When you’re talking to someone where are you looking? When you look at a portrait where do your eyes usually go first? I think the answer to these questions are that you usually look into the eyes of the person you are talking to, and into the eyes of the portrait first then move along the flow of the photograph. This makes it extremely important to have the eyes of a portrait really pop.
My favorite portraits are tight headshots. This makes it really important for me to get the eyes right. To make the eyes of a portrait special you have to first make sure they are in crisp focus. Anything less will not do. I’m talking specifically about the iris. The texture (I call it texture) and color of the iris really needs to be apparent or the eye will be dull and lifeless. Therefore, the most important thing to remember regarding portraits is that the focal point must be the eyes. This is where it all begins. If the eyes are not in focus the portrait will not work, especially with a tight headshot.
With the eyes in focus you can concentrate on the rest of the face. Probably the most important thing here is not to over do it. I think we have all been guilty at some point of softening the skin too much, or too much white in the eyes, or thinning the face too much, etc.. There are so many tools for you that some times you tend to get carried away. I know I have. My advice is to trust what you got in the camera. Do very light retouching. I have learned over the years that if you light well, set your white balance correctly, and compose well, then you usually get pretty good results.
Most of the time my retouching includes removing blemishes or maybe lightly retouching wrinkles so they’re not so apparent. Skin softening is usually done through a method to remove noise. I have found that this not only removes the noise, but adds just a very small amount of softening which looks very natural to me. Finally, though the eyes are in focus I will usually add a very small amount of sharpening to them. This includes not only the iris but the eye lids to really bring out the lashes. Sharpening the eye lids adds a little pop to the eyes that really gets your attention.
Anything else is for creative results. Sometime I will make the portrait high key, or convert it to black and white. Usually I have this in mind when shooting the image, but some time I will be processing the image and it will occur to me to try something different. Especially if I think it’s a good image, but it’s just not wowing me.
Now tell me you don’t look at the eyes first.