth thing. I couldn't figure out at first why I couldn't make it look good. Now I use a bit of red/yellow/magenta (if needed) desaturation and a little extra contrast in the iris. Still though, if it's a fantasy shot sometimes I enjoy seeing something that is over exaggerated.

Lukas Petereit's picture

Great article! I totally agree with your opinion on that topic, thanks for the article!

Paulo Macedo's picture

Now you made me dive into my gallery, it's ok, they're somewhat good lol

Martin Moore's picture

Fantastic writeup. The author spits the truth. As a commercial photographer I have to do a lot of retouching give our images that 'Commercial' look and eye's are always a tricky one. The only things I really ever do is brush in Clarity/sharpness to the eye lashes as if I were doing makeup, and then brush out any redness in the eyes and then brush in one stroke of +3 exposure - 10 contrast over the entire eye itself. Making eye's pop without looking unnatural or possessed like the OP mentioned is an art that is learned. I feel like it's so hard today to tell young editors/graphic artists that their edits need some tweaking for fear of retaliation, but the truth is we all need to hear when we aren't on the general correct path when it comes to the fundamentals of editing.

Sergio Tello's picture

It's what a lot of people like now days, not me. Just browse through the gallery section and you will see that some of the most popular pictures are the ones with fake looking eyes, fake looking skin and overworked backlit photos.

Andrew Von Haden's picture

My god if this isn't rampant in cosplay photography. Thanks for the article!

Justin James's picture

I actually prefer the overdone look, especially for surreal painterly images. I think this article is a bit narrow-minded in thinking that photography should look one particular way or that there is only a right way of retouching which to me is authoritative and kind of shitty.

Rob Ruttan's picture

I must be a dinosaur. I rarely take pictures of people, but when I do I want them to look like the people I photographed.

Deleted Account's picture

Haha, well written! BTW: what on earth did you do to the model?

Ryan Cooper's picture

hahaha, we went to dinner after the shoot, she got some really funny looks. ;)

Helen Lantz's picture

Very good advice, especially the final point; "learn to step away from the computer." I've avoided scores of embarrassing submissions by doing that simple little trick, especially when processing large batches of images after a long day of shooting. It's definitely a humbling experience to think you've gotten it "just right", and then after a short break looking at the same image with fresh eyes and thinking "Omigawd! ... What was I thinking?!"