An Introduction to Catchlights

An Introduction to Catchlights


In this post regular DPS forum member David Johnson.

Catchlights – What are they and why are they important in Portrait Photography?

A “catchlight’ is simply the highlight of a light source reflected off the surface of the eye. This highlight adds depth and dimension to the eye, and gives the eyes life in a portrait or snapshot.

Catchlights come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the shape and size of the light source, and its distance from the subject. For example, a large, round umbrella reflector will produce a larger, more pronounced catchlight than a small portable electronic flash. Many portrait photographers use a reflector placed in the lap of the subject, or in a similar position. This usually produces a larger catchlight in the lower half of the eye (often not flattering).

In portraiture, where more than one light is used, the eyes may end up showing two or more catchlights. It’s the photographer’s job to decide which ones to save and which should be removed, using photographic software such as Photoshop.

Positioning Catchlights

The position of a catch light is determined by the placement of the “key” and “fill” lights, and changes as their height and angle away from the camera lens change. A studio portrait will show the final product with a single catchlight in each eye, typically in the 10 or 2 o’clock position, created by the main (“key”) light.

Catchlights At 10

Image by Lanbui

The real reason for the conventional placement of catchlights at 10 or 2 o’clock is unknown, but the earliest portrait painters found that the most pleasing balance resulted when either of those positions was used.

Consider that early artists didn’t have the luxury of multiple lights in a studio, using instead the Sun or light from a large open window. The result was a single catchlight and because the Sun illuminated the subject from a high angle, the catchlight reflected from a higher spot on the eye.

Experiment with Catchlights

I encourage you to become a student of catch lights, particularly if you have a keen interest in portrait work. Experiment with removing, then adding, catchlights to the eyes in your portraits. Use different sizes and positions, and notice the effect.

Before photographic software was developed, unwanted catchlights had to be removed by “spotting,” a labor-intensive process involving a fine camel-hair brush and an assortment of dyes. Adding a catchlight was possible, but even more difficult.

Use every opportunity to study the position and shape of catchlights in other photographers’ work, and in the eyes of your friends and coworkers. Study the paintings of old master portrait artists to learn how they used light. Your portrait work will benefit from this effort.

There is no hard-and-fast rule regarding catchlights; it’s simply a matter of personal taste and preference. You will see all manner of catch light size and placement in journals and in professional portraits. There is no “better’ or ‘worse” way to place them. In fact, the only ones who probably really notice them, are photographers!

Google search has hundreds of links, found by using keywords such as: portraiture, portrait lighting, portrait photography, etc.


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Some Older Comments

  • jhojay March 10, 2013 06:06 pm

    I took picture of my daughter and it has 2 sets of catch lights at 10 and 2. I suppose that you only have to have 1 set. How do you remove the other set of unwanted catchlight. Please share your Photoshop method so that I could apply it.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck December 27, 2011 02:27 am


    Can you tell the lighting setup from the Catch Lights in this shot? Look at the first image, then check the behind the scenes shot.

  • Pictureman October 4, 2011 04:47 am

    I just wanted to step in and agree with Rob. It is not elitist to say that skilled photographers, professional or amateur, work to catch a moment in the frame. There is an art to the darkroom and Photoshop too, but relying on post-production to fix rather than enhance an already worthy image deprives the individual of learning and improving. If your goal is to paint a picture in PS, that's fine, but there is also an art to capturing a moment, and you either work to be good at that or you don't. Ansel Adams or Cartier-Bresson didn't have digital cameras and they didn't say I've got other things to do. That is why their negatives are in museums.

  • Yucel December 15, 2010 03:26 pm

    Have been reading and into catch lights last several months.

    Posed examples of catchlights from various studio lighting sources, like beauty dish, boxes, umbrellas, and ring lights.

    See examples at:

    My favs now are using two boxes and rings.

    Making them in photoshop is still an area for study. Tho I do touch them up and down.

  • Jackie October 30, 2009 03:29 am

    catchlights have always been difficult for me b/c i shoot actor's headshots mostly with natural lighting - i have to use reflectors too, so these little boogers are always slightly adding in their own silhouette into the eyes of my clients. AND my driveway is white, and the wall against my driveway is light=colored my perfect lighting is still creating some funky catchlights. it's frustrating not being able to be perfect. LOL. studio light provides better results for the catch lights, but not always the even lighting that i need. Ohhh, the dilemma!

