GIMP Tutorial: How to Enhance the Eyes in Your Image

Eyes are the windows to the soul, which means you’ll want them to stand out a bit in your images to make your subject look that much more glamorous, handsome, or approachable. In my experience, there isn’t one right way to edit your subject’s eyes as there are a variety of methods and tools in GIMP that will get the job done. So, for this tutorial, I am going to show you a method that I personally have found to be useful and consistent when you want to enhance the eyes in your image.

I’m going to use the same portrait photo we’ve been using throughout the course (above) – more specifically the cropped version with a 1:1 aspect ratio. I’ll start by select the main layer of our image and clicking the “duplicate” icon in the layers panel on the right to duplicate the layer. I’ll then double click on the layer name of the new layer we just created, or will right click on that layer and go to “Edit Layer Attributes.” I’ll change the name to “Enhancements.”

Next, I’ll grab the zoom tool from my tool panel and will click and drag my zoom tool around my subject’s eyes (demonstrated in the photo above). When I release the mouse, my image will now be zoomed in on this area. I can click again with the zoom tool to zoom in further, or can hold the ctrl key while I click to zoom out a bit. You should be able to see both eyes of the subject as well as the details within the eye (including the eyelids).

I’ll then grab the Free Select Tool from the Toolbox by clicking the lasso icon at the top. I’ll come down to the Tool Options for my Free Select Tool at the bottom of my Toolbox panel (shown in the bottom half of the image above)​ and will change the mode to “Add to the current selection.” This will ensure that I can draw a selection area around both eyes as the “Replace the current selection” mode erases the previous section each time I draw. Also, check the “feather edges” box and change the radius to 5 using the slider.

I’ll come over to my first eye and will draw with the free selection tool around the entire eye, trying to avoid the eyelids and any area outside of the iris of the eye. If you accidentally draw too much outside of the iris, you can change the mode of the Free Select Tool to “Subtract from the current selection” or hold the ctrl key and draw over the parts where you messed up. Be sure to switch back to “Add to the current selection” or release the ctrl key once you have fixed your mistake(s). If you missed part of the iris, you can just draw around the area you missed so long as the mode is still set to “Add to current selection.” You will need to close the loop of your Free Select Tool path for it to become a selection area (shown in the image above, denoted by the yellow circle where the path loop is closed).

Once I’m happy with the selection around the iris, I’ll then repeat this process on the right eye, continuing to use the Free Select Tool.

After I’ve drawn a selection area around both eyes, I’ll go to File>Copy or will hit ctrl+c on my keyboard, then will go to File>Paste or will hit ctrl+v on my keyboard to paste the selection area onto a floating layer (shown in the image above in the layers panel on the right side of your GIMP interface). Go over to your layers panel and click on the floating layer. Click the “Create a new layer” icon to convert the floating layer into a new layer called “Pasted Layer” by default.

Change the name of this layer to “Eyes” by double clicking the layer name and typing this new name.

If you hide the two layers below this layer (by clicking the “eye” icon next to each layer), you will see that your pasted layer contains just the eyes that you drew your selection area around (see image above). You can also see if you grabbed a little bit of the eyelids or other areas around the eye. If you did, grab your eraser tool and go down to your tool options. Change your brush to a soft brush and adjust the size of the brush by either using the size slider or the brackets on your keyboard (i.e. “[“ or “]”). You can also grab your zoom tool first and zoom in on the eyes a bit to be able to edit around the iris a bit more precisely.

Once you have cleaned up around the iris to your liking, show the lower two layers again by going to the layers panel clicking next to them until the “eye” icon reappears along with the image on each layer.

Next, I’ll click on the “Eyes” layer again and will grab my levels tool either by click the Toolbox icon or by going to Colors>Levels. I’ll use the three triangles – the black, grey, and white triangles – to adjust the levels of the colors in my subject’s eyes. You will likely need to drag the white triangle over to the left significantly as eyes tend to be darker on your histogram (the graph that appears within the levels tool). Once I have the color I want in my subject’s eyes, I’ll click OK to apply the changes.

I can also adjust the color levels and the hue-saturation of the eyes to help them look more vibrant or bring them to their natural color. With my “Eyes” layer selected, I’ll grab the Hue-Saturation tool by clicking the icon in the Toolbox or by going to Colors>Hue-Saturation. Adjust the saturation slider to increase or decrease the intensity of the color in the eyes. For blue or grey eyes, it might actually look better to decrease the saturation a bit. You can even drag the hue slider to experiment with changing the color of the eyes. Once you find the right look, click OK to apply the changes.

Finally, with my “Eyes” layer still selected, I’ll click on the Color Balance tool via the icon we created in the Toolbox panel or by going to Colors>Color Balance. In the “Adjust Color Balance” dialogue box that pops up, I can drag the sliders for each color pair to adjust the color of the eyes. I’ll do this for the shadows, midtones, and highlights, or until I get the right color for the eyes. This tool can also be used to change the color of the eyes of your subject.

I can grab my zoom tool and hold the ctrl key on the keyboard to zoom out on my image and look at my subject as a whole to see if the eyes look natural. If not, I can hit ctrl+z on my keyboard to undo the changes to the “Eyes” layer and adjust the levels again. Otherwise, I can move on.

Next, I’ll grab the Dodge/Burn tool from the Toolbox panel and will grab the Hardness 025 brush to ensure I have a very soft brush (shown above). I can again adjust the size of my brush by sliding the size slider, located just below the brush in the Tool Options, or by using the left or right brackets on my keyboard.

I’ll then click on my “Enhancements” layer in the layers panel. I’ll go over to my subject’s left eye and will draw with the burn tool just above the eye along the dark parts of the eyelid (you can faintly see the brush in action in the picture above right above the right eye). The brush should be big enough to draw over the eyelid with one stroke, but small enough to not accidentally draw on the eye or the area between the eyelid and the eyebrow. This will lighten up your subject’s eyelids and bring out the eyes a bit better.

The last technique I detailed is usually used more so for female subjects as highlighting around the eyes does tend to look like makeup and add a bit of a feminine quality to the subject. For men, you can apply this effect on your enhancements layer, but can decrease the opacity of the layer by clicking on the layer and going up to the opacity slider at the top of the Layers panel (denoted by the red arrow in the picture above). You can drag the slider until this highlight is a bit subtler. You can also set your Dodge/burn tool’s range to “Shadows” before painting as another way to make the effect subtle.

You can click the show/hide “eye” icon next to each layer that you altered to see a before and after of your changes. Once everything is to your liking, click ctrl+s to save your progress.

That’s it for this tutorial!