A look at catch lights and the role they have in portraiture

by Nick Kelsh

posted Tuesday, January 27, 2015 at 5:26 PM EDT


If the eyes are the windows to the soul then what are the windows that are reflected on the eyes? Or the studio lighting equipment for that matter. Whatever they are they’re called Catch Lights.

The catch lights that are reflected in the eyes of your subjects can make a big difference in the final impact of your portraits. In fact, one of the challenges of lighting someone for a major magazine cover for example is to use a light source that creates the mood you’re looking for and looks good as a catch light in their eyes. If you can’t make your main light source look good as a catch light you can always set up another relatively dim light just to reflect in the eyes which is exactly what many serious portrait photographers do. The next time you’re in line at the grocery store check out the catch lights in the faces of the fashion models. Someone was thinking about it before they pushed the button.

It’s unlikely that many of you are going to be setting up catch lights for your next head shot but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider catch lights. Notice how window light or the light of a doorway show up in the eyes of your subjects. The closer your subject gets to the light source the bigger and more dramatic the catch lights become. The picture you see here of Teddy was in my garage. The wide door produced a fairly large catch light. (Anne says too large. His most satanic nature seems to be coming to the surface here and all it took was a little lighting effect.)

I edited the catch lights out the of the version on the bottom just for a comparison. I made the picture darker than I normally would just to emphasize the look. Isn’t it amazing just how much difference catch lights can make?

And isn’t it also striking how just that little bit of bright white adds full range of contrast to the picture. The bottom version just feels dark and murky. But the top version has personality and impact.

A little aside. Here’s a great quote from Max Beerbohm:

“I need no dictionary of quotations to remind me that the eyes are the windows of the soul.”

(An exceptional educator and a world-class photographer, Nick Kelsh is the founder of How To Photograph Your Life, an excellent source of affordable photography training and tips. Nick’s courses can be conducted by yourself in your own time, or with feedback from Nick and your fellow students. If you appreciated this article and want to improve your photography, visit How to Photograph your Life and sign up for a course today!)