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Portrait Tips: Beg, borrow or steal — whatever it takes to get catchlights

We talk about posing and connecting with our subjects and all kinds of other stuff when we make portraits, but there’s one thing that matters more than that stuff and you’ve got to do it first. You’ve got to find a spot that puts catchlights in your subject’s eyes.

Catchlights let us see that the person is alive and they allow us to focus more on their eyes and see more from the expression.

Do this to get catchlights

The key to ensuring that your subject has catchlights in their eyes is to make sure that they are facing a bright light and that it is low enough on the horizon to shine under their brow. For the guy above, I turned around and saw that even though there was a big cloud directly overhead, the sky beyond the cloud was still shining brightly. That bit of sky is what’s lighting up his eyes. Because the cloud overhead is blocking a lot of light, the horizon behind the camera is the brightest light shining on his face and it makes a good-looking portrait light.

It’s essential that your exposure settings allow the catchlights to be visible in the photo. If the subject is backlit, then you may have to make the background exposure very bright in order to see the light in the eyes. The background in this one is way too bright and even her hair is blown out, but the important thing is that the light in the eyes is visible because I made sure the exposure allowed for it.

In this next one, the sun had just gone down behind the hill behind the camera, so the whole sky is lighting her face gently. But, because the hill is high and we are fairly close to it, I had to get the camera down low enough to see the catchlight in her eyes. If I stood at my full height, the catchlights, which are a reflection, were shining too low to be seen below her brow. Check out the second shot where I’ve removed the catchlights — it’s just not as lively.

Conclusion

Before you pose people, before you start making them laugh, before you start helping them engage in the photograph, make sure that they will have catchlights in their eyes. Face them toward a bright object or a bright part of the sky and make sure that your exposure allows the catchlights to be visible. All the other efforts you make to get a great portrait simply can’t cover for a lack of light in the eyes.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.

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