Adding Sparkle to Eyes

01 OriginalI spent a little time getting to know Jeremy again, an 8 year-old nephew, who I hadn’t seen since he was a toddler.  He is very smart for his age and very friendly. Before long, he felt comfortable with me and sat still long enough for some shots.  I loved his expression, the pose, and how he looked right at the camera so I  decided that adding sparkle to his eyes would be worthwhile.


Adding Sparkle

I always do both eyes at the same time, rather than try to replicate what was done with one eye later, and zoom in as far as possible, keeping both eyes in view. On the background layer the first step was to clone out the existing unimpressive catch lights. Next was to use the sponge tool to lightly saturate the color of the iris, setting the sponge tool to saturate at about 40% opacity. Then the burn tool was used to lightly accentuate the darkness of the outer edges of the iris. This is subtle, but adds just a little more contrast to the whites of the eye, boosting the perception of sharpness. On a new layer that I named “pupil”, the brush tool was used to fill in the pupil after sampling the existing pupil color. On another new layer, that I named “catch light big”, the beginning of the catch light was painted in with a small white brush with about 80% hardness. This should be done going into the pupil slightly and at either 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock, depending on the direction of the light. The most light was coming from the left, so the 10 o’clock position was used, and when done, the opacity of that layer was reduced. On another new layer, named “catch light small”, a smaller dab of white was added over the previous catch light and that layer’s opacity was also reduced.

01 Start Image02 Cloned out Highlights03 Sponged Iris04 Burned Iris Edges05 Pupil Painted06 Highlight 107 Highlight 2

Making Moons

The color of the iris was sampled and then a much lighter and more saturated color was chosen in the color picker. The color picker becomes active by clicking on the foreground color in the tools pallet. On a new layer named “big moon” a soft brush was used to paint opposite the catch light inside the iris color. The opacity of that layer was reduced.  On another new layer named “little moon”, with a slightly smaller brush and the same color, a smaller moon was painted in and then reduced in opacity.


8 Iris Color Sampled9 Moon Color Selected10 Big Moon Painted11 Big Moon at 8 percent Opacity12 Little Moon Painted13 Little Moon at 8 percent Opacity

Finishing the Eyes

Another new layer was added and named “whiten eyes”. With a soft white brush, large enough to cover the whole eye, and set at 20% opacity in the toolbar, the brush was moved across each eye. The eraser tool was used to erase all around the outside of the eye and all over the iris to remove the white that spilled into those areas. Again, the opacity was adjusted. Teeth can be brightened the same way. The next step was to burn the eyelashes to bring them out and to add contrast, which also adds to the perception of sharpness. I dodge and burn non-destructively by adding a layer and filling it with 50% gray and changing the blend mode to overlay. With this blend mode, when you paint with black, it will only darken the pixels that are already darker than 50% grey. A very small brush was used at about 7% opacity, and if it is too much, the layer opacity can be reduced. Removing changes made to this layer can be done by painting with a brush filled with 50% gray.

14  Eyes Painted White15 Whitened Eyes Erased16 Burned Eyelashes

Assessing the Changes

Since all these modifications were done on separate layers that were named along the way, I went back and tweaked the opacity on some of the layers. The idea in the whole exercise is to enhance the eyes in a way that is believable. Having the whites of the eyes too white is not believable. I will take all the eye layers and put them in a group.  Then I can toggle the visibility of the group to compare it to the original. If a person adds short descriptive text to name new layers as you go along, it is easier to find a layer you want to modify later.

Eyes BeforeEyes After

Final Adjustments

His face looked he could use a little for color, so with a hue/saturation adjustment layer, his skin was sampled and the saturation was increased slightly. In the same way that the eyelashes were burned above using a 50% gray layer in the overlay blend mode, hair highlights, especially those close to the face, were enhanced by painting with a soft, low opacity white brush.

16 Eyes Finished17 Color Boost18 Hair Before18 Hair Highlights

I saved the layered file and in Lightroom cropped the image and gave it a dark vignette.  Here is a comparison of the before and after:

Jeremy OriginalJeremy Final

This sounds like a lot of steps that could take some time, but it goes very quickly once you do it a few times and in some instances, I think it is time well spent.  If you would like to try this technique yourself, you can download a pdf showing all these steps to add sparkle here:   How I Add Sparkle to Eyes-Terry M Butler  Clicking on the link will automatically download into your downloads folder.  And if you just want to whiten eyes or teeth, just do those steps.

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  1. Patrick Ng November 21, 2014 at 9:40 pm #

    Hi Terry,

    Before I post my “real” comment, I would like to say that my comment is not meant to be telling you what you should do.

    Did you use a flash? The reason why I am saying this is that I have noticed that open shade or overcast days tend to miss something in my opinion: a touch of “hard” light. Overcast days tend (in my opinion) to produce flat photos. This is why I like to bring my flash especially during the day. I find that by adding some low power flash light give me a better look.

