Eyes are simply the most important thing in a portrait. We know this. We do all kinds of things to emphasize the eyes. Catchlights, reflectors and post-processing all work to focus attention on your subject’s eyes. But you should go easy when you add sharpening and saturation in post.
If you’re like me, you can probably point to the date you discovered Lightroom’s adjustment brush and its presets. There’s a preset in there called “Iris Enhance” and it ranks up the brightness, the clarity, and the saturation of the eyes. It makes a huge impact when you brush it onto the subject’s irises. You can tell when I discovered it because all of my portraits suddenly had neon glowing eyeballs. They certainly drew the viewer’s attention.
The problem with that preset is that it is too strong. It puts too much focus on the eyes and makes them look unnatural. The key to retouching eyes is to make them pop without looking like you did anything at all.
Your eye retouching, or any retouching, should be invisible. You should add intensity to the eyes without anyone noticing that it was done. The worst thing someone can say about your portrait is that you did a great job in Photoshop. Whatever alterations you make should be invisible.
This photo is a good example. The top image has too much adjustment in the eyes — they glow and look fake. The second one adds a little light, a little definition and a little punch in the color. It’s just about right.
What’s too much?
One thing’s for sure: Any slider moved to 100 is too much. The pictures above were done in Luminar. The too much shot has the Eye Enhancer cranked up to 100. The Goldilocks setting for Eye Enhancer is probably around 25 on most pictures, as in the middle picture above.
But how do you know? A good thing to do before you ever share a picture is to finish your editing and then take a break. Come back an hour or a day later and look again. Does it still look natural without drawing attention to the work done on it?
If you don’t have time to leave and bring fresh eyes back to it, try viewing the photo in monochrome. Black and white removes all the color distractions and shows only the tone and sharpness changes and that can help you identify what is too much in your retouching.
You can see here that the third one is just too much.
Never say never
Now, are there times when you might want to crank it up to 100? Sure. There may even be times when you add adjustment layers and crank each of those to 100. You could go to 1,000 if you want. But those eyes would be very unnatural-looking. The key to flattering portraits is a cohesive whole that fits together well. You should draw attention to the eyes, but it should be the right kind and amount of attention.
Go ahead and discover the adjustment tools and go ahead and use them too strongly. It’s part of learning how to do things. But also try coming back later and even viewing your picture in black and white to see if you’ve taken it a little too far. Just go easy on the eyes.
For this edit, I experimented using Luminar to alter the color of the scarf so it wasn’t quite so bright, which I felt distracted from her eyes.