The next time you look at a portrait, take notice of the subject’s eyes. If the photographer has done a good job of lighting the subject, you will notice that the eyes are illuminated and have life in them. See those bright eyes? They sparkle. Those glimmers of light in a subject’s eyes are called catchlights. Catchlights are small reflections of light in your subject’s eyes. Getting catchlights in your subject’s eyes brings life and depth to them, and can really make a close-up portrait stand out. If you’ve wondered how to get catchlights in your portraits, we’ve got you covered. Getting catchlights in your subject’s eyes is all about finding the light. You can get catchlights in all kinds of lighting situations once you understand how to use the reflections of light to illuminate your subject’s eyes.
Face the Light
The simplest way to do this is to face your subject directly towards the light source. In the image below, the subject was facing towards the setting sun, which was the primary light source for this photo.
You can still get catchlights if you’re shooting on a cloudy day as well. Simply have your subject look up slightly, or photograph them from above to reflect the sky in eyes.
Reflect the Light
If you don’t have a light source in front of the subject, you can also use a reflector to bounce light back into their eyes to ensure you are still getting catchlights in the eyes. In this case, the sun was to the right of the frame, shielded by the hat. The sidewalk below the subject served as a natural reflector to bounce light onto her face, creating the catchlights in her eyes.
When you’re shooting indoors, simply face your subject towards a window, and you will find that you are getting catchlights from the window light reflecting in their eyes.
When you know how to position your subject in relation to the light source, getting catchlights becomes easy! The two images below are a great example of what small adjustments can do to light up your subject’s eyes. These images were taken within a minute of each other, and were taken near sundown with very little sunlight left in the sky. In the first image, you can see that there is very little light in the subject’s eyes. I tend to refer to this as “dead eyes.” They are very flat and lacking any sort of detail or depth. For this shot, I was crouched down to his level, and he subject was looking straight at me. For the second image, I made two minor adjustments: 1) Both of us turned about 45 degrees so that his eyes were facing open sky, and 2) I shot from a slightly higher angle so that he was looking slightly up at me. These two adjustments allowed his eyes to reflect the open sky that was now behind me. Can you see the difference?
Getting catchlights isn’t difficult, but it does require you to pay attention to the details when you’re shooting. Now that you know how to get catchlights by noticing where the light source is and using it to your advantage, you can brighten your subject’s eyes and give them photos full of life.