    Patrick Ng

    • Terry November 22, 2014 at 8:06 am #

      Patrick, you are convincing me that I should invest in flash equipment. Having a reflector with me may have helped, but this was totally unplanned. Thanks for your comment.

      • Patrick Ng November 22, 2014 at 11:35 am #

        I think a reflector would have helped indeed. There are times when a photo shoot is totally unplanned like you said. There have been times when I had to take the picture or risked leaving without any picture at all because my daughter would not sit still.

        The downside of getting used to flash is the risk of become overly dependent on flash. Sometimes I feel “naked” because I cannot use my flash :-) If I may make a suggestion: if you are getting a flash, get the flagship model if you can. I wish I had bought the 580EX II at the time instead of the 430EX II.

    • Terry November 22, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

      Thanks for the recommendation, Patrick. I want to concentrate on portraiture for 2015 and know I will need flash and learn how to use it. Thankfully, there is a fellow photographer in my photo club who will hold my hand.

      • Patrick Nga November 22, 2014 at 7:55 pm #

        You’re lucky to have someone to hold your hand. After I bought my flash, I started to read about flash photography, but was still very frustrated with the results. I was so close to give up flash photography but then found a course by Neil Van Niekerk. I can honestly say that I truly learned the basics of flash photography from him. From there, I was able to use my flash more and more and becoming better at using a flash.

        Again, this is just my personal experience, you don’t have to follow what I did. Because I was learning flash photography and making many mistakes along the way, it was not easy to get someone to sit down for hours as my subject. I had to find a way to be able to experiment. I became my own subject and proceeded like this:

        – Marked the place where I need to stand
        – From the marked position, I would focus on my tripod head, and then switched the focus to manual on the lens
        – Use a long USB cable to shoot tethered
        – From the marked position, I used a remote control to tigger the camera

        From there, I would experiment with various light position and power.

        • Terry November 22, 2014 at 9:12 pm #

          Great tips, Patrick. Was the course by Neil Van Niekerk on line? And specific to portraiture?

          • Patrick Ng November 22, 2014 at 9:59 pm #

            I cannot take all the credit. I used to put a light stand where I would be standing and then focus on the light stand. Then I saw a video on YouTube where a lady showed that doing the opposite what more efficient.

            Neil has a few courses on, but the ones I took were On-Camera flash, and Off-Camera flash. He is primarily a wedding photographer, therefore most of what is taught in theses courses is geared towards portraiture. He also has a nice blog where he has nice articles. I think if you use one of his links, you can get a discount for the course.

            And before I forget, if at some point you decide you need to remote trigger your flash, buy some wireless triggers. They are more expensive than a long TTL cable, but so much more convenient. I would suggest getting the Phottix Odin system. You can read reviews about it online. It’s cheaper than Pocket Wizard, and very reliable. I love mine. Don’t do what I did though. I was not sure about the whole flash photography thing and decided to get a long TTL cable. It was not too cheap since it cost me $60. Then I realised that it was not convenient at all. I got some cheap Yongnuo manual flash triggers. Then I realised that I wanted the option of using either TTL or manual flash remotely depending on what wanted to do, and ended buying the Phottix Odin. The good thing that came out of the manual Yongnuo triggers was that I learned to control my flash manually. It was a great experience.

            Finally, in case I have not said it, flash photography can potentially be VERY frustating at the beginning, but so rewarding if you persevere. Like Neil said, available light is not always of the best quality. Sometimes we need artificial light.

          • Terry November 23, 2014 at 8:23 am #

            I can’t thank you enough, Patrick, for taking the time to send me all this information and sharing your experiences. I can see it will be a challenge, but one I look forward to understanding, if not mastering.

  2. Marilyn November 21, 2014 at 10:40 pm #

    These are subtle and in the final image yes you can see the difference. I don’t take too many closeup portraits so that is not something I concentrate on. Looks nice.

  3. Patrick Ng December 1, 2014 at 2:53 pm #


    Today every course on Craftsy is $19.99 or less.

    • Terry December 1, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

      Thanks, Patrick. I’m signed up for two. Now to get a speedlight!

      • Patrick Ng December 1, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

        You’re in a nice position of not having invested in any flash equipment yet. Going through the course, you’ll have a better idea of what you need to buy.

  4. Ted December 4, 2014 at 8:49 pm #

    Nicely done. Agree with Patrick that flash could help. Shoot for ambient, adjust flash for key lighting or shoot a couple stops over ambient and expose your subject with the flash. I brings them nicely out of the background and you can control the directionality of the light. Of course this is best case- a planned shoot where you have time to setup a stand and light or have your trusty VAL around to help.

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