Using Catchlights for Portrait Photography

A catchlight is a reflection or glimmer in the subject’s eye. It helps draw attention to the eyes — arguably your portrait’s most important feature — and brings dimension, depth, and life to a photo. Painters used catchlights in their portraits long before photography was introduced. While it may not be immediately noticeable, catchlights will affect the overall look and feel of your photo.

The size, shape, brightness, and position of a catchlight is determined by the light source used. They may be round or rectangular, depending on your light source. The larger the light source, the larger the catchlight. And if you use more than one light, you may see multiple reflections in your subject’s eyes. There is no “correct” way to use catchlights. However, many photographers prefer what’s most natural-looking — catchlights resembling those created by the sun.

Photographers typically position catchlights at the 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock position in the eyes (again, this mimics light created by the sun). For a natural-looking portrait, you’ll want them to be balanced — so if the left eye is positioned at 10 o’clock, the right eye should be as well. Have your subject face the light and try placing the source slightly above their head, at a 45-degree angle between the subject and camera. You may find a reflector useful for bouncing light into their eyes.

Understanding Aperture

When you press your camera’s shutter release button, a hole opens up to let the image sensor view the scene. This opening is the aperture, which you can adjust to let more or less light hit your camera’s sensor.

Aperture is measured in “f-stops”: f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22.
Note: the large apertures (larger openings) are given smaller numbers.

The size of the lens opening is doubled, or halved, when you move from one f-stop to the next. The smaller the f-stop number, the larger the opening.

When you change your camera’s aperture, the main thing that will change is the depth of field (DOF), which controls how much of your shot is in focus. With a large depth of field, most of your image will be in focus (a large DOF is typically used for landscape shots). When you use a small depth of field, part of the image will in focus and the rest will be blurry. A shallow depth of field is often used for portraits (it keeps the focus on the subject, rather than the background), macro photography, and creative shots. Smaller f-stop numbers (large apertures) decrease the depth of field, while large f-stop numbers (small apertures) increase the amount of the scene that’s in focus.

If you’re working in your camera’s manual mode, keep in mind that when you change the aperture, you’ll also have to adjust the ISO and shutter speed to maintain exposure. (More on that here.) 

You can also work in Aperture Priority Mode — usually indicated by “A” or “Av” on your camera. In this semi-manual mode, you select the f-stop number and the camera will automatically select the proper shutter speed.

Understanding White Balance

To get the colors in your photos as accurate as possible, it’s helpful to understand your camera’s “white balance.” When properly adjusted, this setting will help your photos look natural.

What You Should Know

Different light sources and lighting conditions produce different colors, or “temperatures,” which is measured in units of Kelvin (K). Fluorescent lighting, for example, adds a bluish tint to photos, while tungsten (bulbs and incandescent lights) can create a yellow cast.

Our eyes naturally adjust to different color temperatures, so you won’t notice any color cast before taking a picture. Our cameras, however, do not: they need us to tell them how to treat different type of light. This is where “white balance” comes in — it balances the color temperature in your images. For cool light (green or blue), you’ll tell the camera to warm things up and for warm light, you’ll tell it to cool down. 

If properly balanced, white objects will not have a blue or yellow tint in your photos.

How to Adjust Your White Balance

Semiautomatic Settings

Most digital cameras have preset white balances. This often produces decent results, although it’s not as accurate as a manual adjustment (see below). The settings most commonly offered are: 

  • Auto: the camera makes its best guess for each individual photo; can be set anywhere from 2,000-10,000 K
  • Daylight: for shooting in direct sunlight; 5,000-5,500 K
  • Shade: for when you're shooting in the shade (no direct sun) with a blue sky; 7,000-7,500 K
  • Cloudy: white sky; 6,000-6,500 K
  • Tungsten: for shooting indoors with incandescent lighting (standard household light bulb); 2,800-3,200 K
  • Fluorescent: typically found in commercial spaces; 3,400-3,800 K
  • Flash: emulates daylight; 5,000-5,500 K

Manual Settings

Most DSLRs allow for manual white balance adjustments. Basically, you tell your camera what white looks like (by holding up a piece of white paper, for example), so it has a point of reference for how other colors should look. This setting can be found in different spots for various camera models — some have a “WB” button on the camera body, while others are found in the “settings” section. (If you’re not sure where to find it, refer to your camera’s manual or Google the camera model.)

Some cameras also have the option to manually set the color temperature in degrees Kelvin.

Using a Beauty Dish

A beauty dish is a type of light modifier popular among portrait and fashion photographers. The metal disc is attached to a light source, and its parabolic shape reflects back into and out the sides of the dish. The result is dramatic lighting that wraps around the subject.

Beauty dishes produce semi-hard light — softer than a strobe but harder than a softbox — with soft edges. They’re popular for portraits because they create contrast and can highlight cheekbones, muscles, and other facial features. Some photographers like to set up the beauty dish to point downwards at the model to accentuate bone structure and highlight the eyes, lips, nose, and chin. 

beauty dish

Rather than diffusing light, as many other modifiers do, beauty dishes reflect light and distribute it towards a focal point. And because the light wraps around the model, there is no “hot spot” in the middle, as there often is with other types of reflectors. To create softer lighting and a dramatic effect, the beauty dish can be covered with a diffuser called a honeycomb grid or sock.

Beauty dishes have a sweet spot where they work best. You’ll want to experiment to see where it best accentuates your subject’s features. Typically, they’re placed close to the model — about 6 inches to 2 feet from their face. To see some examples of setups, check out these links: 

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