Here is a subtle, but important feature many great portrait photographers have in their portraits: catchlights.

portrait photography catchlights

Catchlights provided a sparkle to this couple’s eyes.  They were posed under the cover of a carport.

Catchlights are simply the reflecting of a light source in the portrait subject’s eyes.  Old master painters used catchlights in their painted portraits long before photography was invented.  Let’s discuss few benefits of catchlights, and how to get them.

Catchlights add that sparkle to the eye that viewers don’t usually consciously see.  It is amazing to see the difference between portrait images with catchlights in the eyes, and without.

Another benefit to catchlights is helping the photographer with the positioning of lighting.  In studio photography, catchlights can be a help when trying to produce a pleasing light pattern on the face.

portrait photography catchlights

Large catchlights were produced by open sky behind me.  The bride was seated under the cover of a porch.

Generally, if the catchlights are in the 10:00 or 2:00 position, a pleasing light pattern will appear on the face.

Getting catchlights in the eyes is not hard to a photographer wh

o understands lighting.  The photographer has to make that a main and/or fill light source reaches the eyes.  The catchlights are just a reflection of that light.  The larger the light source, the larger the catchlights will be.  Large catchlights can really enhance the eyes.  An overcast day or clear, open sky can produce beautiful, large catchlights.  In the studio, a large softbox or umbrella can provide the same effect.  Take note that an umbrella will produce round catchlights, while a softbox will produce square or rectangular catchlights.  Some photographers feel a round catchlight looks more natural, because it mimics the sun.  Personally, I like the look of either.

One way catchlights are not pleasing, in my opinion, is when an on-camera flash is used.  This generally produces either red-eye (a huge no-no for a “professional” portrait), or a pin-point of light in the center of the eye.

A dead giveaway of an amateur portrait is the use of on-camera flash, producing light in the middle of the eye.  The best way to get pleasing catchlights with a flash is to either bounce the flash off of a white ceiling or wall, or get the flash off of the camera and to the side using the proper cable or a wireless adapter.

portrait photography catchlights

These round catchlights  were created with an umbrella, set up in the bride’s living room.  The position of the catchlights correlates with the loop shadow below her nose.