Newborn Photography Lighting Tutorial | Catchlights and why they matter

In this newborn photography lighting tutorial, we look at how and where catchlights show up in a newborn’s eyes, and why it is important to have them in the first place.

Ever seen that glint in someone’s eye? Other than indicating they are happy, healthy humans, that glint is the result of light reflecting in their eyes, and it makes the whole face come alive.

Because babies are often awake for at least part of their newborn photography sessions, and as humans we instinctively focus on someone’s eyes, it is important to address how best to show off baby’s eyes in the studio.

Prefer to read? Here’s your newborn photography lighting tutorial

magazine cover with catchlights

I admit it… I’m a total lighting nerd! When I am combing through magazines, I’m always looking at the photography, but specifically the catchlights in people’s eyes. I can always tell whether a photographer has used either a beauty dish, a softbox, a modifier, or natural light… I love looking at that! These are called catchlights – it’s that tiny twinkle of light that are in people’s eyes. In today’s episode, I want to talk about catch lights and why they’re important.

What are catchlights?

When I was first getting started, I wasn’t even really sure what created them! What creates those catchlights is the light source. It can be from a softbox, it can be from a parabolic light modifier (which is just a fancy word for an umbrella!), it could be from a window, or it can be from a reflector. There are so many different ways of creating light in people’s eyes.

Newborn Photography Lighting Tutorial about catchlights

Why are catchlights important?

The important thing is to create that light in the eyes, because if you don’t have it there, you’re going to have a dead eye look, and you don’t want that! You want to always have that light, that spark of life, that is in people’s eyes.

Just compare these 2 images … the one without catchlights is pretty creepy, right!

comparison of with and without catchlights
Catchlights are important to avoid the “dead eye” look

What determines the shape of catchlights?

The shape of the catchlights is really dependent on your preference. Every different modifier (which is a fancy word for a diffuser of light) is going to create a different look. Square softboxes are going to create square catchlights that will mimic a window light. Round catchlights are from light umbrellas, and octoboxes will create different light catch lights as well.

round catchlights
Umbrellas will create round catchlights
square catchlights
Square and rectangular softboxes will create catchlights in the same shapes
window catchlights
Natural window light catchlights are usually not as bright as those from studio lights

Where should the catchlights show up?

You’re going to want to make sure that you are lighting your subjects from the head down. You do not want your catchlights showing up in the lower quadrant of an eye, because that means you’re uplighting your subject and that’s not really an attractive light. That’s the same as if you were to take a flashlight and stick it under someone’s face – it’s not beautiful light! (See our post about this phenomenon called ghoul lighting). So make sure that your catchlights are in that upper quadrant of the eye.

catchlights in the top quadrant of baby's eyes
Catchlights should be anywhere in the 9 to 3 o’clock position

This is especially true if you have a parent holding a newborn. You’re always going to want to raise up your light, because you want to have those catchlights in the upper quadrant of the eyes. If your light is too far down you run the risk of uplighting the parents and those catch lights will be in the lower quadrant where you don’t want it.

catchlights in parents eyes
Raise your light high to get catchlights in the top quadrant of parents eyes

Go look for catchlights!

My homework for you today is to go grab a magazine and leaf through it. I want you to look at all the catchlights, and study them to see if you can tell which light modifier the photographer used. And if you look close enough you might even see the photographer in those catchlights!

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