What are catchlights?

Catchlights are the photographic term for specular highlights, or the reflected light shown on the surface of an eye (the cornea) in a photograph (see image below). They are one of the main elements that help transform an image from two-dimensional to three-dimensional, giving a photograph greater depth and quality. Images without these lights often seem dull and lifeless, but their addition and strategic placement takes a photograph, most often a portrait, to a new level, giving it a much desired “wow” factor.

catchlights eye

A catchlight is also a specific light source purposely orchestrated to produce the correct amount of specular light, so that the focus of the image is there. The effect appears natural, in many cases, as if it happened by chance. But don’t be fooled, very rarely in professional photography does the phenomenon of catchlights occur by chance. Most photographers, to achieve this effect, introduce artificial light sources that will create the most optimal catchlights in the subject. Others position their subject so that natural light can be used to the greatest effect.

catchlights 2

For instance, the above image, cropped for purposes of demonstration, was taken with the subject facing an open window. If you look closely, the shape of the catchlights resembles the light source, in this case, a square. Catchlights differ in size and shape depending on the chosen light source, and how far away the subject is from that source.

Why catchlights are important

It’s important, especially in portrait photography, to create a connection between the viewer and the photograph, and catchlights go a great distance toward enhancing that connection. It adds life to a photograph, making it more vibrant by giving it depth, and allows for a broad range of creativity. You can use a variety of light sources, both natural and artificial, of different shapes and sizes. Experiment with fixtures and reflectors, or use natural sunlight in open shade or through windows.

There is no incorrect way to use a catchlight. As long as you are aware of them and why they’re important, you will take better photos.

How to create catchlights

In standard three-point lighting (see image below) there are typically three different light sources used to produce the best photographic light: key light, fill light, and backlight. This applies mainly to studio light set-ups, but is often used as a reference guide to natural light as well. You can create different catchlights by the positioning of the fill light and the key light. In ideal studio circumstances, you should be able to produce perfect catchlights in your subject by using these light sources properly.

catchlights back light

A “perfect” catchlight, or one that is standard, is a single catchlight in each eye, typically positioned in the upper right or left hand corner of the cornea. It is usually round. Now, this is just a starting point—there is no need to create the perfect catchlight. Find or create a light source that you find appealing and make it work. There are number of ways to do this.

Artificial catchlights

Ring lights

catchlights artificialBy notStudio – studio fotograficzne (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A ring light is exactly what it sounds like: a ring of lights that produce a round reflection of light in the subject. In a set-up like the one shown above, if positioned correctly, the subject will have a ring of small dots around the center of his or her eye, reflecting the individual bulbs above. There are many different ring lights, many of which come in “macro” form as a flash attachment to your camera body. It’s just one of the many ways to induce catchlights, and make your photos more interesting.

Soft box

soft box catchlights Wikoli at the German language Wikipedia CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like with ring lights, soft boxes come in many different sizes, styles, and varieties. The point of a soft box is to, as the name suggests, soften or diffuse the light directed at a subject. They work by bouncing the light off a second object, so that the light on a subject is not harsh but evenly displaced. As you would expect, different sizes and shapes of soft boxes create different catchlights in a subject.


catchlights reflectorBy Brocken Inaglory (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether shooting indoors or outdoors, sometimes photographers make use of a device called a reflector. The image above shows a model being lit by reflected light (the large round object being held by the man on the left). Like a soft box, the reflector not only enhances the available light, so that it’s more even, but also helps to sufficiently diffuse it so that it doesn’t create harsh or unflattering shadows.

Many times, in studio set-ups, a reflector will be placed beneath the subject so that the light is reflected evenly onto their face. If you are shooting a headshot, for example, you can have the subject hold a reflector in front of them while they are seated, so that the light is properly directed toward their face.

There are a variety of different reflectors, but the most popular come in four different colors: gold, white, silver, and blue. Blue reflectors help create cooler tones, silver brightens existing tones, white has no enhancing color effect but is still a sufficient reflector, and gold creates warmer tones. You can use different reflectors to help set the mood of a photograph as well as enhancing the light and, in turn, create catchlights,

Natural catchlights

natural catchlights

Although it’s easier to control the creation of catchlights in a studio, you don’t have to have a studio to be able to create beautiful catchlights on your subjects. There are enough sources of natural, and sometimes unnatural light, which will produce this effect for you. What’s the most widely available source of natural light? The sun, of course! However, it requires timing and skill to effectively pull this off.

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Step 1: Find the light.

Look around you. Where is the light coming from? If you look carefully, you’ll most likely notice a few different places. It’s often uncomfortable for your subject to have to look directly into the sun. One of the ways around this is to bring along a soft box and use the sun as a fill light, an umbrella will do in this case, and position your subject so that the light finds them through the umbrella or whatever you’ve brought with you.

Another way to use available light without making your subject uncomfortable is to find something called open shade. Open shade exists where light enters an area through one point, similar to how light would enter through a four-walled room with a single window. This way, the light is focused on your subject, creating the wanted catchlights, but because they are mostly in shade, they are not negatively affected by it.

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These are just a few tips to help you get started, because an awareness of the importance of catchlights is just the beginning. By creating catchlights, you are adding vibrancy and life to your images, and giving yourself another opportunity to make your creative mark. Using different shapes and sources of light, you can come up with some stunning images that are all your own.

Like most things in photography, the rules are there to be learned, mastered, and occasionally broken. The same thing is true with the use of catchlights.