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How a Catch-Light Enhances Your Portraits

Updated on July 14, 2015
LuisEGonzalez profile image

I enjoy photography and have been doing so professionally and independently for over 30 years. Hope you enjoy my hubs!

CC BY-SA 2.0 DE If her eyes were just a solid color (in the center) they would seem "lifeless". The circle (white spot) of light brings them to "life" and helps a viewer focus on them.
CC BY-SA 2.0 DE If her eyes were just a solid color (in the center) they would seem "lifeless". The circle (white spot) of light brings them to "life" and helps a viewer focus on them. | Source

"Catch light or catchlight is a light source that causes a specular highlight in a subject's eye in an image.[1]They are also referred to as eye lights or Obies, the latter a reference to Merle Oberon, who was frequently lit using this technique. A catch light may be an artifact of the lighting method, or have been purposely engineered to add a glint or "spark" to a subject's eye during photography. This technique is useful in both still and motion picture photography. Adding a catch light can help draw attention to the subject's eyes, which may otherwise get lost among other elements in the scene.

A catch light is not the same as the red-eye effect; in general, red-eye is an undesired effect (caused by the reflection of light from the retina inside the back of the eyeball), while catch lights are often aesthetically desirable, and produced by light reflecting from the cornea. Especially in portraiture, eyes without catch lights are often said to appear dull or lifeless. Lighting is often arranged in studio portraits specifically to create attractive catch lights." Wikipedia

CC BY-ND 2.0
CC BY-ND 2.0 | Source

In photography adding life to a particular part of the subject is usually achieved by adding, or in some cases, by diminishing the light that reaches that part of the subject.

Many portraits can be made that much better by adding a "sparkle" to the eyes that looks like a circle of light inside of each.

This is achieved by using what is generally known as a catch-light. Understanding how a catch light enhances your portraits will help you make better choices and produce better face and portraits shots.

This is not an attempt to create the dreaded "red eye" effect. This happens when the light reflects from the back of the eye and mostly happens when the light is aimed directed at the subject's face and it's parallel to them.

In other words, what you are trying to do is to create a specular highlight (a bright spot) on each eye which immediately draws attention to it.

A highlight is created by a catch-light when light is aimed at the face of the subject but it is done so at an angle, usually from above the subject's head.

The best results are usually achieved by placing the catch-light at a 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock position relative to the eyes.

But also important is the light source you're using, how strong it is and how far it is from your subject as all of this can have an effect in the shape and size of the catch-light.

The larger the light source, the bigger the catch-light will be and if you have multiple light sources, you can end up with more than one catch-light appearing on the eyes.

The best tools for this are photographic snoots which are nothing more than a light source with a cone which tapers off at the end, thus reducing and pinpointing where the lights ends up.

The best thing is that you can make your own with a regular lamp and a plastic Solo cup which has had its bottom removed and has been painted black.

Get a clamp lamp from a hardware store, place a cool fluorescent light, cut the bottom of a plastic Solo cup which has been painted solid black and tape this cup to the clamp light .

It doesn't matter if some light escapes from the sides of the cup so long as you can still direct a good portion of the light at the subject.

Did you know about catch-lights & how they were used?

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Without a catch-light the eyes might end up as dark spots on a face, unless the model's eyes are blue, green and the portrait is a close up of the face.

The catch-light adds life to them by simply reflecting a "circle" or spot on each eye and since most people first look at the eyes of any person or animal whether in person or in photographs, this "life" can make the viewer's experience that much better.

One light is usually enough but for an enhanced effect you can use two (one for each eye). Remember that the light must be concentrated on the eye area and cannot be a strong one nor does it have to be placed close to the face.

A pure white cool light with a low wattage of about 40 should be sufficient. Do not disregard the use of a snoot. There is no other photographic tool that best fits this purpose as a snoot does.

Edited for effect. You may see original by following link CC BY-SA 2.0
Edited for effect. You may see original by following link CC BY-SA 2.0 | Source

Adding a catch-light thus enhancing the look of the eyes in your portraits goes a long way in making your portraits that much better.

Not only will your clients be that much more satisfied with the results but your other photographic endeavors which feature people will be enhanced as well and will give your face shots that professional look which often eludes the best intentions of the majority of photographers.

CC BY-SA 2.0
CC BY-SA 2.0 | Source

Research into the catch-lights of your choice or make your own, learn to use them and experiment with the best positions and angles that render results with which you can be satisfied.

If you are having trouble using real catch-lights, there is always a digital solution.

Digital editing systems like Photoshop have the ability of adding a digital "sparkle" to the eyes. It does not look-as natural as the real thing but it is a close match.

© 2014 Luis E Gonzalez

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