All about eyes

All about eyes

I buy some new eyes for my crew, and review what eye traits create the 'follow you' effect in a doll's gaze.

These are the first eyes I've bought since I returned from my decade-long BJD hiatus.  I'd always wanted to try high quality glass eyes, especially those from Japanese eyemakers.  I recently had a chance to buy some pairs from esuko, who keeps a delightfully enthusiastic eye journal on Instagram.  Here they are!

A pair for Vallant

Miyabi Glass Studio, glass, 14mm normal iris (7mm), in green outer/red inner gradient and white threading.
Vallant previously wore my only pair of 14mm eyes, DropRops urethane in 'Royal Purple Blue'.  He's the main reason I went on an eye-buying binge.

Normal iris gives Vallant a gentle, dreamy look. His character is a sharper, more alert type, though, so I might eventually try 14mm small iris (6mm) in him.

I'd planned for Vallant to have green eyes, and I love the distinctive colour in this Miyabi pair. It's a shame his narrower eyes can't show off the full colour shift between red and green, and make it harder to capture the 'follow you' effect. But Vallant already looks more like himself, so he'll wear them until the time is right to get him smaller eyes. But these eyes are beautiful, so who knows - he might keep these after all.

Vallant is borrowing Justinian's body for these photos; his own body can't come soon enough!

A pair for Halcyon

Hitomiya 瞳屋, glass, 16mm normal iris (8mm), cerulean blue with a subtle violet rim.
Halcyon previously wore Enchanted Doll, urethane, 16mm Classic #47 aquamarine.

I'd wanted to own Hitomiya eyes since I was a BJD newbie. This pair did not disappoint. Being glass, they're subtly asymmetric: one eye has a slightly tilted dome, and its pupil isn't perfectly centred underneath.  But Halcyon's eyewells are themselves asymmetric, her right eyewell a bit thicker and just the tiniest bit more squinty than the other. It was a bit tricky to figure out which of Halcyon's eyewells suited the off-centred eye better, and then to position them properly, but everything worked out!

I thought it would be hard to top Halcyon's original ED eyes, which had vivid colour and an incredible 'follow you' effect. This Hitomiya pair follows a bit less precisely because of the asymmetric eye dome and pupil, and the highlights are a bit unevenly placed. But they look wonderful in Halcyon, with great clarity and glow. I like the violet iris rim, and the way the blue seems to subtly shift colour with angle. These eyes confidently pass the benchmark set by Halcyon's former eyes, and I prefer their cerulean colour over aquamarine, as they match her kimono much better (Halcyon's colour scheme is predominantly blue). I am extremely happy with them and I think they'll be her forever pair.

A pair for Syr, maybe

Papierkrans, urethane, 16mm small iris (7mm), in a gradient of gold, silver and gray, with shimmer.
Syr still wears Enchanted Doll, 16mm Milky in mismatched grey and dusty lilac (possibly #10 and #26).

Syr has been wearing those urethane ED eyes since the year I bought her, and they have a remarkable amount of glow, and can 'follow you' depending on viewing angle. I can't imagine her wearing anything else, and these would be her forever eyes except that the scleras have yellowed with age to the point that they're starting to blend against her skin. Jaundiced is not a good look!

In the past I tried to give Syr paler eyes, but she didn't look good in them. Warm, mid grey seems to suit her pale skin and cool toned faceup much better. I was doubtful whether these Papierkrans eyes would work, but decided to get them anyway since I liked their colour gradient, and could position them to give her heterochromia.

Indeed, Syr looks distant and cold with paler eyes. Small irises also don't suit her personality. I'd expected this - and am going to try these in one of my incoming dolls, Dream Valley Achelous.  I think the iris size and colour would suit its personality more, so I hope they'll fit into its head.

These Papierkrans eyes have pretty good fire and a decent highlight. I love the colour gradient, and the shimmer is intriguing.  I'll let Syr wear them for a while and then restore her old ED eyes. They're so suitable for her that I might end up buying the same pair from Enchanted Doll after all.

And a pair for a potential future doll

Waterprism (Fairytaleblueforest), 17mm small iris (7mm), violet with blue smudges, and a dark purple pupil.  Syr is modelling them, but I bought this pair for Vings Seira, whom I hope to order in a few months' time.

