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The Enchantment of Catchlights in Portrait Photography

When you gaze at a portrait, where does your attention instinctively gravitate? If you're anything like me, it's the subject's eyes that captivate you first.


The allure of those eyes doesn't end with their gaze. They hold another secret, a telltale sign of artistry in portrait photography - catchlights. Catchlights are those mesmerizing glimmers of light that dance in a subject's eyes, adding depth and life to the image. They are sometimes referred to as eyelights or "obies."


women wearing all black one shoulder dress with a pearl hair clip
Erin Holmstead Photography

Why are Catchlights Crucial?


In the world of portrait photography, catchlights play an indispensable role. They infuse vitality and radiance into your subject's eyes. Without catchlights, the eyes may appear lifeless and lackluster, casting a pall over the entire photograph. It's as if an essential spark is missing.


Catchlights paint the windows to the soul with brilliance, revealing emotion, personality, and connection. These subtle reflections transform an ordinary image into a striking portrait.


little girl wearing a blue shirt with long brown hair smiling at a the camera
Erin Holmstead Photography

Catchlights: Shapes, Sizes, and Lighting Patterns


Catchlights come in a plethora of shapes and sizes. They are shaped by the light source, its size, and its proximity to the subject. In certain circumstances, you might even spot more than one catchlight in a subject's eyes.


But catchlights are not just charming; they are informative. Observing them allows you to dissect the lighting pattern and the equipment used by the photographer. They provide clues about the tools, techniques, and lighting positions, helping you uncover the secrets of the shot.


For example, a beauty dish without a diffuser produces a distinctive circular catchlight with a darker center. When a photographer employs clamshell lighting, you'll see two catchlights – one from the primary light source and another from a reflector or secondary light. Catchlights can reveal the story behind the shot.


The Enigmatic Eyelight


One of the most captivating catchlights is the eyelight. It's created using a curved reflector, which not only wraps light gracefully around the subject's face but also produces a striking curved catchlight beneath the pupil. This enchanting catchlight is achievable using reflectors like the Angler CatchLight Reflector or the Westcott Eyelighter 2 Reflective Panel.


close up macro shot of a womens eye with rainbow eye shadow and silver glitter eye liner
Erin Holmstead Photography

If you're keen on mastering the art of the eyelight, consider these tips:

  • Position the reflector center to your subject, roughly an arm's length away, and slightly above their belly button.

  • Ensure your main light source is tilted slightly down toward the eyelight, positioned about 30 inches from the reflector.

  • The size of your main light source dictates the size of the catchlight in your subject's eyes.

  • Mount the reflector onto a shorter light stand for optimal results.

a womens face painted like a scary skeleton wearing a black hood and red eyes
Erin Holmstead Photography

Catchlights: The Magic Touch


Personally, I believe catchlights add life, allure, and that special twinkle to your images. They draw viewers into your subject, forging a connection that transcends the photograph. Yet, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to catchlights. Sometimes, a portrait benefits from their absence, creating a different mood or aesthetic.


As a beauty and portrait photographer, you have the power to use catchlights to your advantage. By understanding the nuances of catchlights, you can unlock the secrets behind your favorite photographers' lighting techniques. This knowledge enables you to replicate and adapt those styles in your own work, creating compelling and evocative portraits.


So, next time you peer into the eyes of a portrait, remember the magic of catchlights and how they can help you weave your own artistic spell. Embrace the beauty of light and let it illuminate your photography journey.

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