Catchlights Enliven Your Portraits

It’s no secret that the eyes are one of the most powerful elements of a portrait. Eyes can show us emotion and bring life to a face. We often talk of a person having a sparkle in his or her eye. Catchlights put that sparkle in a photograph.


Expo by Daniel Zedda

What are catchlights?

Catchlights are the specular highlights in the eye that we often see in photographs. They are caused by light reflecting off of the eye’s surface.


The old Man and the Sea by Thomas Leuthard

Why do your portraits need catchlights?

Catchlights draw attention to the subject’s eyes. They bring depth and dimension to a portrait and give it a sense of “human-ness”. When eyes do not have that sparkle in photos, they often appear dull. The person or animal being photographed often looks a bit lifeless without the added sparkle that catchlights bring to the image.


A world outside … by Lalit Shahane


santos by Nicoal Price

Catchlights give photos of any living creature dimension and interest.

How do you include catchlights?

The easiest way to put catchlights in a subject’s eyes is to locate your light source and have him or her turn toward it. A light source can be the sky, studio lights, or a reflector. When your subject looks toward the light, you should start to see light reflecting in the eyes. If you don’t see that sparkle, have your subject turn slowly in either direction and ask them to stop when you see catchlights.

In cases where your subject is backlit or you just can’t manage the right angle to get that glimmer in the eyes, use a reflector to produce catchlights. A reflector can be the commercial type made for photographers, or your can use anything else that reflects light, such as a white sheet of paper or a piece of fabric.

Make it a habit to scan your subject’s eyes before releasing the shutter.


maria mejia / by Vincent Boiteau

Are there rules for photographing catchlights?

Some photography gurus insist that there should only be one catchlight in each eye or that catchlights should always be positioned and 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock in the eye. Like all aspects of photography, though, there is no set rule. There are many ways to create an appealing photograph. You can experiment with placement, quantity, and shape to get the look and feel you like. Try using ring lights or interestingly shaped lights and reflectors to see how they affect your portraits.


big eyes by Nicoal Price

Even after you’ve mastered exposure and composition, there are details of photography that can make your images shine. Catchlights bring life to otherwise dull images. Start looking at photos that include eyes. Do you notice a difference between those with catchlights and those without?

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Profile photo of Nicoal Price About Nicoal Price

​Nicoal is a New England photographer with a penchant for learning. Her work ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Visit for more info.

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