Catchlights may be a small detail, but they’re very important in portrait photography. In this video from Light Club, you will learn why these little reflections of light are so essential and what they can do to make your portraits more powerful and help you send a message.
We often hear that the eyes are “windows to the soul.” When looking at people, as well as at a photo of them, the eyes can tell you a lot about the emotions. And when it comes to photos, it’s not just the eyes – but the catchlights play an important role, too.
You can see early examples of catchlights in some of Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings. In modern day, photographers aim to capture them in their subjects’ eyes, too. And there are basically to ways two do it: using natural light or studio lighting. You can rely on window light, either direct or with the help of a reflector. On the other hand, you can go with studio lighting and make all sorts of catchlights (even star-shaped).
Strong catchlights make the eyes “pop.” Using a ring light can give your subject a surreal, super-natural look. Catchlights in the lower half of the eyes can give off a little “creepy” vibe. In the video, you can see plenty of great examples, and Martin Schoeller is among photographers who create really prominent catchlights in his portraits. As a result, you feel like you can “stare into the soul” of his subjects.
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Martin: "You have a little bit of a southern slang, where are you from?" Chad: "I’m originally from Fish Creek, Oklahoma. I don’t like this city, I’d rather be back in the country, but ya know, ain’t much work back there." M: "Do you find work here sometimes?" C: "I do better here than I would there. Mostly recycling and stuff like that." M: "That’s how you make most of your money?" C: "Most of it, ya know. I broke my back a few years ago. So it’s kinda hard and tiring to move around. I crushed three discs. I was on morphine for years for my back, I couldn’t stand being on that. I figure meth is the lesser of the two evils. Morphine is extremely addictive and I hated it." M: "You do meth once in a while?" C: "Oh maybe three times a week." M: "That often?" C: "Yeah. Ya know, it’s either that or be bed-ridden and I rather be up, moving around." M: "You smoke it?" C: "Oh no, I slam it. It keeps me out of pain. I’d rather do that than drink a lot. I drink and I get stupid. I lost most of my teeth fightin’. I do a shot [of crystal] and my day is fine. Ya know, go out and make money. If I don’t do it, I can barely move. I got two steel rods around my spine. I have a degenerative disk disease. Eventually, I’m gonna be in a wheelchair." M: "How long have you been doing crystal for pain management?" C: "Only for about a year this time. I quit for about ten years." M: "What were you doing in those ten years?" C: "State prison." M: "Ten years straight?" C: “Yeah." M: "Which prison were you in?" C: "I’ve been in a lot of them. New Folsom, San Quentin, Mule Creek." M: "What did you go to prison for?" C: "Murder. A guy beat the crap out of me with a pistol and robbed me so I killed him. I hunted him down." M: "What was the fight about ?" C: "He basically robbed me in my house." M: "Why did he rob you?" C: "‘Cause he wanted to go get some drugs." M: "How did you kill him?" C: "I stabbed him." M: "Was it considered manslaughter?" C: "No, actually they considered it pre-meditated because I waited to go after him so they figured I planned it out."
A little editing can make the eyes and the catchlights more prominent, too. With some dodging and burning, you can make the eyes seem livelier and more emphasized.
But what happens when you take a portrait without the catchlights in the eyes? Well, this makes the eyes seem lifeless. Working out the prominent catchlights can humanize the subject. But on the other hand, eyes without the catchlights (or with very subtle ones) can create a cold distance between the subject and the viewer. It all depends on what you want to achieve.
The video concludes with the words: “The power is in your eyes. And it’s in your hands.” So, think about the eyes and the catchlights just like you think about the other aspects of your shoot. And if you need a handy trick to figure out the light and the catchlights, you can use a simple marble.
[The key to powerful portraits: the Eyes | Light Club]