Using Lighting to Emphasize a Portrait Subject’s Eyes

Model: Asta Paredes

Model: Asta Paredes

You may have heard that creating better portraits involves making the eyes as attractive as you possibly can. One way to do this is through the use of catchlights. Catchlights are little lights that reflect on the eyes and bring liveliness to them. They create a beautiful look that draws a viewer’s attention right to them. Trust us when we say that most people love the look of them.

It’s not hard to emphasize the eyes with this method. In fact, it’s pretty straight forward.

Have Them Think About Something That Makes Them Excited

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Profoto B2 First impressions review portraits with Lauren (2 of 8)ISO 1001-160 sec at f - 2.8

To start with, we recommend that you use a bit of psychology. In order to get a specific expression from someone, you need to tell them to think about something that will elicit that feeling–and if that doesn’t work them you say something to elicit the same emotion that you need from their face. For example, getting someone to laugh instead of asking them to laugh will bring out a much more genuine emotion out of them.

This time around, have them think about something that excites them. With that said, it’s best that you sit down with your subject first and get to know them.

Use Artificial Light Sources

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Flashpoint Zoom Li-on review photos (2 of 4)ISO 2001-100 sec at f - 2.8

In general, the sun and moon won’t be able to create catchlights. In fact, the sun will just blind someone and they won’t want to look into the camera. For that reason, use artificial lighting. Constant lighting can be used but this is best done and given extra pop when using flash and strobe. Additionally, the latter can be much more cost effective.

While you can use them in the camera’s hot shoe, this can also sometimes give off the deer in headlights look. So we’re generally going to say that you should stray away from that. Instead, take the flash out of the hot shoe and put it in a light modifier.

More on that specifically later.

Front Light Them

Model: Kita St. Cyr

Model: Kita St. Cyr

Let’s talk about a bit of basic common sense here: back lighting a subject won’t put the catchlights in the eyes because the eyes can’t reflect the light back into the camera. So instead, you should bring the light source in front of them. We generally don’t recommend that you put it right in front of them–instead bring it to the side a bit camera left/right and raise it up above your subject while making it face downward. If the light is hitting the subject from below, then the catch light isn’t going to be as effective.

To make it really effective, it has to come from above and in front of the subject.

Use a Large, Soft Modifier and Bring it in Close

Put your light in a large light modifier that will render specular but soft light. The large modifier with make the light softer to the overall subject but will add enough of a punch to also make the results pop in the subject’s eyes.

If you’re using constant lighting, a light panel of some sort can work but you may want to add something silver to add specularity. In general, white or silver light modifiers work best here. Steer clear of translucent stuff and instead try to work with beauty dishes, softboxes or octabanks.

To make a man look more elegant, it's not only all about the attire but it's also about the specific pose. Have him shift his weight depending on which shoulder is the higher one. The lower shoulder should be bright forward more and the head should be tilted slightly.

To make a man look more elegant, it’s not only all about the attire but it’s also about the specific pose. Have him shift his weight depending on which shoulder is the higher one. The lower shoulder should be bright forward more and the head should be tilted slightly.

By far, softboxes are the most popular options but beauty dishes can also do a great job and octa banks are often reserved for a specific look that is highly priced in fashion work.

Beyond this, the eyes are best emphasized when you shoot a very tight portrait–like the upper quarter or just the face.

Turn Their Face Slightly Towards the Key Light

Turning their face slightly towards the main light in the image will create more of an emphasis in the eyes. The reason for this is because the light source is much more directional and has less of a chance to be blocked by things like the forehead. Keep this tip in mind for folks with deep set eyes especially.

Beyond this, no one recommends photographing a person straight on. Try to turn their face a bit and pay attention to things like the nose, too.

Since the light is above the subject, keeping the subject’s chin up also works wonders.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.