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Photo retouching: Making those gray, dull photos pop.

First, I’d like to wish my sister Kirsten and my dad a happy birthday. Love you guys!

Okay… on to the topic at hand. It’s Fix-It Friday at iheartfaces. Have you ever taken a photo of a darling subject only to find that dull gray wash over it?

Look at this beautiful girl. Look at those eyes. Even the way she is framed in the photo is beautiful. The problem? Humans don’t have gray skin. That flat, washed-out look doesn’t bring out what we see with our eyes, or more.

When I do kids’ portraits, I like to focus on the eyes and remove as much of the distractions around it as possible. I also love bright whites – my own personal style. You can still breathe a lot of life into photos without stylizing them as much as I did in this fun, bright, high-contrast style.

photo retouching, photoshop fixing kids portraits, how to make eyes pop photoshop

So, how do you use Photoshop to make eyes pop, whites bright and remove distractions?

Well, here’s how I do it. If you’d like to play along, go to the iheartfaces flickr page and download the largest res size. I used Photoshop CS3 for this tutorial, but most of this can be accomplished even with Elements. (Side note – CS5 goes on preorder on 4/12/10!)

  1. With the photo opened in Photoshop. Hit command-L / ctrl-L or go to Image> Adjustments> Levels to open up the levels box. You’ll see a mountain shape – a black silhouette. Under it is 3 triangles. Black, gray and white.
    – The black triangle will control the dark areas of the photo.
    – The gray triangles controls the mid levels.
    – The white triangle controls the light areas of the photo.
  2. Slide the triangles (levels) and watch the changes. For a more natural edit, line the dark and light levels with the “base” of each side of the mountain. For a more dramatic edit, keep sliding like I did. Already, you’ll see a dramatic difference.
  3. levels adjustment photoshop to make photo brighter

  4. Next sharpen the photo. Filter> sharpen> unsharp mask. I used:
    – amount 90%
    – radius 1.0 px
    – threshold 4 levels
    But you should judge with your own eye the way you like it.
  5. how to use unsharp mask photoshop tutorial

  6. Next, I ran an action called Martini & Olives from the Retro Actions from Red Leaf. I love what most of the action does as far as making the contrast and light nice. But I don’t love the olive green hue over it, so I remove that layer, by clicking on the eye icon next to that layer. (**UPDATE: Red Leaf Actions no longer sells Martini & Olives! )

    If you don’t have this action, you can achieve a similar look by playing with the contrast by going to Image> Adjustments> Brightness/Contast and increasing the contrast. Going to curves and dragging up the mid-tones. Then lowering the saturation of the photo slightly, by clicking command-U / control U or going to Image> Adjuments> Hue Saturation. Drag down the saturation of the image a little.

  7. turn off an action layer by clicking on the eye icon

  8. Flatten the layers by going to Image> Flatten (last choice on the menu).
  9. Find the patch tool on the Photoshop menu, and use it to patch out the blue vein between the girl’s eyes, and to reduce the dark circles under her eyes. Once you’ve drawn a circle around the part you want, drag the selection to a part of her face where there are no problem areas. I used her cheek.
  10. Next, run the action Color Flair from MCP’s Quickie Collection. If you don’t have this one, you could manually increase the saturations of the browns in the eyes, the pinks in the hood framing her face.
  11. Flatten the image. Run The Eye Doctor action from MCP Actions. I used only the layers to sharpen, and enhance catchlights. If you don’t own this action, you can acheive this look by sharpening only the eyes, and dodging the catch lights at a very low opacity.
  12. I added a bit more saturation to the hood, eyes and mouth by running MCP Action’s Color Finder Action from the Bag of Tricks action set.
  13. Lastly, crop slightly until you like the composition.

photo retouching before and after

photo retouching, photoshop fixing kids portraits, how to make eyes pop photoshop

Your turn. You can edit and link up to iheartfaces to share your efforts.


  1. Very helpful, I wondered how you’d gotten that vein to disappear.
    .-= Cherie´s last blog ..What to Eat When You Are Ill =-.

  2. I’m curious. Do you ever not do touch-ups? I am not a professional photographer, but I like to see pics that are real, showing what people really look like… fixing background stuff to make the subject pop is cool, but I think I personally would feel almost offended if I had my photo taken and someone did that to my photo, like I wasn’t good enough as I was. Has anyone ever asked for no retouch, or would I be a first?
    .-= Samantha´s last blog ..We’re Breaking Free! =-.

    • Sure, absolutely. I love soft, natural-light portraiture. But this isn’t portraiture. It wasn’t created with the intention to be realistic. It isn’t even my photograph – but she sure was fun! 😉

      Ideally someone would get color and exposure right in the camera. But iheartfaces allows people to submit photos that didn’t turn out straight of the camera. Then the playfulness begins. Her mother submitted this photo to iheartfaces so we all could enjoy playing with it. My example happens to be a very high-contrast, stylistic edit.

