How to capture catchlights - photo of girl with catchlights in eyes

One way to elevate your portrait photography is to capture catchlights in your subject’s eyes. If you are new to portraiture this may be a new term or you may have never paid attention. I challenge you to looks at your friends’ portraits, or even in a magazine and not begin to notice the catchlights in portraits. Here you will learn what catchlights are, how to capture catchlights and some things to avoid.

What are catchlights?

Catchlights are the light spots that you see reflected in a subject’s eyes in a portrait.  They are basically the reflection of a light source (sun, lamp, or any other external light source) on the surface of the subject’s eyes.  They can come in all shapes, sizes and even colors depending on the look you are going for.  

Why are catchlights important?

Catchlights are important for a couple of reasons.  The first being that they add life to a person’s eyes in photographs.  Catchlights provide depth and interest in a portrait that would otherwise seem dull and lifeless.  The second reason is the catchlights can draw viewers’ eyes to what’s important in a portrait, the eyes.  

How to Create Catchlights

  • You will need an external lighting source i.e. sun, lamp, reflector.
  • The subject needs to be facing the external light source or you can use a reflector to reflect the light source back at your subject.
  • You (the photographer) can wear a white or light-colored shirt as a reflector and create some beautiful catchlights without extra equipment.
  • If you are using softboxes, round ones will create round catchlights, and square ones will create square catchlights.  This also goes for windows when using natural light.
  • Catchlights look better when they are in the upper corners of the eyes and not the lower corners.  To achieve this the light source needs to be higher than the eye level.  
  • It is sometimes advisable to take photos from above your subject down on an angle to get optimum catchlights.

What to avoid when capturing catchlights

  • Never ask your subject to look directly into the sun to get catchlights.  Your subject should be facing away from the sun. You can then use your light-colored shirt or a reflector to create the catchlights.
  • Make sure the catchlights are not in different locations in each eye.  This will create a lazy eye effect that will look unnatural.
  • Don’t wear bright colors as a photographer, as that color is likely to be reflected in the catchlights creating an eery color cast on the eyes.  

Next time you take some portraits, try to focus on capturing catchlights in your subject’s eyes. Get close and make those eyes come to life.

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