According to Wikipedia, Catch light or catchlight is a photography term used to describe either the specular highlight in a subject’s eye from a light source, or the light source itself.
My goal in this post is to share with you my own approach to using catch lights in a pleasing manner. These aren’t rules. They are just guidelines based on my own personal experience. I hope you find them helpful.
By their vary nature, catch lights are specular highlights that will often “blow out,” meaning they will be pure white. There are many highlight purists who think you should never have any area of the photograph which is overexposed. In the case of catch lights, I disagree. So if you can’t “hold the highlights” in a catch light, don’t worry. It doesn’t mean a thing.
Now I have to admit that this next idea is based on a nit – but I prefer round catch lights to square or rectangular catch lights. This is simply not always possible to achieve. In my own studio I do have square and rectangular softboxes. I try to limit their use to fill and prefer that my main light source be round. Why? It’s simple. I’m always trying to mimic the most natural lighting I can. Last time I checked, the Sun is round. Hence, if my light source is round it more closely mirrors what nature has to offer.
Again, this may all seem very nuanced, but I’ve seen the difference in my shots when I pay close attention to the position of the catch light in the eye. While there is no perfect position, or “correct” position, I do believe there are INCORRECT positions for the catch lights. I also believe that catch lights are more flattering if they look natural. So since I want to be precise and make the best portrait I possibly can, I try to place the catch lights at 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock in the eye. This seems to offer the most pleasing balance Again, this isn’t always possible, but when it is, 10 and 2 make for the most flattering results.
What about the WRONG catch light position? That’s easy. Any catch light below 9 o’clock or 3 o’clock is typically unflattering and unnatural. Think about it. When the Sun goes down below the horizon it’s night time. There are no catch lights. It’s dark. The Sun can’t light the face from below the horizon. So a catch light that comes from below the horizon just doesn’t make sense.
4. Number of catch lights
This is another of my pet peeves. Since we only have one Sun in our universe, it only seems logical that we should limit ourselves to one catch light. To me it’s distracting to see more than one catch light in the eye. While it’s often unavoidable to have more than one catch light, it’s not time consuming or difficult to remove catch lights using post-processing software like Aperture or Photoshop. Accordingly, I prefer to decide which catch lights are most flattering and most natural looking, and remove the rest. I always want my portraits to be pleasing and the light to appear as natural as possible. Unless we get a second Sun in our sky anytime soon, I’m sticking with one catch light.
This last one may make you laugh and may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen this. Remember that the catch lights need to balance. That is to say, if you position the catch light in the left eye at 10 o’ clock, be sure to balance that out by placing the catch light in the right eye at 10 o’clock too. If you put the catch light in one eye at 10 o’clock and the other at 2 o’clock, you’ll make your subject appear to be cross-eyed.
Experiment with and pay attention to catch lights. Sometimes, this sort of attention to detail can spread to other areas of your photography helping to elevate you from picture taker to picture maker.