      This hobby isn’t really any different than painting. It’s not all that different than gardening or landscaping. Lord knows your yard doesn’t grow with strategic bursts of color, trimmed hedges, and perfectly weeded rows. People enjoy enhancing their yards.

      I’ve seen people make the photo look yellowish, or like it was shot in the 70s, Pioneer Woman offers a free set of actions that add grain, saturate the color, etc. Businesses like MCP Actions, Totally Rad Actions make it possible to make all sorts of wild enhancements with the click of a button. There is definitely a big (and growing!) market for this hobby.

      But pro-photoshop / anti-photoshop is a debate as old as photoshop itself. And even pro-photoshop people agree there is a time and place for it.

      What about cosmetics? Or hair dye? If you wear make up or dye your hair, is it really that different than the hobby of photo retouching? When women (or men) wear make up, get a perm, or use relaxers, wear spanx or body shapers, try to get a sun tan, color their hair or do anything considered a vanity… someone will think it’s fun while another thinks it’s vain or fake or unrealistic. I think we all have to draw our own line.

      This little girl is exquisite. While I have no doubt a well-done portrait of her wouldn’t need heavy-handed retouching, for those of us who enjoy playing with photos as a hobby, she was an amazing canvas. I am grateful to her mom for submitting this photo for a Fix-It Friday.

      • Thanks for your thoughts on that! I guess the purpose of Fix It Friday got lost on me. I didn’t realize it was fixing photos gone wrong….I thought it was a little different.

        Funny you bring up cosmetics….lol, I am kinda against most of that too, I wear eye makeup and lip gloss, but not all over face products. I also don’t like fake nails, spanx or tanning…I do color my hair now that I have noticed a few grays, (my husband was shocked because of my convictions about real beauty) and found it fun. Like you said though, we all have a line!

        Like I said, definitely not a professional! The most I usually do to my photos is crop and black and white, I wish I could learn a little more than that, you do beautiful things! Thank you so much for the reply!
        .-= Samantha´s last blog ..We’re Breaking Free! =-.

  3. Great eyes! I have 2 kids with very dark eyes like this and that is the hardest thing to make them pop. You did a great job. Like your description/tutorial on how you did this too. A fun fix!!
    .-= Amy @ I Heart Faces´s last blog ..Fix-It Friday #48 – Hands-On Photo Editing Fun! =-.

  4. FYI- I like minimalistic photoshopping on people, but now that I’m old… I love re-touching on myself! ha. Airbrush away on me please:-)

    Fix-it Friday is just a fun day to play around with a photo. It’s great to see so many different edits, that’s what gives other inspiration. I’m sure the mom of this girl will be thrilled with your fix.
    .-= Amy @ I Heart Faces´s last blog ..Fix-It Friday #48 – Hands-On Photo Editing Fun! =-.

  5. Beautiful!
    .-= Amy´s last blog ..Woodcock Dam =-.

  6. Your edit is awesome, Darcy!! I participated this week also, but I used PSE 7. I am pretty pleased with the final result. I have learned so much in the past few months – I love editing photos and the Fix it Friday is such a fun way to practice.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..365-84 No More Headlights =-.

  7. Darcy, this was a GREAT little tutorial! I tried it out with one of my own pictures. I don’t have any of the actions, so I just played around with the adjustments. Since I didn’t have the MCP actions, I selected the eyes and just sharpened them. It didn’t work AS good as the actions, but it did work somewhat! That was fun!


    • Ali,

      I usually like my hand-done edits better than the actions. I think actions are lazy-makers. They are great for quick edits, but don’t allow full control over the adjustments. If you can make your own actions (I have 1/2 dozen of my own, so far) that you use often that are your own style, you may prefer them over commercial ones anyway. 🙂

      Glad you liked it!

  8. well, i’m using fireworks, so i’m searching for a patchtool! i have a clone and a blur, still playing and figuring out what works. thanks for the post.
    .-= juliecache´s last blog ..St. Patrick’s Day =-.

    • I’ll have to open up Fw and see if there is a patch tool. If not, a clone tool at a low opacity would be a good substitute.

  9. It is a lot like painting. For me, it all depends on my mood and what my purpose for the shot is– from capturing the moment to evoking certain emotions.

    I just learned how to use that patch tool today! I need lots of undereye patching. It definitely distracts.

    I really like how your slight crop changed the focus of the photo. Great job, Darcy!
    .-= Marsha´s last blog ..Sweet Shot: my big sister =-.

  10. I LOVE that you SHOWED exactly how to do this Darcy!! I have CS3 and don’t know how to use it, I’m going to give this a try and follow your steps and see what I can do!!
    .-= TidyMom´s last blog ..I Heart Faces ~ Dramatic B&W =-.

  11. Love the information and the play by play steps – really appreciate it!

  12. I do my photoretouching manually with photoshop alone. Actions can be nice though if you duplicate your photo and apply the action so you can mask where you want the action applied.

    thanks for the tip… I’ll try downloading Retro Actions 🙂


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