If you are a portrait photographer you know that the difference between shooting people and inanimate objects is that people are living, breathing beings and it’s your job to capture that life in your images. One of the most challenging aspects of portrait photography, and working in a one-dimensional medium in general, is making sure your subject matter does not appear flat, dull and inanimate.
Luckily, there are simple ways to bring your subject to life. One of the easiest ways to bring your subject to life is by finding and then accentuating the catch light in their eyes. Catch light is the white box of light that gleans from your subject’s eyes and gives your subject that certain spark. Simply put, the light is just a reflection of your light source. But finding and amplifying that catch light can pull any subject, in almost any setting, out of the shadows of a room until they nearly pop out of the photograph.
To create and capture catch light in natural light, follow these simple steps:
1. If the sun is out, position your subject near a window or door that is emitting the light source. Your subject does not need to stare into the light source. But make sure there is a direct path between the light source and the person you are shooting.
2. Consider shooting slightly down on your subject with your subject looking up towards the light source (but not directly into the light source). This will increase your chance of catching that light in their eyes.
3. Watch where you position yourself. You will be surprised at how radiant and reflective catch lights can be. They can and will capture all sorts of images being reflected into them, and that includes you. Sometimes this can be interesting. But sometimes you will capture unintended objects behind you. It is best to remove as much as you can from the room before shooting, so you aren’t fighting with messy catch lights in postproduction.
4. Use a reflector. You will only need a small reflector for creating a catch light. Have your subject hold the reflector facing up towards his or her face at chest level. While silver reflectors are the most popular reflectors and will typically create the most prominent catch light, try using a gold reflector. A gold reflector helps to create very warm, human emotion in your portraits.
5. Use Gaffers tape to customize your catch light. This technique is for more experienced photographers, but the result is stunning and worth a try. Cut a small square hole into corkboard. You will be photographing your subject through the hole. Use black and white Gaffers tape to create intricate patterns around the hole. Position your subject behind the board, so that their eyes will reflect the design that is in front of them. One photographer used various designs to create lightening bolts, triangles, snowflakes and plaid catch lights and the result is truly compelling portraits. Once you understand the technique, you can easily create your own patterns. To better understand how to position your subjects in comparison to your corkboard and light source, check out the diagrams here.