Catchlights are one of the most important “things” in photography, and especially portraits.
They are mainly used to create dimension, depth, emotion and a connection with the viewer. We’ll see how to create them in a later lesson, but here we’ll go over everything a catchlight can teach us from a photographic point of view.
This skill will greatly help you in learning how to “read” light by being able to analyze an image made by someone else and reverse-engineer how they created that photo. It’s the closest you’ll get to a behind the scenes look without being present when the photo is taken.
Even better: When you understand how catchlights work you’ll be much better at creating or adjusting them in your own work.
So together with the previous lesson about shadows, this lesson about catchlights should give you all the tools you’ll ever need to “read light”.
What Is A Catchlight?
Catchlights are simply the reflections of light or lights in the eyes of your subject.
These lights can come from artificial lights ⚡ (that you added or not) like:
- Studio lights
- Lights with a modifier
- Continuous lights
Or ambient lights ⛅️ like:
- The sky
- The sun
- A window
Or a combination of both of course.
By concentrating on the eyes when dissecting the light of an image we can thus gather some incredibly useful information.
For example: where was the light placed, how big was the light, how many lights were used. You can even tell if it was a window light or exactly what modifier was used by identifying the shape of the reflection.
What Can We Learn From Catchlights?
Single vs Multiple
This one is easy.
Every light will create one reflection, so if you see multiple catchlights you can easily count how many lights were present in the scene.
Now, as well see later, it’s often preferable to have only one (dominant or key) light. This is mostly because in our daily lives we often have only one main light source, the sun. It thus feels slightly unnatural for most people to see 2 bright catchlights, as this screams artificial lighting.
There are exceptions to this (see the Martin Schoeller example below), notably in the studio with certain fashion, cosmetics, and beauty lighting applications. Another well-known use where 2 catchlights are present is the Clamshell setup used in Butterfly lighting.
While studio lighting is a bit more forgiving in the catchlight department, the overall preference is still a single catchlight created by an overhead keylight.
Placement / Angle
Not only are we used to seeing only one main light, but most light we know also comes from above. This is true for the sun, the sky and indoor lamps. Even windows are often slightly above eye level.
The position of the catchlight reflected in your subject’s eyes is a direct result of the height, angle and position of the light in relationship to the subject. As the eye is round, light that comes from above will also have a catchlight on the upper side of the eye. And light that comes from below will create a reflection on the lower side. The same is true for left and right.
This way we can easily figure out where a photographer positioned its lights.
When you think of your subjects eyes as a clock ?, the following is often the light setup used:
- 12 o’clock: Paramount / Clamshell
- 10 and 2 o’Clock: Rembrandt / Loop
We’ll talk about these light setups in one of the next lessons.
The shape of the catchlight is one of the biggest hints they can provide about the lights and modifiers used.
? Point / Spot
A single small bright spot indicates the use of an almost bare speedlight or strobe, possibly modified by a grid, snoot or reflector.
Even from close by, this will generate a clearly defined small bright spot.
When you see an almost square reflection in an eye, it’s probably the result of a square softbox or an opening like a window or door.
Softboxes are mostly placed higher than windows so their catchlight will also appear higher, or even be coming from above. Windows, in turn, can often be recognized by their subdivisions.
? (Almost) Round
An (almost) round catchlight is most common, and depending on some details can indicate the use of a wide range of modifiers.
Round (with darker middle): This is probably a beauty dish. The perfectly round shape of a standard beauty dish with the reflector in the middle creates this effect. Since recently there are some foldable beauty dishes available that aren’t perfectly round, but they come close. The darker middle is what can give them away compared to the next possibility.
Almost round (8 or more sides): This catchlight is created by the use of an octabox. As we saw before they emit a different quality of light compared to the beauty dish, but their catchlights are very similar except for the slight difference in roundness and the dark spot in the middle that doesn’t exist with an octabox.
Almost round (8 or more sides) with visible rods: This is the effect of a (shoot through) umbrella.
If most of the (upper side) of the eye is a reflection, the image was probably made outside so the reflection is the result of the sky.
The very recognizable ring catchlight in the middle of the eye is an almost sure giveaway to the use of a ring flash.
The size of the catchlight holds some very interesting info, but can also be a bit confusing.
In general, the larger the reflection is, the larger the light or modifier that was used.
But, as we saw in the “Apparent Light Size” lesson, this also depends on how close the light or modifier was placed to the subject.
Even a tiny softbox next to your subject will create a much larger catchlight than a huge softbox placed far away. Of course, the whole goal of using a large modifier is to create soft light. And the closer it is, the softer the light. So the modifier is mostly placed as close to the subject as possible without getting in the frame (unless there is no other option, or it is photoshopped out later).
This means that in general, you can assume the size of the catchlight will tell you more about the size of the modifier used than the distance.
A tiny speedlight will generate a small dot, while a softbox creates a big white square, and a photograph taken outside will have almost half of the eye reflecting the sky.
Catchlights will generally be (almost) white, as the light that comes from flashes has the same color temperature as daylight.
As we’ll see later, the color of the light can be modified with color gels ranging from subtle accents to all-out vibrant colors like red, green and purple.
When these gels are used you’ll be able to see their effect in the reflection of the light, as this will take on the color of the used gel. Even if the effect is less visible in the rest of the photo.
Indoor lightbulbs are also often much warmer than daylight.
Barack Obama by Martin Schoeller
This portrait of Barack Obama by Martin Schoeller demonstrates the lighting setup that he uses most often. Two key lights create the typical Martin Schoeller catchlights in the subjects eye, one of the trademarks in his portraits. The two main lights are gridded Kino Flo 4Banks very close to the face of the subject, just to camera left and right. Because they cancel each other’s shadow out, there are also almost no shadows visible.