Catchlights. What exactly are they and why are they important?

A catchlight is light reflecting from your subject’s eyes. More importantly though, without them your subject appears empty and with them your image can be much more emotive.

The standard rule of thumb is to ideally have the catchlights either at 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock. However, I don’t necessarily worry about the ideal placement as much. Instead I always try to make sure that…

  1. I have them when photographing my subjects
  2. Not have them fall right in the middle of my subjects eyes… i.e. over the pupil.

There are several ways to achieve catchlights whether you are outdoors or indoors…

1. Window light

Placing your subject near a window is a great way to obtain catchlights. Experiment with this one and study the light! Move your subject towards the edge of the window for feathered, soft light or to the middle of the window for brighter light. Move your subject close to the window or farther away until you like the way the light falls across their face. If your subject is perpendicular to the window and you don’t see catchlights in both of their eyes shift your subject to a 45 degree angle or until you do. The important thing is to try and take your time until you are happy with the result and the amount of light reflecting in your subjects eyes.

baby being washed in the sink by Megan Loeks

no catchlights

sink bath photo by Megan Loeks


2. Open shade

If you are outside, finding open shade is one way to achieve beautiful catchlights. Place your subject in the shade and facing the light source. This could be a tree lined meadow or outdoor pavilion. The bigger the light source, the more light reflecting into your subject’s eyes. A big open field allows for lots of light. However, there are times when you might not have open shade available to you. That’s when using a reflector becomes handy (see tip #3).

boy with a hat on standing in a field by Megan Loeks

3. Utilize a reflector

Maybe you are in the woods and there is no open shade around. You are hoping to get a backlit image of your subject so you place the sun at their back. By holding a reflector near your subject and allowing the light to bounce off the reflector into your subject’s eyes, you can create beautiful catchlights. You don’t have to necessarily use a reflector either. A white posterboard, blanket or shirt could work, too! Basically, something that will reflect light back onto your subject’s face.

portrait of young girl without reflector by April Nienhuis

without reflector
photo by April Nienhuis

portrait of young girl with reflector by April Nienhuis

with reflector
photo by April Nienhuis

4. Use a flash or strobe

You can use a flash or strobe to create catchlights in your subject’s eyes, too. The important thing to remember is to hold your light source where you would typically want your window light to come from. Generally, this placement would be either camera right or left and slightly from above. Then, turn your flash or strobe around so it is able to bounce off where you want your light to reflect (i.e. a wall) or filter it with a translucent umbrella or softbox. This is how you would create catchlights with artificial light.

girl in pink tank top sitting on bed by April Nienhuis

photo by April Nienhuis

5. Changing your angle and moving your subject

Again, experiment with this whether you are indoors or outside. The more you have your subject face the light source, the more light that will reflect from their eyes. If you are outside or near a window indoors, have your subject look up towards the light. Don’t be afraid to move around and shift your subjects focus. One thing to be careful of is avoiding flat light. You want your subject to look towards the light source, but you also want to make sure your subject has dimension. Take note of how the shadows fall across your subject’s face.

picture of boy playing with antique radio by Megan Loeks

Last but not least, take your time. I know that’s easier said than done, especially when working with children, but try to slow down and adjust your subject or your angle if need be.