6 December 2008


I was asked a little while ago how to get sparkling eyes in photographs. I thought I'd post a little info about catchlights.

What are catchlights? Why are they there?

Here is the Wikipedia page on catchlights, but I thought I'd share some pictures to back up the info. Basically, catchlights are reflections of light that occur in the eyes of the subject you are photographing. They are meant to be there and are desirable. They give life, light and sparkle to the eye.

Here are a couple of examples of portraits with and without catchlights - see the difference they make?

You'll notice that even Barbie dolls and cartoon characters have catchlights, as do portrait paintings:

How do you get catchlights?

Make sure your subject is facing the light source. Try to make the light source as large as possible. If you are using a flash, try to bounce it off a larger surface (wall, mirror, reflector) or diffuse it through a large diffuser (softbox, umbrella). Try to get your subject as close to the light source as possible. If they can't face the light source, use a large piece of white card, silver foil, a mirror or a reflector to bounce the light back into their eyes.

If you are using a continuous light source (open sky, window, etc) then you will be able to see the catchlights before you snap the picture. Get yourself a willing subject and try turning them this way and that, moving closer and further from a window and watch the play of light in their eyes.

What can the catchlight tell you?

It tells you where the light source is and sometimes it can tell you what the light source is.

Natural light, outside; that's the partly-cloudy sky you see:

Window light, slightly to the side, indoors:

Window light, directly ahead of subject, indoors:

Large, rectangular softbox strobe in studio:

Large, rectangular softbox strobe, in studio, and you can see the reflector creating a catchlight too on the left:

Here's a helpful image from Flickr user Neukku:

If you flip through a fashion magazine and look at the models' catchlights you will often see ring light catchlights - they come from a ring flash that is usually around the camera's lens and look like this:

What to avoid?

Try to avoid the flash on your camera. It creates nasty flat lighting, harsh shadows and pinpoint catchlights - usually with red-eye which occurs when the light bounces off the retina of the eye. Here are two examples of regular flash catchlights:

Secondly, if you're photographing in open air outdoors and are likely to appear in the catchlights try to avoid wearing colourful clothing - a red t-shirt reflected in a catchlight is unlikely to be attractive. (This would happen if you were lit by the sun, standing in the light facing your subject.)

Now go forth and create catchlights! And you can thank me later for ruining your magazine reading and tv-watching because you'll find yourself getting distracted by watching catchlights.

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