  • Photogirlz August 21, 2009 04:23 am

    This was interesting to read all of the views.

    to the one above that said "The challenge of photography is capturing the image via the tool in your hand, not the santized “just add water” method of PS. Call yourself “photographers”??

    Haven't you forgotten that in the olden days there was what was called a dark room and in it you would dodge and burn to finish your photos and now in the modern day there is photoshop used in the exact same manner. You come across as an elitist and forget that simply taking a photo does not a great photograph make. I am sure that you are exceptional in your work but try not to put down your fellow photographers. Art comes from the completion of a photograph made both in a camera and a darkroom of sorts.

    Catch lights are a critical part of photography and I have seen many amazing photographs that do not have the traditional flash catchlight but a sparkle that is in the Iris as well and have been working on acheiveing that myself. Any suggestions? feel free to check out and comment on my work at
    Thank you

  • Christopher June 27, 2009 01:48 am

    Catchlights in pets vs. humans

    For human subjects having the catchlights at 10 or 2 o'clock works in most cases, but check out animals. In particular dogs...depending on the breed and the shape of the animal's face a natural catchlight can look very odd. In some cases the catchlight can be at 10 o'clock in one eye and 12 o'clock in another.

    I tend to retouch out the existing catchlights and add back in a 10 or 2 o'clock set. I've never had a client notice...I truly wonder if anyone other than photographers really ever would.

  • Destiney Fischer February 27, 2009 02:40 am

    I think it was a good learning article but I am not into the pin light catch lights to me it's a tall tail sign of a flash but sometimes I realize it's hard to avoid even with an external flash bouncing of the ceiling ... but I really hate dragging my lighting out blah! One of my friends does the most amazing job with catchlights she is not pro but a student much better then me! she is most certainly going to be a star one day!!!!!! her photography is breath taking

  • Pat January 1, 2009 06:27 am

    Great article and spot on with positioning of catch lights to produce the classic lighting patterns (Rembrant) on the subject's face.

  • Patch November 25, 2008 05:03 am

    One of the reasons for placeing the catchlights at 10 or 2 o'clock is because thats going to reflect your lightsource in a natural position. The early painters did it because thier lighting was usually from above at an angle. So if youre main lighting is from the upper left of the subject, catchlights are at 2, if the light is upper right of the subject, catchlights are at 10.

    This will change when you start lighting your subjects in unconventional ways. back light, glow from a low candle, multiple light sources, sidelights will all modify which catchlights you add, delete, or keep. Just looking at the eyes in this post will show a wide variety of conditions:

    As with anything to do with photography, its all about your light source. Keep the light source in mind when playing with, adding, or deleting the catchlights and you wont go wrong.

  • Shannon October 24, 2008 01:07 am

    Love the illustrations.

  • Theron January 19, 2008 05:09 am

    "Capturing the image" involves many tools and choices that depend on what the photographer's intentions are. The tools include the choice of film (for you old timers), camera, filters, lighting, darkroom/printing techniques and, yes, software. The image is in the photographer's eye, not some objective reality, and how we get to it is our craft. That's why many photographers refer to "making" photos, not "taking" photos.

  • Jill January 19, 2008 03:33 am

    "OK I can agree with the photographer who is not allowed to use flash in church who goes to PS to create it, but apart from those very few situations I can’t understand why anyone would want to put catchlights in with PS. The challenge of photography is capturing the image via the tool in your hand, not the santized “just add water” method of PS. Call yourself “photographers”?? Yes acheiving the desired result is’s meant to be."

    Wow...are we feeling a little judgemental today, Rob?? First of all, I do not call myself a "photographer"...I am just a mom who happens to enjoy taking pictures, especially of my daughter, and just want to make them as 'pretty' as possible to help in the recording of her life. Unfortunately, photography is not and cannot be my 'profession' as I work full time (40+ hours each week) outside the home, am an independent consultant on the side for a scrapbooking direct sales company and have numerous other interests in addition to photography.

