Have you ever heard the phrase, “She has a light in her eyes?” It means that someone has a sparkle. That there is something about her that is lively and fun. It’s a good thing!

In photography, having a “light in her eyes” is equally important to making a subject look full of life. Except that we call them “catchlights!”

Let’s talk about exactly what catchlights are and how we can make them appear in our portraits.

What are catchlights?

Catchlights are caused by a light source that produces a reflection in the eye. Without catchlights, eyes tend to look flat. This does not make for the most pleasing portraits.  

MickieDeVries002 portrait of boy without catchlights
With the eyes in shadow, there are no catchlights and the eyes look dark and flat.
MickieDeVries portrait with catchlights
With catchlights, my subjects eyes have a sparkle.

Which one of these portraits looks more appealing to you? I think we can all agree that the one with catchlights gives the eyes more dimension and sparkle to his eyes. This translates to a more lively subject and creates amore pleasing portrait overall.

How do we create catchlights?

To capture catchlights, need to point your subject toward the light source. In doing so, the light source is reflected in the eyes.

When you are outside this means you want to position your subject so that the sun’s light is reflected in the eyes. This doesn’t mean you should have your subject look directly into the sun! That would hurt and it really doesn’t make for the most flattering pictures. You do, however, want your subject to look into the general direction of where the light is falling.

Where to place your subject

Think of a big field surrounded by trees on three sides and a large open field on the fourth side. Picture the sun is still relatively high in the sky.  Where should you have your subject look?  If you have him look directly into the trees nearby, the eyes will be dark because your subject is looking into a dark area.

But if you turn your subject and have him look toward the open space of the field, it’s a lighter area that will in turn likely give you a catchlight in the eye.   I alway try to face my subjects looking out to the biggest available space to catch the light reflected in their eyes.

Here is an example of a field I frequently shoot in next to my house.  If my subject is the blue X, I will get the most light into her eyes if I have my subject face north. If I have her face another direction I would want to put as much distance between her and the trees as possible to allow more light into their eyes.

Another easy way to get catchlights even when it’s overcast is to shoot down on your subjects and have them looking up.  This scenario will produce catchlights on the gloomiest of days as the light in the sky will reflect their eyes.

MickieDeVries004 photo of girl from above with catchlights
Taking this photograph from above, I am able to have the light overhead reflect in my subject's eyes, creating pleasing catchlights.

Using reflectors and flash to create catchlights

So what do you do if looking toward the sun isn’t an option? What if your desired background is different than the one that allows you subject to face the sky?

Flat, dark eyes are still not ideal in this scenario. Therefore we need to employ some extra tools and tricks to get light in the eyes.

MickieDeVries005 phtoo of girl in fur hood with no reflector
In this shot, I did not use a reflector, leaving her eyes in shadow.
MickieDeVries006 photo of girl in hood with reflector
The simple addition of a reflector adds light to her eyes and creates a more pleasing portrait.

An easy way to bounce light into the eyes is to use a reflector.  I also tend to wear a white shirt when I’m shooting to act as a reflector if I’m shooting close to my subject (not better than a reflector, but it can help!).

You could also use flash to create light and produce catchlights in your subject’s eyes.  In much the same way that you would have your subject faces the direction of the sun, you could position them in such a way that they are facing the flash. The reflection still creates the same liveliness, and you get to choose exactly where it goes.

Check out this *member exclusive* tutorial on how using flash can help you create the most gorgeous catchlights!

Catchlights indoors

Now that we’ve talked about achieving catchlights outdoors, let’s explore getting catchlights indoors. I love using window light to create indoor portraits. Catchlights are just as important here as they are in outdoor portraits.

When using a window to create a catchlight, I place my subject near the window. Then I like to turn my subject on a 45 degree angle. This gives a bit more dimension to her features and creates a more interesting overall light in the photo. I am careful to ensure my subject is still facing enough of the window to catch the light in her eyes.

MickieDeVries007 black and white photo of girl with no catchlights
MickieDeVries008 black and white photo of girl with catchlights

Both of these images were taken in the same location in my house. In the first shot, I don’t have her facing enough of the window to get good catchlights. Her back eye has no light in it and her closer eye has a weak catchlight.

On the second shot I had her angled a bit more towards the window. This slight shift in her position produced beautiful catchlights.

Where catchlights should fall

For the placement of your reflection within the eye, having the catchlight in the 10 or 2 position (as if the eye were a clock) is ideal.  If the catchlight is too centered, it can make it seem as though the subject is in pain with a light shining directly into their pupils! This positioning allows for light to fall down on the subject (which creates flattering light as opposed to uplighting) without making it look as if he is being blinded.

catchlight at 10 proper placement kellie bieser mickie devries cm blog
Zooming in on his eye, we can see that this subject has a catchlight at the 10 o'clock position, creating a pleasing sparkle in his eyes.

Of course, in controlled studio situations it is a bit easier to control where your catchlight ends up. And yet you can still have some control over where the catchlights fall when shooting outdoors.

Try switching up the angles you choose to shoot at. Move your subject in relation to the light. And keep an eye on what you are seeing reflected in your subject’s eyes. The smallest adjustments can make a big impact!

Catchlights are key to creating portraits that feel alive. I can’t wait to see how you use these simple techniques to capture the beautiful light in your subject’s eyes.