What Are Catchlights?

Baby catchlightsHave you ever seen a portrait (photograph or painting) and you get lost looking into the subject’s eyes? I went to an art museum that had a huge Daguerrotype (a type of early photography where the image was literally ingrained on the metal plate) collection on display. There is something about a Daguerrotype that makes the subject’s eyes deep and alive. I stood in that museum for who knows how long studying each and everything about the portraits. I just couldn’t help it…they were mesmerizing! The beauty of each Daguerrotype was amazing. I felt like I was looking at the person in real life (even though they were taken in the 1800s). A Daguerrotype has a way of making the human eye glow that no other photo process (in my opinion) can do. The subject’s eyes are a huge part of a successful portrait…they are the window into the soul, after all! 🙂

A detail in portrait photography that often gets overlooked is illuminating the subject’s eyes…when this happens it is called “catchlight”. Utilizing catchlights are a great way to enhance any portrait. If you’re not sure what a catchlight is, the explanation is super simple: A catchlight is the light source reflecting in your subject’s iris. It looks like a tiny white spot in the eye, but don’t let the small size of the catchlights fool you because those little highlights add depth and life to your portrait! An image without catchlights can easily appear lifeless. 

What are catch lights? Good photography tip to know!! Let’s talk about how to achieve catchlights and what you need to make them appear in your subject’s eyes! 

Light Source: Catchlights will mimic the shape of a light source. Different light sources will create different shapes. If you’re in a studio and the lights you’re using are square or rectangular, then your catchlights will be square or rectangular.

What are catch lights? Good photography tip to know!! If you are photographing your subject outdoors on a sunny day, then your catchlights will be round like the sun. Round catchlights are considered normal and realistic looking because the sun is the most natural light source.

When you are outdoors, you can get some interesting catchlight shapes! Say there is a canopy of trees that is partially blocking the sun, then your subject will likely have the image of the trees reflecting in their irises (if they are facing toward the trees). Some photographers like their catchlights hitting the iris at exactly 10 o’clock OR 2 o’clock. They like these positions because when a subject is outside on a sunny day, the natural placement of the catchlights from the sun usually fall on the eye at 10 or 2. By no means do you have to follow that rule. It’s just one of those rules of thumb in the photo world that is worth mentioning.

Posing to get strong catchlights: Have your subject dip (or lower) their chin. This gives the appearance that your subject’s eyes are bigger.

Laura catchlightsBigger eyes mean your catchlights look stronger! Another tip is to have your subject sit down with their head tipped up to you while you stand above them. (Like in the first photo.) I like this orientation when I really want to capture the subject’s eyes.
Using a low aperture will also make your subject’s eyes pop. The low aperture will make your subject’s face and eyes sharp while the background melts away.

Using reflectors to achieve great catchlightsIf you really want to get the light bouncing off of your subject’s irises, go for a reflector! Reflectors are an essential piece of equipment when you are photographing outdoors. Have your subject hold the reflector under their face and move it around until you like the catchlights. Snap a few pictures to see if you are liking the results! If you are not happy with the results, simply have your subject move to the side. I call this “shuffling”. I usually have my subject do lots of shuffling until the lighting on their face is JUST right. Getting great light in your subject’s eyes takes time and keen observation. Let’s face it, it’s such a teeny tiny part that it can easily be overlooked.

Quick tips when photographing outdoors: Have your subject face the sun to get catchlights. If the light is too bright, then stick them in the shade but still facing the sun. Sticking your subject in the shade will give you even light and you still get great catchlights if they are facing the sun. Use your reflector to bounce the light back onto your subject.

What are catch lights? Good photography tip to know!! I go over the subject of reflectors extensively in the DSLR Basics e-course. You can use lots of things as a reflector if you do not own one (like a white foam board). If you don’t have any kind of reflector on hand, then get your subject next to a white wall or a surface that will bounce the light back onto your subject. Sometimes it takes some searching and a little scouting beforehand. 

If you are indoors: You can create catchlights when you are indoors too! Find a window or door and put your subject in front of that light source. The light will reflect and create catchlights. 

What are catch lights? Good photography tip to know!! Using an iPhone? Not everyone has a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex), aka a professional camera. The easiest way I describe DSLRs to people who aren’t familiar with them is by telling them it is the kind of camera where you can take off the lens and put on different lenses. If you don’t have a DSLR, don’t lose heart! You can capture catchlights using your smartphone too. Some phones take better photographs than others. I’m typically not the kind of techno gal that likes to get the latest and greatest piece of technology, but when the camera is significantly better in a newer model phone, then I’ll usually make the jump and upgrade. Having a newer model phone with a better camera will make a big difference with your photos. 

What are catch lights? Good photography tip to know! (click through for more) I hope you guys learned a little bit about catchlights today. Thanks for reading! –Janae

P.S Want to learn more about DSLR photography? Take our latest e-course: DSLR Basics

Credits//Author and Photography: Janae Hardy. Photos edited with A Beautiful Mess actions

  • Hello!

    I just recently purchased a reflector.
    I am so happy I read this post, super helpful!


  • I love using these kind of techniques in my photography 🙂

  • Hi Janae! We recommend the Canon Rebel. It’s a great first camera! You can read more about our camera recommendations here: https://abeautifulmess.com/2014/12/photography-gear-what-we-use-love-and-recommend.html 🙂 -Jacki

  • Great post!
    What kind of DSLR do you suggest for a beginner? I like to take pictures of little ones and animals, which (I think) means the camera has to be fast!
    Anyway I am a novice but really enjoy beautiful and interesting photo’s.
    Love your name…it’s so familiar!
    Janae C.

  • You didn’t say what to do if you have an iPhone. Can you make another post that gives us good tips about catchlights and camera phones? That would be really helpful. These pictures are so beautiful, and it would be nice to know how to get more professional looking photos like these to us people who do not have DSLRs.

  • The eyes of the first little boy at the top look like a galaxy in space, beautiful!


  • Can I just say – this was SUPER helpful! I love the way you described everything. It was clear, concise and spoken in a “language” that I actually understand!

  • Great tips! Thank you for sharing!


  • Great tips! I’m glad this can be done with an Iphone too!


  • Thanks so much for all the info! I can’t wait to give these tips a try!


  • What a great discovery! I always wondered why certain photos have eyes that really pop. Thank you for this amazing tip!

    Juju Sprinkles

  • I never even knew this was a thing!

    Everyday Victoria Secret Inspired Makeup Routine

  • Great suggestions! I’m definitely mostly drawn to a person’s eyes when I look at a portrait.

    Happy Thursday!

  • Janae:

    Great post on understanding catch lighting and the honest truth on what it takes to get it right with reflectors. Love to read this because most photographers like to keep the trade secrets to themselves. Abundance to you!

  • Thank you for this! I love the look and feel of catchlights and have used it many times before. It just gives a picture that extra something-something. Janae, so far I am loving all of the photography posts you have done. I really appreciate it and I have learned so much from you! 🙂 Looking forward to more photography posts fro you in the nearby future!


    Laurali Star


  • I love this! I never knew that there was actually a name for this but it’s always something I try to achieve in my photos! Now I know how. Thanks for sharing!

  • I’ve definitely seen these types of photos and have been mesmerized by them – glad to know why!

    Warm Regards,

  • I think this was a great post, well written and easy to follow. I just love catch lights. 🙂

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.