    I will never be a photographer, but so appreciate individuals like Bilka & hnfg (thank you, again!) who are willing to share their knowledge with the rest of us (who don't have the time or $$ for equipment to consider themselves professional photographers) to 'cheat' a little now and them to 'create' beautiful photos to cherish with family and friends.

    Sorry for my rant...I just took a little offense to that comment. I'm over it now...thanks! :-)

  • Rob January 18, 2008 04:20 pm

    OK I can agree with the photographer who is not allowed to use flash in church who goes to PS to create it, but apart from those very few situations I can't understand why anyone would want to put catchlights in with PS. The challenge of photography is capturing the image via the tool in your hand, not the santized "just add water" method of PS. Call yourself "photographers"?? Yes acheiving the desired result is's meant to be.

  • hfng January 17, 2008 06:23 pm

    Thanks Bilka :)

  • Bilka January 17, 2008 03:29 pm

    JILL --

    As our learned friend hfng will likely attest there are many ways to do the same thing in PS. Hfng and I both have our favorites for you to try but do not hesitate to play around and find something that you like as well. Good luck and have fun.

    HFNG --

    You have a beautiful Website and photographs!


  • Deb January 17, 2008 01:38 pm

    Wow! I have been photographing folks for years for fun and never really gave much thought to the catchlights. What a difference! I will definitely present these thoughts and methods to my high school students in our multimedia class tomorrow. I have been learning sooooo much about photography from this website. Thanks to all of you for the blogs and tutorials! You are making a difference!

  • Jill January 17, 2008 08:14 am

    I agree with Kat...sometimes subjects can look lifeless without them, but they're just not always easy to achieve - at least for me...

    SO...thanks Bilka and hnfg for the instructions on how to add them in PS...I will have to try both options and see which works best for me. THANKS so much!

  • hfng January 17, 2008 12:59 am

    I took some shots at a wedding and the priest didn't like flashes going on during the ceremony. So the catch light was added later in PS.

    This is what I did:
    1. Zoom into the eyes at 100%. Add a new layer. Then use the marquee tool to draw circles on each eye and fill it with white on the new layer

    2. Then use Gaussian blur on the new layer. Adjust the amount to your liking.

    3. Then reduce the opacity to make it less obvious.

  • Robert F January 17, 2008 12:20 am

    Clockdoc and JiminyClickit,

    Thank you for this insightful tutorial. I had never really given it much thought. Thanks to your tutorial I will give this more thought the next time I have the opportunity to do a portrait setting.

    - Rob -

  • Flip January 16, 2008 02:14 pm

    Good post, thanks for teaching me what a catchlight is. I really like the look of catchlights with a ring flash, I don't see it done much.

  • Kat January 16, 2008 01:48 pm

    Very interesting, catchlights do make a lot difference between a dull photo and a lively portrait. Without it, the eyes look lifeless and the subject hollow.

  • Bilka January 16, 2008 07:11 am

    @ Jill wrote on January 16th, 2008 at 3:09 am

    "Question…is there a way to ADD catchlights in Photoshop? A tutorial on this would be GREAT!!"


    It is easy Jill and like many other functions in Photoshop® There are several different ways to do this. Some like to use the Brush tool some like to use the Clone tool. My favorite is:

    ** Enlarge the area you wish to add catch light to (usually the eyes).

    ** Select the Clone tool.

    ** Adjust the size of the tool to the appropriate size in proportion to your enlarged area and the size of the catch light you like.

    ** Use the appropriate select key (In Windows it is the Alt Key). Hold down the ALT key and click your mouse on an area of the color you want (I normally choose the brightest white area of the image). You can also choose from the color palette.

    ** Place your cursor over the area you want to drop your highlight or catch light on and click your mouse to lay-in the cloned mark.

    ** Reset to full screen.

    ** Admire your work.


  • Jill January 16, 2008 03:09 am there a way to ADD catchlights in Photoshop? A tutorial on this would be GREAT!!

  • Jill January 16, 2008 03:04 am

    I know that this is something I need to work on in my photography, but I did get some great '10 o'clock' catchlights in this closeup of my daughter's eyes (edited to blue in Photoshop):