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How to Add Life to Eyes with Catchlights while Shooting and in Photoshop

Have you ever wondered if your photos might be a little flat, but you couldn’t exactly pinpoint why? By now, you’ve probably heard of the term “catchlight” floating around in the photography industry and amongst your peers, and the buzz about it is for a good reason. This may be the very difference between a lifeless photo, and an eye popping one (see what I did there ;). So read below as we dissect this term and walk through the very process of capturing gorgeous catchlights.


What exactly is a catchlight?

A catchlight is that little “gleam” that you see in your subject’s eyes in photographs. It is the highlight that can often be found on the edge of the pupils. Catchlights are usually preferred in portraits because they add contrast to your subject’s eyes, and they generally brighten the whites of the eyes as well as bring out the color. This immediately brings more interest to the subject’s eyes, draws the viewer’s attention, and makes the subject in your image look more “full of life” as their eyes are not as flat or dull.

How can I create catchlights?

Catchlights can be created in several different ways. You can create them in natural light settings, by using studio lighting, and you can even create them in post production in editing programs!

  • Natural Lighting: You can achieve catchlights in a natural setting by simply facing your subject towards the natural source of light. For example, if you have a room with a window you could have your subject point their face towards the window at an angle so that when you look through your viewfinder you will see a light reflection in their eyes. If you are shooting outdoors, you will find that shooting with the sun behind you, with the sun from the side, and shooting in open shade will be most promising for catchlights. You may have to move yourself (the camera) and/or your subject around slightly until you notice the reflection in their eyes. Bring along a reflector (and perhaps an assistant) to help get more control of your light. By using a reflector you will have the ability to bounce the light source’s reflection around (be careful as this light can sometimes be really bright!). There is even a reflector specifically made just for catching catchlights! If you cannot bring a reflector (or an assistant to hold it for you), you can try wearing a white shirt, which will help reflect some of that light back. Read our 6 tips for shooting in the sun here.
  • Studio Lighting: This is usually the most common way to achieve catch lights as you can be more precise and specific about the exact spot where you want your catchlights. One of the most common ways (but not the only way) to achieve this with lighting equipment is to use a snoot (a tube/funnel shaped light modifier that controls the radius and direction of a light beam) on a light slightly off axis from your camera (this helps to avoid red eye and unwanted glare) and pointed in the direction of your subjects face. You will want to have your light dialed in to be a couple stops under your key light so that your catchlights do not overpower your main lighting source and make that region of the face look over highlighted. A second method that is popular is to use a ring flash (a circular tube flash that is usually used around the lens of your camera but can also be used off camera to create different effects and lighting angles).  The tube of light creates a circular highlight in your subject’s eyes which creates a lot more drama and contrast to your subject’s eyes and therefore naturally draws the viewer into the subject. Some lighting equipment brands even offer softboxes and different templates for the softboxes to make a variety of shapes such as stars and clouds in the reflection in your subject’s eyes! When using a ring flash a lot of times you will find that you need to be closer to your subject for the light to actually appear in their eyes and to get the lighting effect you want. This is one reason why ring flashes are ideal in close to mid-range shots. If you are shooting something a little further away or you are going for a full body shot, a snoot would be ideal in this situation because you could always turn the power of your light up to still achieve the catchlight (if you did this with a ring flash you wouldn’t be able to achieve much of an effect from a distance). If you have your subject tilt their head up slightly it is much easier to find and place a catchlight in their eyes. The reason for this is because most people’s eyelids droop a little bit when they look down. Having them tilt upwards widens their eyes slightly and gives the light more eye to reflect off of, giving your subject a more “awake” appearance.
  • Post Shoot Editing: A third option to achieve catchlights is to use effects in Photoshop. With products like The Summerana Eye Essentials Photoshop Action Collection, you can add light and catchlights if you didn’t get any in the original photo (or perhaps you caught one in one eye, but would like to add one to the other eye as well), or you can use the actions to boost the ones you did capture. This is also a good option if you do not have the assistance of the above noted lighting equipment or a natural lighting source.

Lear how to edit eyes in Photoshop using Photoshop actions here:

All in all, there isn’t really a “right” or “wrong” way to achieve catchlights. A lot of it really comes down to what equipment you have available to you (or if you are shooting outside, the location of the sun), the needs of the specific shoot you’re working on, and which styles and/or methods suit you best as a photographer. But if you are looking to add more of a “pop” to your images, we hope these tips will help you add that extra zest of life!

What is your favorite method for adding catchlights to your images? Tell us in the comments!

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