Understanding and Controlling Catchlights

Every photographer knows that the eyes are the soul of a portrait. Besides the emotional aspect, there is one important technical factor that, if done right, will light up the eye of the portrait and enhance the connection with the viewer: the catch light. In this article we are not only going to understand catch light, but learn how to control it with this amazing video tip from Felix Kunze & Sue Bryce.

Catch lights are simply the reflections of light or lights in the eyes. The light from the surrounding is reflected in the eyes of the model which tells us where was the light placed, how big was the light, how many lights were used. You can tell if it was a window light or exactly what modifier was used on the studio light by identifying the shape of reflection. If you are a beginner with studio lighting, it is important to know your light modifiers first before you begin identifying them.

In this amazing video tip, Felix Kunze shows us how to recreate the lighting of the scene using a black christmas ball. Think of the ball as a larger display screen of the eyeball. While Felix is trying to recreate window light using the ball, you can use this trick to have full control of how the catchlight will look on your portraits.


Here is a simple quiz to make your life easy while trying to reverse engineer (or in simple words, trying to figure out) lighting of an image. We are going to do this by reading the eyes. Why? Because the eyes never lie (well, if they are not Photoshopped). We have scanned some tear sheets from ads, and cropped the eyes. 

Please leave your answers in the comments below in this format:

1) Lit by [name of modifier].

Lets see how many of you can nail the light! If you get stuck, Julia Kuzmenko has written two excellent pieces on reading light (Part 1 here, Part 2 here) that is very much worth a read. 

[via PetaPixel]

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David Justice's picture

1 looks like a mid-sized softbox camera right. 2 looks like a large umbrella behind the photographer? 3. Looks like another softbox camera right. 4... 4 is odd. I'm going to say its a reflector bouncing the light into her face... 5. Umbrella above camera pointed downwards.

Dragan Medakovic's picture

1. softbox upper right from camera
2. parabolic umbrella behind photographer
3. softbox on right side , leveled with the camera/model
4. Might be strip light/narrowsoftbox being used as fill , and probably some larger softbox from above.
5. Octagonal softbox upper side, with a white reflector as fill light, butterfly lighting.

Sean Fenzl's picture

1. Medium Softbox above/right
2. Big Octa or Para behind photographer
3. Big Softbox on the right.
4. Strip box ... or possible single fluorescent.
5. Beauty Dish Above / fill card below "butterfly"

Sid Vasandani's picture

Almost there David. Dragan and Sean, you nailed it. Except the 2nd photo is an old ad of Cindy Crawford from the early 90's and the parabolic reflector wasn't an in thing then. So my guess is as good as yours...either it could be a giant soft box or more likely, a large scrim behind the photographer.

Sean Fenzl's picture

Actually, yeah, I agree with the big scrim on the second photo - very gradual fall-off could indicate that the light is far away... but it remains soft, and that catchlight is still BIG. (so that scrim could be 4x8 or something grand!)

Howard Lee's picture

it could be a giant window, but the light quality on the face is so soft that makes me want to think it is diffused.
I think I just slapped myself in the face.

Gary Meyer's picture

1. Looks like a medium or small softbox directly above the camera and just slightly to the right.
2. looks like a 6x6 scrim behind the camera.... or possibly a large window behind camera
3. looks like a small, bare light, probably in a scoop, camera right and even with the model's face, but very close to the model's face.
4. looks like a strip box or fluorescent light, held horizontally, and quite close to the model.
5. looks like a pretty standard clam shell beauty setup. Probably an octobox above and a white poster board below for reflection.

Sid Vasandani's picture

You got it Gary, except the 3rd is tricky, the light isn't bare. This is when the shadow comes into play to identify the quality of the light. The shadow has almost soft edges, so the light has a single diffuser. You are right about it being very close on the right of the model. Now take a look closer, and you will find a second large soft box for fill, in front and far from the model. The two light sources almost overlap in the eyes.

Gary Meyer's picture

Ahhh, I see. I was thinking the light could actually have been close enough that it appeared diffused. Tricky, tricky...

Chris Blair's picture

I will admit that I forget to keep track of where my catch lights are all the time. I’m still in that, “oh my God, there are so many things going on here” phase whenever I shoot a portrait.

Daniel Pryce's picture

STROBOX is a great tool for getting lighting setups down on 'paper'.