These eyes have a wonderful, delicate colour.  While I love irises with vivid, fantasy colours, I dislike fanciful pupils and prefer them round, black, and ordinary.  But these will suit Seira's planned character, and I'm pleased that the pupil is dark enough to contrast with the iris.  The eye domes are quite asymmetric, but that seems to produce a good, reliable highlight.

I love these gorgeous Waterprism eyes, even though Syr looks even more unsettling in them than in the Papierkrans pair. (I also tried them in Justinian and he, too, looked terrible. These dolls know what eyes they want.)  I can't wait to try them in Vings Seira, and hope that they will fit into his eyewells... but first, I hope that I can preorder him at all.  If not, well, one can't have too many pairs of literal eye candy!

I'm extremely happy with this haul, and grateful to esuko for the opportunity to buy these hard-to-source eyes.

What makes a doll's gaze follow the camera?

Justinian wearing 16mm Dollflower, high domed (and his old faceup).  I think Dollflower makes the best urethane eyes: it trumps Enchanted Doll in glow, and the highlight is always present and centred in the pupil no matter the lighting.

Eyes are arguably the first facial feature that anyone looks at when they view a human face -- real life, photo, or painting -- which makes them supremely important. As an amateur artist, I've done a decent amount of figure drawing, and spent an inordinate amount of time learning how to draw eyes accurately in faces from all perspectives.  If the eyes are off, the entire face is off.

So I think eyes are the #1 accessory that gives a doll its life and realism.  Sculpting and faceup are secondary to it.  I'm prepared to spend top dollar on outstanding craftsmanship, and I think one generally gets what one pays for.

I'm especially fascinated by the 'follow you' effect, where the doll's gaze seems to follow you no matter which direction their heads are facing, or how the viewer looks at them.  Humans tend to look at the camera when they're being photographed anyway, so a doll that glances or looks at the viewer/camera is realistic to me.

I'm no expert, but I've shot and edited hundreds of photos, and spent a lot of time contemplating my dolls' faces.  I think I've identified the qualities of the eye that give dolls that life-likeness, and what produces this 'follow you' effect.

(1) Fire/glow and clarity. This is the amount of light captured within the eye that make it appear to shine from within.  It's not enough for the iris to be colourful: if the eye dome can't focus light on the iris and pupil, they'll just look flat.  Shining eyes make the doll's entire face pop, and is a good focal point for a viewer's gaze to rest on.  Urethane and glass eyes both have the best fire and clarity.

(2) Highlight.  Value theory (ie. light and shadow) defines the highlight as the region of an object that receives the most direct light. Unlike all other elements in lighting and shadowing which don't change with viewing angle, the highlight the only element completely dependent on the viewpoint: it will move as the viewer's position changes.  In the human eye, the highlight tends to appear as a small circle or oblong patch of brightness that curves on top of the cornea.  I learned to draw the eye and its highlight while doing a lot of figure drawing.

Halcyon wearing 16mm Enchanted Doll, high domed.  Her eyewells are large, so these eyes capture a lot of light and produce a reliable highlight centred on the pupil.  She always seems to be watching me.

The shape of the eye dome influences how the highlight moves across its surface.  If the iris and pupil are well positioned, the highlight can appear to hover above them no matter the viewing angle.  I think all these factors combine to produce the 'follow you' effect where the doll appears to be looking at the camera.  A well-shaped eye dome and symmetrical pupil and iris are highly dependent on craftsmanship calibre.

Of these two qualities I think the highlight is more important.  It gives 3-dimensionality to the eye, especially if it moves realistically across the dome and hovers above the pupil and iris.  Being reflected light and dependent on the viewer's position, it's not always easy to capture a highlight in photos, but I think it adds a lot of realism to a doll's gaze.

About dome height (cornea height)

I've always suspected that high-domed eyes are better at capturing light than low-domed eyes.  On the other hand, I've read others' opinions that dome height doesn't make as much difference as depth and position of the iris and pupil within the eye dome.  I think this is true to some extent: Justinian's golden Enchanted Doll eyes are low-domed, yet produce a highlight and 'follow you' as good as high domes.  I also have other low-domed urethane eyes -- the DropRops pair worn briefly by Vallant -- that struggle to produce any highlight at all.  Craftsmanship makes a difference.

