My firstborn taught me how to photograph tiny humans with the energy of an overcaffeinated Energizer Bunny. My secondborn taught me how to photograph eyes. During seemingly endless hours bouncing a fussy baby, I would watch how her eyes were murky standing in the corner, but bright blue standing by the north-facing windows. Learning how to make eyes pop in portraits is a foundational skill for any portrait photographer and it starts with catchlights and color.
Catchlights are reflected light that creates a sparkle in the eye. When I light a portrait, the first thing that I do is make sure the eyes have a catchlight. But creating a catchlight is only part of making the eyes stand out. The other half of the equation? Color.
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Fully light the eyes with large, soft light.
Properly lighting the eyes does two big things to make the eye color stand out. First, it adds a catchlight or sparkle to the eye. When light sources are reflected in the eye, the eyes have a gleam to it.
Second, properly lighting the eyes eliminates dark shadows that can dull the eye color. In general, colors that are in shadows appear duller than colors that are in the mid-tones or highlights. The same applies to eye color. If the eyes are in shadow, the color of the iris is going to look dull. Lighting will also help the sclera, or whites of the eye, appear whiter — helping photographers avoid the mistake of unnaturally whitening the eyes in post. Proper lighting will also help avoid shadows underneath the eyes, which can be distracting.
Thankfully, there are hundreds of different ways to light a portrait in a way that both adds catchlights and eliminates shadows. Lighting the eyes doesn’t limit you to just one source or one lighting pattern — and it doesn’t always require extra gear. So which light sources bring out the eyes the most? Large, soft light sources are ideal for bringing out eye color.
Where to find large, soft light
If you don’t have off-camera lighting, position the subject in full shade but facing toward a bright area. A great example of this is garage door lighting. Place the subject just outside of any bright light streaming through an open garage door, facing the garage door. This creates big catchlights and eliminates any potential shadows dulling the eye color. But, a garage door isn’t the only way to do this. Standing under an awning, in the shade of a tree, or indoors facing a large window will have a similar effect.
Another way to create eye-popping light without flash is to use reflected light. If you are shooting on a cloudy day, there won’t be any sunny patches of light for the subject to face. Instead, use a shoot-through reflector to create well-lit eyes and uniquely shaped catchlights. Another way to use reflected light is to place the subject in the shade but facing a white or light-colored building.
Creating your own soft light
An off-camera flash can create large, soft light without being limited to awnings, windows, or shade trees. A large softbox is my go-to for lighting portraits, but any soft light modifier works. Umbrellas will also work. Harder light modifiers, like a beauty dish, can also create eye-popping light but tend to be a little more difficult to position perfectly.
Another way to draw out the eyes is with the shape of the light. The shape of the softbox determines the shape of the catchlights, so using unusually shaped modifiers can add even more interest. Along with shaped lighting modifiers, ring lights can also create unusual eye-catching reflections.
Placing the light source for Catchlights
For the eyes to pop, they need to be well-lit — which means the light should fully reach both eyes. When using natural light, the key is to light the eyes without causing squinting. This is why shooting in an open garage or in the shade facing a bright area works. The subject is facing the light, but not, say, painfully looking into the sun.
The simplest way to make the eyes pop in a portrait without flash is to shoot on an overcast day from a high angle above the subject. Shooting at a high angle forces the subject to look up in order to look at the camera. That fully lights the eyes by turning the face towards the cloudy sky, which is a giant soft light source.
When using a flash, fully lighting the eyes doesn’t mean always placing the flash directly in front of the subject. The flash can be placed anywhere that the light reaches both eyes. Adjust the angle of the flash so both eyes have catchlights and minimal shadows on the eye itself. A common mistake is placing the light too high to create a catchlight, which also adds shadows to the eyes.
Use color theory
If you spend any time checking your outfit in a mirror, you’ve probably recognized that certain colors tend to make your eyes stand out more, or even make your eyes appear like a slightly different color. This is due to color theory.
Color theory is an important concept that can help photographers guide their choice of props, outfits, shooting locations, and editing decisions. Color theory is essentially the science of how color works, including how our eyes see color and how colors mix.
Using the color wheel and color schemes can also help the eyes pop in a portrait. Choose a color scheme based on the eye color and the eyes are going to pop.
- Complementary colors are exact opposites on a color wheel, located directly across from the wheel from each other.
- Analogous colors are colors that are right next to each other on the color wheel.
- Triadic colors are a trio of colors that are equally spaced around the color wheel. If you draw a triangle inside of a color wheel, the colors where the three points meet are triadic.
How does that apply to eye color in photography? As opposites, a complementary color scheme has the most contrast and, therefore, the most “pop.” The opposite of blue is orange, for example. Take a look at how the orange leaves make the eyes pop in the photo above.
This same idea can apply to any eye color. Green’s opposite is red, but you don’t need to make the photo look like a Christmas card — maroon or other colors with a red undertone can also work well.
Some eye colors don’t appear on a traditional color wheel. Brown, for example, doesn’t fall on a traditional color wheel. But, it’s a mix of orange so orange’s opposite — blue — works well.
While complementary color schemes typically have the most pop, using analogous or triadic colors can still draw attention to the eyes. A blue shirt doesn’t make my blue eyes pop quite as much as orange, but they still stand out. A monochromatic color scheme that includes the eyes can still draw more attention to the subject’s eyes. In the photo below, I chose that specific location because the brown in the door and gutter highlighted his brown eyes and shirt.
A prime example of using analogous colors is hazel eyes, which are a mix of greens and browns and occasionally blues. If you surround someone with hazel eyes with a brown background, the eyes are going to appear more brown than green. Meanwhile, a background of green trees would likely make those same eyes feel greener.
Getting the eyes right in camera creates eye-catching portraits (pun intended) without the post-processing time. Even when avoiding edits isn’t the goal, starting with well-lit eyes makes retouching the eyes more effective than starting with shadows.