Perfecting the Catchlight in Portraiture

What is a Catchlight?

Chances are, at one point or another, a glimmer or sparkle in another person’s eye has grabbed your attention. When this happens, you’re not just imagining things – the human eye does actually pick up specular highlights. And, believe it or not, photographer often go through quite a bit of trouble to create some light in a person’s eyes.

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But what exactly makes these highlights – referred to as catchlights – so special? Put simply, they play a huge role in making pictures of people more compelling.

One of the main disadvantages of photography as a medium is its inherent stillness. Because subjects are rendered motionless, portraits can sometimes come off as dull or lifeless. For many beginners, finding ways to convey a person’s spirit is one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome. However, as the catchlight proves, even the smallest spark can make all of the difference when it comes to bringing energy and dynamism to a photograph.

example of catchlight

Catchlights can certainly occur naturally, and if one knows where to find them, they’re easy to incorporate into a shot. However, photographers can also manufacture the effect by manipulating tools and their environment. In this piece, we’ll discuss some of the easiest ways to bring beautiful catchlights into your imagery.

Catchlight Technique 1: Use a Window

Indoor portraiture (outside of a studio setting) can be deceptively tricky to pull off, especially when it comes to managing the light. Overhead lights can prove to be unflattering and in some circumstances, the available and ambient light may not be easy to adjust. In these situations, a window may prove to be your best friend.

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If you’d like to create a catchlight indoors, where light may be scarce, simply place your subject in a direct line to the window, being sure that there isn’t any object between the light and the subject blocking out the rays.

Though it may be tempting to have your subject look directly into the window, looking directly into the source can be uncomfortable, ultimately hindering the overall quality of the portrait. All that truly matters is that the reflection of the light source is visible in the subject’s eyes.

window catchlight

Be sure to consider the angle of the model’s face in relation to the window – aside from creating a catchlight, your light source will impact the overall illumination of the face.

Also, keep in mind that the closer the subject is to the window, the larger and more commanding the catch light will be.

Catchlight Technique 2: Use the Sky

The greatest light source we have available to us is just above our heads – the sky. When taking portraits outdoors, try to aim your subject’s gaze upwards.

Regardless of the weather or season, there’s always plenty of light in the sky to work with ranging from the harsh contrast that comes from a sunny afternoon to the soft diffused look that results from an overcast sky.

Take care to have your subject avoid looking directly into the sun. Aside from being uncomfortable and potentially damaging, doing so will likely cause your subject to squint, in turn canceling out your efforts to bring out the eyes in the first place.

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reflection of sky in eye

Using the sky to light up your subject’s eyes can also add a creative element to a portrait. Whatever lies in front of your eyes will be reflected back into the camera’s lens – incorporating silhouettes and landscapes is very possible within the small frame an eye provides.

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Catchlight Technique 3: Bring in a Reflector

One of the most useful tools a photographer can have on hand is a reflector. Available in all shapes and sizes, they can improve the lighting situation in just about any situation by redirecting ambient light to illuminate a subject.

In the case of a catchlight, even a pocket sized reflector can be useful. In fact, for photographers in the field, going smaller can be advantageous – after all, who needs heavier, larger pieces of equipment to lug around?

newborn shoot with reflector

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Reflectors come in a variety of colors, too, and each one adds its own flare to a scene. For creating catchlights, a silver reflector is going to give you the boldest, most notable results. However, you may want to consider what you’re trying to communicate through your portrait when choosing reflector features. For instance, a golden reflector may produce a more subtle catch light. However, the sense of warmth it lends may fall closer in line with a message that’s trying to be conveyed.

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Catchlight Technique 4: Head to the Studio

If all else fails and capturing an organic catchlight proves to be too difficult, there’s always the option of working in a controlled environment. An artificial light source can bring the catch light to you, making the process easier in some senses. However, it’s important to consider that not all light sources are created equally – especially when it comes to catchlights

So, which light source is best to use when manufacturing a catch light of your own?

In most cases, ring lights do an excellent job at highlighting eyes. As their name implies, the light instantly produces several highlights in a curved, ring-like shape. Large softboxes also work well for producing large, square catch lights.

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ring light highlight

No matter the catchlight source, it’s important to ensure that your catch doesn’t negatively impact the existing lights being utilized in the portrait. Try keeping the catchlight dim and focused to avoid drowning out any other lights involved.

There’s a saying that claims that:

“eyes are the window to a person’s soul”.

Whether or not that’s true, a gaze can immediately draw in an audience. Looking into one another’s eyes, people form bonds and convey emotion. For this reason, the catchlight is crucial. Bringing in just a little light ultimately can add a whole lot of life to your work.

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