Catchlights are a subtle, often unnoticed aspect of portrait photography. Catchlights can give a portrait that extra POP, and can often push an average portrait into the above-average category.
Maybe you have never heard of catchlights, or are not exactly sure what they are. Catchlights are basically the reflection of a light source or light sources in the portrait subjects eyes. They are the “sparkle” in the eyes. Catchlights have been around long before photography was invented. Just take time to look at eyes in the portraits created by old master painters. You’ll see catchlights painted in the eyes, reflecting the light source.
When using a point and shoot camera or camera phone with a flash, the light source will be close to the lens. This will place the catchlights in the center of the eye, or close to the center of the eye. This also often produces the dreaded “red-eye” effect. An off-camera flash or strobe will place catchlights outside of the center of the eye, depending on where the light source is located.
One of the most natural positions for catchlights, and where many of the old master painters would place the catchlights is in the “10:00 or 2:00” position (where the hands of a clock at 10 or 2). In order for the catchlights to be in this position on your subjects eyes, the light source needs to be above and to the right or left of your camera.
The best way to get beautiful catchlights in your portrait subject’s eyes is by using a large light source such as a large softbox or umbrella in the studio, or open sky or overcast sky outdoors. Using an on-camera or off-camera flash will produce pinpoints of light, while a large light source will create a large catchlight. If you are using an umbrella, your catchlight will be round, matching the shape of the light source. If you are using a softbox or window light, the catchlight will be square or rectangular.
Whether you are creating natural light portraits or studio portraits with a strobe, catchlights will add the sparkle to make your portraits “pop”.