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Catchlights: An Ideal Way to Enhance Portrait Photography

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When you look at a portrait, what is it that draws you in, what is it that creates a sense of life in that object, what is eye-catching, what is it that takes it away from being just a simple photograph of a subject? While the skill and style of the photographer and many other factors could just as well make for suitable answers to these questions, the answer lies the tiny gleam of light in the eyes of the subject.

As an old saying goes ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’ portrait photography is known to imbibe this very concept. The main element to play in portraits are the eyes – they need to be depicted sharply, they should and need to exude a good deal of expression. Well, you say attaining sharpness is simply a case of using the single point autofocus and the expression can be easily achieved if the subject is made to feel comfortable and relaxed.

But here’s where a big Catch comes in – the role of catchlights! Let’s find out more about it.

What is Catchlight

 Simply put, a catchlight is the reflection of the source of light in the eyes of the subject. Simplicity in itself, this element can add a whole lot of depth to your portraits and of course that twinkle to the eyes will make your photograph pop. Without the use of it, the images will appear empty and dull, and while not everyone may know the exact reason for this, it is what will distinguish an amateur from a professional. The shape – circular, rectangular and square - and the size of the catchlights can vary due to different factors like the shape, size, distance of the source of light, type of flash etc. 

While the photographer doesn’t have any control over a catchlight, some of these factors can be manipulated to get the ideal type of catchlight he or she is aiming for. There are also techniques which can help in the proper positioning of a catchlight which can make a whole deal of difference to catchlight portraits. 

Catchlights add dimension to portrait photography (source)

Correct Positioning of Catchlights

Catchlight portraits are what plays to the gaze of a viewer, the source of communication between the subject in the photograph and the viewer, it needs to catch them by the eyes. In order to for it to create such an effect, they should be properly positioned. Assuming the eyes to be a clock, the ideal positioning of catchlights would be at 10 o’ clock and 2 o’clock. While no strong reason backs this preference, this is found to be the most aesthetically pleasing spots for catchlights. Not to be extreme sticklers to the rule, even a quarter to position or a quarter past position will also do it justice. Anything below the digits of 3 and 9 is however not suitable. One of the reasons being the placement of any light source would make it difficult to get catchlights at these positions. 

Apart from paying attention to the positioning, it’s also important to make sure that the balance is maintained. Balance in the sense that the catchlights in both the eyes should be similarly positioned. You cannot have the left eye of the subject sporting a catchlight at 2’o clock and the right eye at 10 o’clock since this would be unnatural. 

catchlight position
Understand the placement (source)

Different Ways to Create Catchlight Portraits  

  • Positioning the Subject and the Light

The easiest way to capture catchlights would be to have the subject facing the main source of light. Placing the light source at around a 45-degree angle would be the best way placement. If you’re wondering how to get it in eyes outdoors though note that this method could backfire in the case of excessive light, for instance, outside on a bright and sunny day could leave your subject squinting into the light.

  • Artificial Lighting

When shooting in a studio, studio lighting, strobes or reflectors make for good light sources for capturing it. Since this type of lighting is under the control of the photographer, he/she can play around with the settings – left or right or higher or lower - in order to catch them by the eyes. Light modifiers are helpful at changing the size and the shape of the catchlights. 

Another interesting aspect is ring light catchlights which of course are ring-shaped catchlights formed by ring-shaped sources of light. Make sure to maintain an appropriate distance between the ring light and the subject since the closer the light, the larger the size of the ring-shaped catchlights. 

  • Reflectors

While most popular tools to light up the images, catchlight reflectors are equally important in the creation of catchlight portraits as well. A reflector is what makes the light jump into the eyes of the subject, and are extremely beneficial when shooting outdoors. Note to remember that colors too act as reflectors, and the colour of the subject’s clothing will play a role in bouncing off the light. In such a case white is known to emerge as one of the best colours for reflecting light.  

Artifical light adds new life to photos
  • Camera Flash

In a situation where there isn’t any light source to provide the catchlights, like when photographing in the shade or if the subject is backlit, the flash of the camera comes handy to provide the source of light. This could be a slightly precarious affair considering the flash is a small source of light with an odd shape. To negate these two problems, diffusers and softboxes can be used to change the shape as well as soothe the light. 

Additional Tips for Catchlight Cinematography  

With catchlight photography definition portraying such a simple element, it’s only to your advantage that as a photographer you polish your skills to capturing catchlights. Whether you’re using the natural light source, a flash or a reflector, capturing the catchlights, takes some experimenting to get it just right. Below are a few helpful pointers to keep in mind while creating catchlights portraits: 

Tip 1:

Comparatively lighter eyes are easier to capture catchlights with than darker eyes – probably because they are more noticeable in lighter eyes. 

Tip 2:

The closer the subject is to the source of light, the larger the size of the catchlight will be. 

Tip 3:

If a subject has coloured eyes, they react differently to different sources of light. Generally, many coloured eyes catch the light better when it’s natural compared to artificial light sources. For instance, blue eyes appear much darker in natural lighting. 

Tip 4:

Changing the angle of the light source will change the angle and position of the catchlights as well, therefore, working on such a technique will help you garner different effects. 

Tip 5:

Double catchlights are created when there are multiple sources of light, for example, the main source of light – natural or artificial, and the camera flash which could lead to creating additional catchlights in the eyes of the subjects. Sometimes they could add to the quality of the portrait if they are positioned, sized and shaped appropriately but too much of an overexposure could lead to the viewer thinking more about your sources of light than the portrait itself. 

Tip 6:

Using different shapes of light sources will create different shapes of catchlights. Diffusers, shooting through umbrellas, circular reflectors will all lead to a round shaped catchlight which is more round looking. While other shapes may not provide a natural looking catchlight, they can give you a different effect. 

In case you have a bland looking photograph, the reason could lie in the eyes. Fret not, because adding catchlights to eyes in Photoshop or any other editing software for that matter can take care of such a problem. For this, from the brush size menu select the hardness to zero which will lead you to a soft-edged brush. The diameter of the brush should also be kept to the minimum, helping you blend in the alterations for a more natural look.  Using the brush to ‘paint’ over an area repeatedly will slowly reveal catchlights. 

Summing Up 

The style in which a photographer shoots his portraits generally follows the rule to catch them by the eyes – to bring out the ‘human-ness’ or the naturality of the subject. If you were to ever see a portrait with the absence of the catchlights, the subject would almost seem villainous or evil to you. It’s the gleam of light in the subject’s eyes that make catchlight cinematography what it is.

Whether you use natural or artificial lighting or even a software to accentuate the light in the subject’s eyes is irrelevant, long as your images don’t look lifeless and dull which they would in the absence of catchlights. Experiment with different shapes, sizes and types of light sources to obtain a variation in the catchlights. Once you’ve figured out what works for you, there’s no limit to the fun you’ll have when taking portraits. What’s more is that this will reflect in your photography which will turn out to be warm and lively. 

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