Making Eyes Pop Using Gimp

March 25, 2010

I don’t take a lot of photos of other people – you’ve probably figured that out by now. But when I do, I often like to play around with the eyes in the photo in order to make them pop a bit more.

I have two methods that I’ve used to do this, so I’m going to show you both of them using one photo so you can compare them and decide for yourself which one you like better.

First off, though, here’s the image I’m starting with:

f/1.8; 50mm; 1/50 sec; ISO 800

f/1.8; 50mm; 1/50 sec; ISO 800

Everyone say hi to my nephew! This photo was actually taken about a year ago, though, and darn if kids don’t grow up so fast, so he probably doesn’t look much like this anymore. He’s still just as cute, though.

Anyway, let’s work on those eyes.

Dodge and Burn

I first learned about this trick from an article on DPS that was written specifically for Photoshop, that I was able to adapt slightly in order to use it in Gimp.

First, I duplicate the layer. I know I’ve said in the past that I might be a bit too addicted to duplicating layers, but I really think it’s important this time around.

Dodge and BurnThen, I zoom into my photo a lot so that the eye takes up a significant portion of my screen and then select the Dodge / Burn Tool (whose icon looks like the one you see to the left). The idea here is that we’re going to burn the dark parts of his eye (the center and edges) to make them darker and dodge the mid-tones of the colored part of his eyes to make them brighter.

(wow, I really got a bit uncomfortable writing that I was going to burn my nephew’s eyes.)

So. First, I switch my brush to a fuzzy circle and then hold them up to his eye to make sure the circle is about the same size as the darker circle around the outside of his eye, like so:

Fuzzy Circle

Next I select the “Burn” and “Shadows” radio buttons, then I drop the exposure down to anywhere between 20 and 35. I did 25 in this case. Then I carefully draw around the edge of the colored part of the eye to make it just slightly darker. After that, I like to bump up the exposure to 35 before darkening the middle of the eye – the higher the exposure, the darker the burning is going to be. If you want, you can also play with the Opacity slider to get a similar effect.

Here’s what the eye looks like close-up after I’ve burned the edge and center of the eye:

Before and After Burn

Now, switch to the Dodge radio button, select Midtones and drop the exposure down to 15 max (I usually do 10, which is what I’m doing now for my nephew’s eye). If you want, you can use a bigger brush for this part, because now we’re going to be brightening the brown part of the eye, which isn’t quite as small as the edges, obviously. Here’s what the results of the dodging is:

Before and After Dodge

It’s a very subtle change, yes. But check out the before and after of his eye not-so-zoomed in:


The reason why I always create a duplicate layer before playing with the eyes like this is because it’s really easy to overdo this effect when you’re all zoomed in and not realize what it really looks like. If you have a duplicate layer, you can scale back the effect by decreasing the opacity of that layer without having to Undo a whole bunch of times.

Here’s my nephew with both eyes dodged and burned:

After Dodge and Burn

After Dodge and Burn

Here’s the original photo again:

The Original Photo

The Original Photo

The difference is obvious (to me, at least, I hope it is to you, too!), but not over the top. If you like this method, but want it a bit more obvious, just use higher values for the Exposure and/or when using the dodge tool, experiment with doing it to the highlights instead of the midtones – this will make things even brighter.

Sharpen and Curves

This next method I adapted from a Pioneer Woman tutorial (I love her, she’s near the top of my People I Love Who Have No Idea I Exist list).

Note that I’m going back to my original image – so there’s no dodging and burning done to the eyes at this point. This is a separate option. I’ve never tried both effects together. I imagine it might be a bit too pop-y though.

First, guess what I do? Duplicate the layer!

Then, using your lasso tool (with a feathered edge, that way the effect you’re about to do won’t be so obvious at the edges), select around the colored part of the eye, like so:

Lasso the eye!

Then go to Filters –> Enhance –> Unsharp Mask, and following Ree’s advice, I set the Radius to 3.6, the Threshold to 0, and then slide the Amount until you can really see the effect. In this case, I have it at 95:

Unsharp Mask

Now I go to Colors –> Curves and give it just a slight S-curve:

S-shaped curve

This is going to make the darker parts of his eye darker and the lighter parts lighter.

Here’s a before and after of the eye close up:

Before and After of Sharpen and Curves

Here he is with both eyes done in this method:

After Sharpen and Curves

After Sharpen and Curves

And for comparison, here’s the Dodge and Burn method again:

After Dodge and Burn

After Dodge and Burn

And finally, here’s the original one last time:

The Original Photo

The Original Photo

In this particular case, I happen to like the Sharpen and Curves method, but I often prefer the Dodge and Burn (I’ve noticed that I like Dodge and Burn better on bright blue eyes, and Sharpen and Curves better on darker eyes, but even that isn’t a steadfast rule).

Before writing this entry, I searched the internet for other Eye-popping tricks and found a bunch – more than I had time to test, though a common theme was sharpening and increasing contrast one way or another. Is there a method you use that you swear by? Let us know!

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  • i like it!

  • Great tutorial - amazed at how simple it actually is!!! :)

  • Lynn

    That was very clear and straightforward, thank you.

    I really like the results from the Dodge and Burn method - not so fond of the Sharpen and Curves (though I can see that it is quicker and easier to do) as the lower eye looks too dark, with little definition of the pupil. I can see that the pupil isn't so highly defined in the original either but your Dodge and Burn has brought it out and the eyes in that photo, and your nephew, look wonderful.

    Is it my imagination or, in the second illustration of before and after for the dodge and burn, did you get the labelling the wrong way around?

    Once again, thanks for illustrating this technique. I've downloaded Gimp now but have not yet started to 'play' with it and know nothing about it, so really appreciate all your hints and tips.

    Hope that you enjoy the rest of the weekend.

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