The ultimate guide to catchlight

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by David Em
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Catchlight is created when a light source illuminates a person’s eyes which causes a highlight. It adds depth, dimension, and gives a sense of life.

Portrait of a person smiling.

The importance of catchlight

Eye’s are reflective by nature and when there’s a light source, they’ll reflect that light. This reflection causes the eyes of your subject to sparkle and that’s the goal.

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A great portrait begins with the eyes and to know you’ve done a great job with lighting, look at your subject’s eyes.

When you’re photographing portraits, you need to illuminate your subject’s eyes because that shows life and it quickly grabs the attention of a viewer.

Catchlight is important because it creates depth, dimension, and makes your subject’s eyes stand out. By focusing on creating catchlights, you can turn a dull portrait into a visually interesting one.

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What’s a catchlight?

Eyes with arrows pointing at the catchlight.
Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

Catchlight is the reflection of a light source in your subject’s eyes. They can look different depending on environmental factors and the location of the photoshoot.

A catchlight can be created in both natural lighting and studio lighting. By producing great catchlights, you’ll bring your portraits to life and make your subject’s eyes stand out.

In general, you want to have one or two catchlights in each eye. It’s possible that multiple catchlights can appear from multiple lights. To fix this, reposition your subject so that there are only one or two catchlights.

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How to create a catchlight

It’s all about the angles when it comes to creating catchlight. Ensure that your subject is facing the light source, with their chin angled towards the light to create the reflection of light in their eyes.

Capturing catchlights outdoors

Greyscale close-up headshot.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

When you are shooting outdoors, your main light source will be the sun.

The two ways to capture incredible catchlights outdoors is to face the light source or use a reflector.

The first method we’ll cover is to have your subject look towards the light source. Instead of looking directly at the sun, by looking at the sky, you’ll be able to illuminate your subject’s eyes.

The second method is to turn your subject away from the light and use a reflector. Reflectors are a great way to reflect light from the sun into your subject’s eyes to capture catchlights.

If you’re looking for a reflector to use, the best option is a silver pocket-size reflector because they’re a perfect size and they get the job done.

Capturing catchlights indoors

Greyscale portrait of a person in a studio.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

When you’re photographing indoor portraits, the key is to find a source of light that can be reflected in your subject’s eyes.

The light source for indoor portrait photography can be natural light or artificial light. Both methods work well to capture catchlights indoors.

If you want to use natural light for an indoor portrait, find a window or any opening that allows light inside. After you’ve found the light source, position your subject at a 45-degree angle and capture the catchlights at 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock position.

A great thing about natural light indoor portraits is that the light is softer due to the diffusion by the windows. This can help if you want to capture softer portraits while the sun is at its peak which causes harsh light.

The other option is to use artificial light. Artificial light is a great option because you have more control over the direction and intensity of light.

If you’re shooting with artificial light, the same rules apply. Place your subject at a 45-degree angle and the catchlights at a 10 or 2 o’clock position.

Post-processing

It’s possible to get the perfect catchlight straight out of the camera but you can enhance it in post-processing.

When you edit the portraits, there are a few ways to enhance the sparkle in your subject’s eyes. Be careful when you do this as you need to be precise and only illuminate the eyes to bring out the catchlight.

Here are the ways to enhance the light in your subject’s eyes through editing:

  • Increase the highlights.
  • Use the brush tool to enhance one specific part of the eyes.
  • Patch or healing tool to edit the shape.

While you’re editing, you can also make adjustments to the number of catchlights in someone’s eye.

Generally, you’ll want to have one or two catchlights and if you have more, you can use the patch or healing tool to edit out the extras.

Tips for better catchlights

Close-up of eyes from two different people.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash
  • Have your subject wear a dark-colored shirt.
  • Use a reflector.
  • Position the catchlights in the 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock position.
  • Use a wide aperture to decrease the depth of field.
  • Focus on the eyes.

There are no hard rules when it comes to photography because it’s a personal and creative art. When you’re capturing catchlights, be sure you experiment with it.

Try different angles, different catchlight sizes, portraits with or without catchlight. By experimenting with this technique, you’ll have a better understanding and you’ll also become a better photographer.

Conclusion

Getting catchlight in a portrait isn’t difficult but it does require attention to the details.

Now that you know what catchlights are and how to capture them, you can be aware and implement them into your portraits. It’s an easy way to make your portraits stand out.

More resources:

Featured photo by Unsplash.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

About Portraits Refined

Portraits Refined (PR) is a media company that publishes the latest expert-backed portrait photography tips, in-depth camera gear reviews, and helpful advice to grow your photography business.

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