Catchlight photography tips: how to create custom-shaped highlights in subjects’ eyes

Catch Light Photography

In this step-by-step tutorial we explain the delicate art of catchlight photography and how to create custom shapes in your portrait subject’s eyes.

It’s often said that eyes are the most important feature in a portrait. Whenever you’re shooting portraits, you should always be looking for ways to draw attention to them.

One way we can do this is by making sure they have catchlights. These are the tiny reflected highlights we see in a person’s eyes. They may be small, but these little sparks draw the viewer in and bring the subject to life, which is why you’ll see catchlights in almost every good portrait.

Catchlights are, of course, created by the surrounding lights. This could be anything that emits or reflects strong light, like a lamp, a window, a flash, or the sun.

If you want to learn about portrait lighting, catchlights can tell you a lot. Look closely at any good portrait and from the position and shape of the catchlights you’ll be able to determine the number of lights used, their shape, where they were placed, and whether they were large or small.

Most of the time catchlights will be square or circular, as these are the shapes of most light sources, but you can make much more creative catchlights if you like, simply by changing the shape of the light source.

Here’s a fun project to try out at home. Use fairy lights to shape your catchlights. (Fun fact: this technique was used to create the multiple catchlights in Galadriel’s eyes in the Lord of the Rings films.)

All you need are a few LED fairy lights, an old wire coat hanger, and a macro or zoom lens that allows for close-ups. By shaping the wire and attaching your LED lights you can customise the reflected specks of light to your own design, and add extra sparkle to your portraits.

Mixing colour temperatures

The light from LEDs is a similar colour temperature to tungsten bulbs. If you’re concerned about choosing the correct white balance, shoot in RAW so you have more control over fixing colour casts in post-production.

You can get creative by mixing colour temperatures. Here, the light from a window has given the background a blue colour that contrasts with the subject.

Custom catchlight photography step-by-step

Step 1 Bend it, shape it…
Bend a piece of wire or an old metal coat hanger into the shape you want your catchlight to be. (Coathangers are ideal as they have ready-made handles.) Try to keep the shape simple, as if it’s too complex it’ll be difficult to 
make out when reflected as a tiny catchlight.

Step 2 Attach the lights

Double the fairy lights up a few times, then run them along the shape. Use sticky tape to attach the lights to the metal frame. Make sure the lights are LEDs, as they won’t heat up like old-fashioned fairy lights. And, of course, be careful when using electrical wiring.

Step 3 See for yourself
Turn on the LED lights to see how they look. You can judge the effect by holding it up to your face and using your phone’s frontal ‘selfie’ camera to see how it’s reflected in your eye. If the LEDs are looking too scattered, tuck them 
in tighter for a more a clearly defined shape.

Step 4 Aim high
The light from the LEDs won’t be very strong, so you may need to use a high ISO. One simple way to do this is to use manual mode, set a wide aperture (in this case f/3.3) and a fast shutter speed of at least 1/100 sec. Then set Auto ISO. This way, the ISO varies depending on the light.

Step 5 Hey! Look at this!
Bring the lights in close to your subject and experiment by moving them around to see how different positions affect the shape and clarity of the catchlight in the subject’s eye. You could also try including the lights in the corner of the frame to add a few bright spots of bokeh.

Step 6 Capture the sparkle06 Capture the sparkle
When working at close quarters depth of field becomes very limited (even at narrow apertures). Because of this, precise focusing is critical, and even more so when your subject is moving. Select a focus point over the closest 
eye and make sure the lashes are sharp.

Final Tip
Lighting a face from above is the most natural angle even when the subject is lying down, so position the light above eye level