The Catchlight Quandary

With a little web research, one quickly learns that opinions regarding the size, shape, and allowable number of catchlights in a portrait rise to the level of religious fervor typically reserved for discussions of computer operating systems, optimal guitar neck radii,  handgun ammunition stopping power, and, of course, religion.

If you look back at the hat project images in my last post, you’ll see that most of the pictures include multiple catchlights per eye. It didn’t bother me, because I often use the catchlights to help me reverse engineer a lighting scenario. But tonight I was looking at portraits by other photographers to see how they light headshots, because I do a lot of headshots for local actors and I’ve never been satisfied with the results.

Two things immediately caught my attention: 1) The pros lit men and women VERY differently – usually men from the side and women from the front, and 2) The great portraits I examined included only one catchlight per eye, even though it was obvious to me that they were lit by multiple sources.  I decided to see if I could replicate one of the set-ups.

My long suffering wife agreed to pose for a couple of images. I used a single, umbrella-reflected SB-800 placed just to my left, about seven or eight feet up, pointed down at her face. For fill, I placed a large reflector on a card table right in front of her. That's why there are no harsh shadows under her chin. That's also why there is a huge, oddly shaped catchlight on the bottom of her iris. The pinpoint catchlight in the center of her pupil represents the pop-up flash on my D300, which fires just enough to trigger the SB800 - and enough to create a reflection. The catchlight at the top of her iris, representing the SB800, is the only one I wanted in the image. But I got three.

All of a sudden, multiple catchlights bothered me. It just looked weird. I thought that maybe this was the reason I was forever dissatisfied with my headshots and portraits. So I tried something different.

How did I eliminate the unwanted catchlights? In this case, I used the retouching tool in Aperture, and I suspect that many portrait photographers light as they need to light, and then retouch as they need to retouch. In the future, though, I will experiment with moving my reflector or other fill lights far off axis to see if I can fill shadows without creating unnatural looking catchlights.

Many photographers will tell you that multiple catchlights are no problem, and even I will tell you that every image has to stand on its own. But experienced portrait specialists tend to adhere to the one-catchlight per eye philosophy, and I think I’m going to trust their experience. I’m not willing to go back over thousands of already-shot portraits to retouch the catchlights, but I see now that I’ve been missing an important detail in my lighting, and I look forward to how this discovery may improve my work going forward.

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Filed under Lighting, Portraiture, Post Processing, Professional vs. Amateur

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