Until you're told they're important, you don't even know they exist. Catchlights are the little white reflections in your eyes that will only appear in a photo if you are looking at a bright source of light. Ever since the Renaissance, portrait artists have been painting their subjects with catchlights as a way to create more drama. And it works! There's something about that little extra bit of contrast a catchlight adds a to a portrait. It makes subjects come alive.
To create catchlights in your subjects' eyes, you have to do some reverse engineering. You need to create situations in which your subject is looking into some kind of light source. This can either be done artificially with reflectors, or it can be done more naturally with the sun's light.
Photographers weren't the first ones to think of this
The painters of the Renaissance often chose to place catchlights at the ten o' clock and two o' clock positions on the upper iris. Nobody really knows why, but catchlights simply look the best when placed there. My guess is that the shape balances out the rest of the eye, especially if it is a clean circle.
In order to get the same positions in a photograph, you need to place a light source somewhere above your subject's eyes so the reflection appears in the upper portion. Your subject should also be looking towards the source of the light. Otherwise, the bright spot won't fall on your subject's eyes. One of the easiest ways to do this is to get your subject to kneel down and look upwards towards the sun while you take the photo from above. As long as you aren't blocking the sun completely, you should see some nice catchlights in the ten and two o'clock positions.
Some optional gear to make it easier
Interestingly, the term "catchlight" also refers to the light sources you use to create those little glimmers and glints. Photographers have a ton of lighting tools at their disposal to create catchlights in their subjects' eyes. One of the most popular is the softbox. It is a flash reflector that you place a few feet in front of your subject. You'll need an external flash to place inside the softbox as well. When the flash goes off and the photo is taken, the outline of the softbox will appear in white towards the top of the subject's eyes. If you are going to use softboxes or reflective umbrellas, remember that they should be placed slightly above your subject's head. Tell your subject to look up toward the catchlight so the reflection registers in the eyes and not somewhere else.
Luckily, most umbrellas and softboxes can be purchased on the cheap side. You're looking at a $30 to $50 purchase that is well worth if you are really starting to develop your portrait photography skill set. The flash itself is the more expensive part, but you won't need a flash for all of your portraits. You can use studio lights that plug into a wall outlet to get the same kind of illumination.
Learn to see everything as a potential catchlight
As you learn more about creating catchlights in your subjects' eyes, learn to watch for them while you take the photo. It requires a little bit of patience, but with enough practice, you should be able to see them and then adjust your lighting until everything is just right. This will save you a ton of time later on because you won't have to go through hundreds of files to find the perfect shot.
Most importantly, learn to be creative with catchlights. Almost any light source can become a catchlight if you position your subject accordingly. Think of your bedroom window, the dining room chandelier, a candle, or an open door. You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to bring a little extra sparkle into your portraits. You just need the eye for it.
I encourage you all to try and create catchlights in your subjects' eyes. Please send me your best attempts at doing this, and I will pick one of them to critique. I can't wait to see your shiny new portraits.
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