Definition: Catchlights; Catch Lights; Catch-lights;

Definition: Catchlights; Catch Lights; Catch-lights; | Glossary entry

Catchlights; Catch Lights; Catch-lights;

Catchlights invest life into a portrait... the reflection from the eyes draws the viewer into the shot.

Catchlights invest life into a portrait... the reflection from the eyes draws the viewer into the shot. (Catchlights created using a 700mm beauty dish.)

In photography, a catchlight is a gleam of light, that is reflected in the eyes of people or animals.

Origin: They are the result of light reflected from a bright source. As they are reflected light they tend to appear as highlights or completely white spots of light. They appear naturally as a consequence of sunlight or as a result of artificial light in a studio. Normally the brightest local light source causes the appearance of the catchlights.

Dramatic effect: Sometimes for dramatic effect highlights are created to enhance the impact of the eyes. The creation of catchlights is a way to bring the attention of the viewer to the face of the subject. If not for dramatic effect, then catchlights are created to give life to a portrait. The appearance of catchlights give a dynamic, bright spark of life to the eyes. It is a great way to give three dimensionality to the eyes and face. While that may be the case in a photograph, cinematographers and photographers alike also recognise the impact of the opposite. A lack of catchlights is often used to indicate evil or the villain. Watch out for that one in films.

Natural Light: Catchlights are most flattering when they are natural. The natural external light tends to be from the sun. Natural catchlights therefore tend to be round and have a position relative to the sun. However, it is common to mimic this effect in the studio so it is not easy to tell the difference between natural origin catchlights and artificial. Often, even in sunshine, the appearance of catchlights is not guaranteed. However, the eyes look natural, alive and dynamic when there is a catchlight. Photographers tend to add them with additional lights even if photographing out of doors because they do not always want the sun directly into the face of the subject – but they do want the catchlights.

Shape: Catchlights that have been created by artificial light tend to be spots or rectangular (both as a result of shaped softboxes). However, they can be created for all sorts of reasons and the shape of the catchlight can be manipulated to suite the scene. Often catchlights take a shape that is not regular. Notably the impact of windows can create odd shapes or multiple shapes. These are not necessarily a bad thing, it depends on how detailed the shot of the eye is to be (ie: close up or at a distance) or if the reflection of the scene is important to the shot or not.

Position: Catchlights can be positioned anywhere in the eye. The light source that produces the catchlight sets the position. However, the most flattering catchlights tend to be those that follow the likely position of those created naturally. Remember the brow will tend to shade the eyes. So the natural light has a limited position from which to hit the eyes. Photographers therefore tend to try and position catchlights at either the ‘two o’clock’ position, or the ‘ten o’clock’ position. These are the two most likely positions where catchlights will form in the sun. However, light can be created from any position and so catchlights should naturally look related to any local light source that is important in the shot. It is also possible to put catchlights in the wrong position… which would look at odds with the shot. Always make sure that you consider the strongest light source and its direction relative to the eye so that you can predict the best catchlight position.

Geometry of the eye: Photographers often forget the geometry of the eye. They sometimes ignore the fact that the eye has a natural way to catch light. Yet they artificially light the eye to create catchlights that are not natural to that eye. This is particularly the case with animals. Birds tend to have quite bulging eyes, as do nocturnal animals. This means that catchlights form in a ridge or long shape along the line of the bulge of the eye, on top, or on the side. Where photographers artificially add catchlights in post production they often ignore the natural lines and shapes of the eye and this leads to some very odd effects. Care should be taken when considering adding catchlights.

Catchlight numbers: Many photographers will argue that there should only be one catchlight in each eye. However, indoors, it is not unusual for there to be multiple light sources. So it may be appropriate to have more than one catchlight. Nevertheless, simplicity is always a good policy. It is advisable to be careful about the number as too many make the eyes look messy. This would not make for an attractive or pleasing effect.

Balance: The catchlights on each eye should be positioned to reflect the main light source. If it is on the right side then both eyes should reflect a right-sided highlight. Thus, both eyes should have a catchlight in the two o’clock position. If one catchlight was on at 10 o’clock and one at two o’clock, this would have a very poor effect and look distinctly unnatural (cross-eyed?). You should consider changing the lighting, or reviewing your understanding of light reflection.

Practice: Many starter photographers are unaware of the existence of catchlights until told about it. Awareness of the issues of catchlights is half the battle to understanding them. If you study the way the light affects the eyes and where catchlights appear then it will help you to understand how the eyes react to different light sources. When thinking about a scene, try to predict where the catchlights will appear. Then practice and experiment with lights to develop your knowledge.

To see some more pictures of catchlights in the eyes check this Google images search for “catchlights”  Catchlights on Google Images | External link - opens new tab/page.

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