Catchlights for Portraits – LIGHTING TUTORIAL

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

Beauty Portrait

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 showed 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 and sharpen or even replace the iris of the eye.

Catchlights for Portraits – LIGHTING TUTORIAL on YouTube

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.

Do you see why this science stuff is so important?  It has been said that eyes are the windows to the soul.. and the 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 persons 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.

We know that a catchlight is a reflection of the light source or sources in your photo.  You should know that the catchlight will appear the same shape as the light or modifier that was used. A direct flash will generally create a pinpoint of light while a rectangular softbox will create a rectangle.  Similarly a round softbox will create a round catchlight.  How can you tell if a round catchlight is from a soft box or a beauty dish?  Look closely at the center of the catchlight – if you see a light grey dot – it was a beauty dish – the gray dot is the reduction of light in the center of the modifier from the deflector plate.  If you use a ring light – you will get a donut type catchlight like this one.  Strip lights make catchlights like these… and the list goes on.

When a portrait is lit with available light, the sky, a window, or other available light sources can often be seen reflected in the eye.

What are the rules for Catchlights?

Already I know that some of you have strong opinions about which type of catchlights you like and which type you hate and a lot of you are already asking which kind is best?

Let me begin by saying there really are no rules.  If you have tried entering contests run by camera clubs or some of the larger photography organizations, you have probably heard that there can only be one catchlight in each eye and that they have to be round and must appear at 10 or 2 o’clock.  If you want to win the contest you better follow those rules, but I assure you beyond the contests, there are no rules – just science.

What do I mean by that?  Throughout my career I have created shots that I am very proud of with all different kinds of catchlights.  Square, round, vertical, horizontal, star shaped – you name it.  And let me assure you – I have NEVER had a subject look at their photo and ask about the catchlights.  In fact the only people who talk to me about catchlights… well they look a lot like you..

I do however have certain guidelines that I usually follow for catchlights in my images.

How do I handle catchlights

For most of my work, I want catchlights that look natural and not distracting.  I follow the science and try to create catchlights that our brains are wired to expect.

So my general approach to catchlights is to keep them round and to keep them in the upper half of the eye – which means light coming from above.  If our brain sees catchlights and lighting that we expect – it is less likely to be distracting.

Occasionally – I will use something completely different and that’s ok – if it fits the creative concept of my shot.

If I am shooting with available light indoors or natural light outdoors, I have no problem with the natural catchlights that are created.  Mainly because those catchlights are exactly what we would see naturally with our eyes – so its what our brains expect to see.

Tips for lighting the eyes

How do we know where or how high to place the modifier?

I will usually set my modifier so that the bottom edge of the modifier sits at the same height as the space between my subjects nose and chin.  This way the majority of the light is coming from above the eyes and will create natural shading on the face.

You can certainly go higher, but do understand that if you go too high – you will lose the catchlight all together.

How can you determine how things will look before you put your subject in front of the camera?

Get a black marble – you can find them in hobby and craft shops and of course on  Place the marble in your hand like this and you can see the catchlight reflected if you are using constant lighting or you can take a quick test shot with your strobes and see the results.  The marble trick works equally as well outdoors in natural light or indoors in available light.

Is it ok to have more than one catchlight in each eye?

I generally try to keep it to one catchlight in each eye when I am in the studio so that means only using a key or main light – no fill lights on my subject – no 2-1 lighting ratios – none of that old school stuff.  If I want a fill light I will use a reflector which is big and will create a soft subtle reflection – not a defined catchlight in the eyes.  Since we are photographers – we have all seen those portraits with multiple catchlights in the eyes and since we are photographers we have all seen photos where those multiple catchlights can be distracting.

If you have to shoot with multiple lights and modifiers in front of your subject – one solution is to back up and not shoot as close.  By reducing the size of the eyes in the photo, you also reduce the distraction of multiple catchlights in the eyes.

Can I just remove the catchlights in photoshop?

Well you can.  But that is extra time and work and you need to pay attention the shadows in your shot.  All of this science that I have been sharing is based on what our eyes and brains expect to see.  If there is an obvious shadow and no catchlight – that can actually cause confusion.  Just like anything else in photography – it’s best to get it right in camera.

Does pupil size matter?

This is one category where I will generally ignore the science.  Remember the science tells us that larger pupils indicate arousal and interest.  But the physics show us that a smaller pupil allows more of the color of the iris to be visible.  So I tend to keep my shooting space fairly bright so that pupils remain smaller and there is more eye colorvisible.  This is especially effective with people who have lighter colored eyes.  Certainly with subjects who have darker colored eyes,  pupil size is not going to be much of an issue anyway.  If I am shooting a portrait – I will not artificially add color to my subjects eyes.  If I am doing one of my fashion or beauty portraits and my subject has dark eyes – I will almost always add color and lighten the iris of the eyes in post production.


Who knew that those little dots in the eyes could have such an impact on a photo?  Bottom line is that success in photography – much like life, depends on the details.  Catchlights bring life to your portrait subjects.  Done right, they add sparkle and interest to the eyes.  Done wrong, they simply become a distraction.

I hope that you found this information helpful.  Please don’t keep all this cool stuff to yourself – please share it with your photography friends. Remember – photography is not a competition – it is a passion to be shared.

Now go pick up that camera and shoot something because your BEST shot – it’s your NEXT shot, so keep learning, keep thinking, keep shooting.

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Olympus Visionary Photographer, Photo Educator and the host of The TOGCHAT Photography Podcast and The LAST FRAME LIVE, both of which are listened to or viewed by photographers in over 100 countries.   Click Here to learn more about Joe and view his portfolio.
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