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As I was researching topics to write about, I discovered that there really wasn’t an amazing tutorial out there on creating catchlights in your subjects eyes. I decided to put together this awesome guide on how to create those lights in the eyes!
I love catchlights. I use them a lot in my photography. Now, you might be asking…what is a catchlight?
A catchlight is defined as “a gleam of reflected light in the eye of a person in a photograph.” Basically, a catchlight is the light you see in someones eyes. It’s caused from reflected light entering the eye!
I love catchlights because it adds depth and dimension to your subject, it gives your subjects life. I’m kind of obsessed. Just look at all the photos on my blog, you’ll notice a good majority of them contain catch lights.
And now that I’ve mentioned these lights in the eyes, you won’t be able to stop seeing them in everyone’s eyes. Trust me, it happened to me!
Now that you know the what and the why to creating catchlights in the eyes, let’s learn the how. And, thankfully, it’s really easy! It takes a little bit of patience, practice, and eye training, but once you do that, you’ll never be able to stop seeing catchlights! Let’s get started.
how to create catchlights in the eyes
I might be biased, but I really think this is the best catchlight tutorial out there. Like I said earlier, I was having a really hard time finding a good tutorial on catchlights. So I really hope this helps you and helps improve your photography overnight. Because, in my opinion, it will!
it’s all about the light
I want you to do a little experiment for me. What you’ll need:
- a person that will sit still
- a window
- your camera
Pretty simple material list, if I do say so myself. Alright, next I need you to turn off all the lights in your house. Are you done with that? Next position your person who is so willing to sit still for you, right next to your window. You’ll want the window to be to the left or the right of them, have them face your camera and then have them turn their head slightly towards the window, while looking at the camera with their eyes. Snap a picture (with correct exposure, of course). What do you notice? How are the shadows on the face? How big are the catch lights? What is the catchlights shape?
Alright, next have them face away from the window tilting their head towards you and the window. Take note of the shadows and the catchlights this time. You should have two completely different looking portraits, in the same spot, with catch lights. Am I right?
Next, make them sit a little farther away from the window, but still have them facing the window and tilting their head toward your camera. Is the catchlight bigger or smaller than before? What do you notice about the light?
1. have them look towards the light source
My first official tip (the one above was just a fun exercise to observe the light) is to have your subject look towards the light, or in other words, facing the light.
If shooting indoors, have them facing a window or an open door. This would be having the window behind you (the photographer) and right in front of your subject.
When outdoors, find open shade that has trees in the background (behind your subject) and a big open field behind you (the photographer) to help create catchlights. If you are shooting on an overcast day, have your subject look up ever so slightly to create catch lights.
2. move your subject around
The best thing about catch lights is you can see them before you ever press the shutter. Just look in your subject eyes. Do they have a light in them? Do you like the way they look? If not, change your perspective or move your subject. Slowly turn your subject until you have the catchlights you want.
Sometimes it’s as simple as turning them a few degrees to the right or left. Just the slightest movement can help create catchlights in the eyes.
3. the clock rule
Using a clock as your guide, you should always strive to have your catch lights at 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock. I don’t always follow this rule (because, it’s honestly sometimes difficult to get your catchlights exactly right) but instead, I try to do the following few things in each of my photographs:
- have catch lights in my subject eyes
- make sure the catchlights aren’t in the middle of the eye (don’t let them cover the pupil)
- The higher the catch lights, the better (in my opinion) I definitely don’t like them to be at 6 o’clock. The lowest I’d let it go is probably 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock. But Ideally I like the catchlights higher.
Although this is a ‘rule’ it can definitely be broken depending on your preference. This is where practice and patience will come in play. Find out what type of catch lights you like.
4. study photos that have catchlights and those that don’t
One thing that really helped me in understanding catch lights and why it was important, was seeing examples side by side of what it looks like to have catchlights and what it looks like to not have them. I was always drawn to images with catchlights more than the others.
Here an example of that. The below images where taken seconds apart. It was an overcast day, the lighting wasn’t amazing by any means. I had my son look directly at my camera. Notice how there aren’t any catch lights in his eyes? The eyes are dark and unflattering. Then I had my son look up at me and my camera. This created some beautiful catchlights!
Which one do you prefer? I sure hope you say the one with catch lights in it! Because that’s the correct answer. 😉
I really feel like the catch lights add so much to a portrait. By creating catchlights in your images, it will just give it that nice little sparkle it needs to take it to the next level.
5. notice the difference in catchlights
Depending on your light source, your catchlights will have different shapes to them. For example, a window or a softbox will have more of a square shape, whereas an outdoor catchlight using the biggest light source there is (the sun and sky) will create beautiful even catchlights. If you use an on-camera or off-camera flash, it will create tiny catch lights. These are my least favorite type of catch lights and I try to avoid them.
If you use a ring light, you will create those neat circle catch lights you so often see in YouTube videos. I personally like the more natural looking catchlights, but this is a cool technique I’m interested in trying out.
Let’s dive into the different types of catchlights to really understand them.
When photographing in overcast skies, your catchlights will be more spread out as opposed to concentrated to one area of the eye. This is possibly the most natural looking of all the catch lights. It is even across the eyes.
Remember that to achieve catchlights on overcast skies, you have to have your subject look up just a little bit, to help the eyes capture the light. If you have them looking straight at the camera, you won’t get much catchlights (as you can see in tip number 4).
For a few different reasons you’ll want to find open shade when photographing on a sunny day. The best time to photograph on a sunny day is an hour before sunset. When finding a location, I like to have treelines behind my subject, blocking the sun (the sun will be behind your subject) and an open field behind me (the photographer). By doing this you’ll allow the light behind you to bounce back on your subject and act as a kind of reflector.
Since there’s a lot of light bouncing around, you will get some beautiful catchlights!
window light – overcast skies
Using window light on an overcast day is one of my favorite ways to get catchlights in my subjects. The light that comes in is softened because of the overcast sky, but then it’s even softer since it’s coming in through the window. It creates my favorite type of shadows and I love the look of my images when I shoot indoors on an overcast day.
The catchlights produced from overcast days indoors will be bigger and more concentrated depending on the size of your window.
when light isn’t ideal for catchlights
There are a lot of instances in capturing my daily life where the light just isn’t working out for capturing light in the eyes. When this happens, I focus on something else. I usually tend to photograph faceless images. Or I’ll take a picture of my son asleep. It’s ok to not always have catchlights, sometimes it adds to the mood.
The most important thing for you to do is to be intentional with when to not include catch lights. You want your viewer to understand why there isn’t a light in your subjects eye (for example, if they are crying and the mood of the overall image is a little darker).
Slow down, think about how to achieve catch lights, how to turn your subject, where to have them look. It’s not a race. (Well, sometimes it is with toddlers). Be intentional.
Did you start practicing using catch lights in your photography? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments below!
Alyssa (sometimes going by Aly) is a hobbyist photographer who loves to teach. Her love of photography started before she ever had any kids. Now a mom of two, she loves to photograph her kids, flowers, and landscape. She specializes in capturing her everyday life. She loves to teach fellow beginner photographers how to take control of their cameras and get the images they dream about getting.