I'm still in favour of high domes, because I think they have more surface area to capture light than low domes.  Since they protrude a bit from the eyewell, they can catch light more effectively when lighting conditions aren't ideal -- and therefore, produce a highlight more readily.  My three dolls have large eyes that can accommodate them, so I prefer to use them whenever possible.  Vallant can still wear those high-domed Miyabi eyes in spite of having narrower eyes, although it's trickier to capture the highlight and most of the iris colours aren't so visible.  I think finding good eyes for narrow- or small-eyed dolls will end up being a compromise in lighting and visibility vs. eye fit.

Justinian in 16mm Enchanted Doll, low domed.  Despite having low domes, these eyes have decent fire and make a good highlight -- though not as effortlessly as Justinian's former Dollflower eyes.

About lighting (and ring lights)

It should go without saying that lighting is essential for photography.  An eye can have good fire and highlight properties, but all of that's useless without good lighting.

I'm still learning how to set up good lighting conditions, but I think that natural light remains the ideal source.  My home is well-lit enough that I can take satisfactory indoor photos with not much more than natural light entering from windows, and a simple reflector (just aluminium foil pasted on large cardboard backing).  If I take care with lighting my scene/backdrop well in the first place, the eyes will do their jobs and I don't need to pay that much attention to them.

About using ring lights as a source... unfortunately, I cringe every time I see a photo of a doll with a ring shape reflected in its eyes.  I think the ring reflection drowns out the more realistic point/smudge highlight and gives the whole photo a staged look.  Humans generally aren't photographed with ring lights except maybe in photography studios, and even then, I'm quite sure other sorts of light sources and diffusers are used in studio instead of rings.  Since ring lights are more commonly used to photograph objects, I end up mentally associating the doll with "inanimate object" - not at all the verisimilitude I hope for when looking at doll photos.

I find that ring reflection extremely unattractive.  This is purely my personal opinion and taste.  I don't use a ring light to photograph anything so I don't know whether its light can be diffused enough to negate the reflection and restore a highlight. (It probably can.)  But in the worst case, I'd rather use an artificial lamp over a ring light to photograph doll portraits.

Syr in 16mm Enchanted Doll, high domed.  Halcyon's and Justinian's eyes are from the "Classic" line, while Syr's are from the "Milky" line.  I don't always see a highlight due to her eyewell shapes and the way I positioned these eyes, but this lack is made up by the eyes' immense fire.  (Unfortunately, they've yellowed so much in the sclera!)

So, what kind of eyes does Vega prefer?

Urethane wins, but barely.  Now that I've had a chance to try out top-quality glass eyes, I think they rival urethane in fire and highlight, although the asymmetry of glassblowing can make them a bit trickier to position rightly.  Glass also has the huge advantage of not yellowing.  I'd gladly give glass eyes to all my dolls, if I can find the right colours and sizes from quality eye-makers like these ones represented here.  Most quality glass eyes come from Japan, however, and I'm not experienced with searching the Japanese secondhand market, so they remain rare to me.  I'll try someday!

I'm also keen to try other resin eyes.  In my late 00s/early 10s newbie days, urethane eyes were considered premium: made by a few eyemakers, mostly from South Korea, and not all that easy to source.  Enchanted Doll, Dollflower, Ethereal Angels (Gumdrops), and DropRops were the big names.  Of those makers, Enchanted Doll eyes were relatively easy to buy and within my price range.  I liked their vivid, solid colours, so I ended up collecting a bunch of them.  Unfortunately, every single pair of Enchanted Doll has yellowed slightly in the sclera, moreso if they were actively used in a doll; whereas my other resin eyes from Dollflower and DropRops have not.

Now, 10 years on, there are so many more resin eyemakers located all over the world, open for eye commissions, and good quality work are a lot easier to source at affordable prices.  I might end up commissioning some resin eyes for my crew while I look for glass eyes.  I'm so pleased that there's so much diversity and availability in BJD eyes nowadays!