Photography Lighting Techniques

The Importance of Catchlights for Portraits


If you are going to shoot portraits, don’t overlook the importance of catchlights. They’re a small detail that can easily make or break your shot.

So what’s the big deal about catchlights? Catchlights play an important role in creating dimension and depth and in adding life to a portrait by drawing attention to the eyes. But to really understand why catchlights are important, we need to talk about a little science first.

Catchlights: The bright, specular highlights found in a subject’s eyes that are reflections of the light source(s) used to create the photograph

The science

We know that by the time we are between 5 to 7 months old, we learn to expect that light comes from above – that’s why when you walk into a room – the lights are on the ceiling and not the floor. Also, as infants seeing these light sources for the first time – we are seeing small round-point light sources

Psychologists have long known that, as humans, we use our eyes to communicate our feelings and our interest. Research has shown that the white part of the eye, the sclera, is also implicated in judgments of attractiveness and health. That is why portrait photographers usually retouch and lighten the whites of the eyes.

Research has also shown that darker limbal rings make a face seem healthier. What’s a limbal ring? It’s the dark outer ring around the colored iris. Most people have them – but not everyone, and if you have darker eyes, they are probably harder to spot. This is why many photographers use dodge and burn techniques or create actions to lighten, sharpen, or even replace the eye’s iris.

Psychologists consider pupil dilation to be a cue to sexual or social interest. That’s because pupil size isn’t under your voluntary control. Bigger pupils = more interest.

Image showing catchlights in the models eyes

Do you see why this science stuff is so important? It has been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul.. and science confirms that eyes are extremely important in our photos. I have previously made two different videos with tips and suggestions for dealing with eyes when photographing portraits: Portrait Photography – Why I Shoot For The EYES! and It’s All About The Eyes

I also made this video about How to find the “good side” of a person’s face for a Portrait? which explains how eye size determines the best side.

The physics of catchlights

Catchlight size varies with distance
Physics also causes the catchlight to appear larger in the eye the closer you put your light source or modifier to your subject, and conversely, the further it is from the subject – the smaller the catchlight will appear to be.

I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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