How to Create Catch Lights in Your Natural Light Portraits

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What is a catch light, and why you should have it in your portraits?

A very popular technique in portraiture – a catch light is a spark of light in your subject’s eyes. This spark will help you to draw your viewer’s attention to your subject’s eyes, making them full of life and, well, sparkling.

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For this portrait, I made recently in Cienfuegos, Cuba, I used the light from the setting sun to create a catch light, even without having the subject looking up.

How to create a catch light in portraits?

To create a catch light, all you need is a source of bright light to reflect in your subject’s eyes. This source can be artificial, like a flash, or natural, like sunlight. In this article, I will focus on creating catch light in portraits using natural light.

Creating a catch light – indoor

To create a catch light in an indoor location, all you need to do is to make sure there is a visible source of light, which will be reflected in your subject’s eyes.

Position your subject near an open window or door, during daylight, and make sure there is a direct line between the source of light and the subject, without blocking objects like furniture. Your subject does not have to look directly into the source, as it might be too dazzling or uncomfortable. The important thing is that the light source must be visible as a reflection in the subject’s eyes.

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I met the lovely Nagina at her home in a small village of Roma people, outside Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Although she was only 10; she was very busy caring for her small brothers, along with few other neighbors’ children. She asked me to take her photo, and I was drawn to her gaze right away, choosing to go for a close-up portrait. The house was completely dark, except a large window, which was position at a 45-degree angle to her face, which created that catch light in her eyes.

Good to know: The closer your subject is to the light source (open window or door) the larger and more dominant the spark of catch light will seem.

Taking it to the next level: Think carefully about the location of your subject to the light source, as that will not only affect the size and visibility of the catchlight in the subject’s eyes, it will also control the entire Illumination of the subject’s face. To read more about how the direction of light will affect your portrait, check out: Understanding Natural Light Part 3: Direction of Light.

Creating a catch light – outdoors

For achieving the best results in an outdoor shooting, all you need to do is aim your subject to look at the largest light source – the sky. DO NOT instruct the subject to gaze at the sun, even for a brief moment, as it can lead to pain and damage to his or her eyes.

If you do not want to stage your subject, or if there is a language barrier, a great technique of aiming your subject’s gaze up, is by simply positioning yourself a bit above your subject. While they gaze it your lens, the sky (behind you) will reflect in their eyes. This is why I photograph many of my outdoor portraits at an angle, which is a bit higher than my subject.

Mordecai is Jewish Orthodox, from the old city of Jerusalem. I was very surprised that he agreed to be photographed, even with joy. To give a spark to those amazing eyes I told him to look into my lens, while I positioned myself slightly higher than him, and the lovely skies of holy Jerusalem were reflected in his eyes.

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Good to know: On a sunny day, I recommend positioning your subject in the shade, as gazing at sunny skies might be uncomfortable.

Taking it to the next level: If you want it or not, it is almost sure that apart from that spark of light, your own image (the photographer) will also be visible in the subject’s eyes. You can turn this fact into a creative portrait (of your subject) and a self-portrait (of yourself) in the same frame. Just do not forget to move the camera a bit, to let your face be visible. You can also use this technique for less narcissistic reasons, as with really tight close-up, as almost anything in front of your subject’s face will be reflected in his eyes. It is a wonderful technique for making a landscape shot, or an image of an iconic place, with a twist.

Creating a catch light – while using a reflector

Using reflectors in portrait photography is a wonderful technique (a more in-depth explanation about using reflectors in portrait photography, in this article: Reflectors: Your Secret Weapon for Amazing Portrait Photography), that can help you to create catch lights in almost any situation, indoor or outdoor, sunny or cloudy.

Not only do reflectors allow you to create that spark of catch light almost anywhere; but they will allow you much more control, over the intensity, color, and direction of that spark.

A pocket size silver reflector was the best tool for the job for this portrait, photographed in a very hot afternoon in Armenia.

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Good to know: Reflectors come in many sizes and colors. For the best results, use a small pocket-sized silver reflector. Why? Because you do not need anything larger or heavier. Those small reflectors are the perfect weapon of choice, for creating a catch light in close-up portraits. Position the reflector just under the chin of your subject. You can hold the reflector with your left hand, or ask the subject to hold it.

Taking it to the next level: Although using a silver reflector will give you the most notable catch light, you can add warmth to the portrait by using a golden one, which will result in a golden catch light.

A mix of shade, slightly higher camera angle, and gaze upward toward the sky, helped create the catch light in these portraits photographed in India and Israel.

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See how the eyes are alive in their portraits? The catch lights help add the sparkle you see there, and without them the portraits wouldn’t feel as alive, vibrant.

Now it’s your turn, show me your portraits with great catchlights. Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Oded Wagenstein is a cultures photojournalist and author. His work has been published in numerous international publications, such as the National Geographic.com, BBC.com, and Time Out. He is the author of three photography books. Visit his Facebook page and continue to discuss travel and people photography and get more fantastic tips!

  • This is Amazing , Just Loved it , Thanks

  • Roger Lambert

    You can also make a custom brush in Photoshop and use a good blending mode to apply it to the eyes. Good enough for most work.

  • isabellagarden

    Thank you. “Catch Light” is new term for me. This was very helpful and your photographs are wonderful.

  • Kathy Larin

    Thank you for making this article easy to understand. I will strive for catch lights!

  • Thank you

  • These are excellent tips…the idea of the little reflector is a good one.. though without an assistant will be tough to implement…but the one to make subject look above and position yourself a little higher is a Gem… thanks.. 🙂

  • Peter

    Ask your subject to hold the reflector or somebody else, you could even hold it yourself & soot one handed, not that easy if shooting with a big camera, lens or both.

  • Peter

    Yes you can, lot of extra work, I prefer to do as much in camera to save on a lot of wasted time in post. Maybe OK if you got a great shot but you didn’t bring a reflector & no catch lights. I usually spend a little more time taking the shot & getting catch lights if I can. I agree with Oded and a small reflector takes up near to no space in your backpak.

  • Peter

    Great article Oded, catch lights are like the windows to a persons soul as the old clichĂ© goes. They do show that the person is real, alive & reflect their environment, but don’t overdo it keep it subtle & real looking as are these portraits of Oded’s. Thanks

  • Leegentle

    Great article. I have always loved catching the light in my subjects eyes, without knowing the technical term for it. Now I know why I love shooting that way so much ?

  • Helen White

    Same goes for pet photography. This pic was taken undercover outdoors.

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