How to Achieve Multiple Catchlights in a Portrait Subject’s Eyes

Here’s my two cents on the “you don’t have to have expensive lights to create beautiful portraits” topic—an attempt to harness multiple catchlights in a subject’s eyes.

"Tori Tracy" captured by Julia Kuzmenko McKim.

“Tori Tracy” captured by Julia Kuzmenko McKim.

I’ve been shooting at Dale Heise‘s studio with some awesome Profoto lighting equipment for a while. Right now, Dale is in the process of moving into another space, so I’m shooting wherever I can with whatever I have and can find. In this blog post I’m going to try and come up with an interesting lighting setup using my own lighting equipment and other affordable light sources.

Here’s what I own:

  • I still shoot with Canon 5D Classic (update: I got my pretty little Canon 5D Mark III now.)
  • Speedlights: Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash and Canon Speedlite 430EX II
  • Einstein E640 with a silver beauty dish
  • Elinchrom Skyport Speed Trigger Set
  • Westcott 5-in-1 Reflector Kit
  • A few Heavy Duty Light Stands and tons of color gels which are actually just rolls of colored cellophane ($3–5 each at craft stores like Hobby Lobby, Michael’s, and $1–2 on Amazon)

Beforehand, I bought a box of warm white Philips LED lights at Target ($12), found a large piece of cardboard in the garage, and bought a sheet of thick white paper at Michael’s.

Building the Light

When our model, Tori, and my assistant and new photographer at OIP, Shelby, arrived I handed the lights, cardboard, scissors, tape, and a handful of binder clips to Tori to make our lighting instrument, while Shelby and I were busy setting up my MacBook Pro to shoot tethered into Lightroom.


Tori drew a circle around my biggest lens cap in the middle of the cardboard and paper clipped it together. She then cut out a hole, taped the cardboard and paper together, and clipped the lights to our new white board.


The Lighting Setup

When we were ready to shoot, I set my Einstein to my left and turned the slave off, so that I could use only the modeling lamp and focus properly.

“Tori Tracy” captured by Julia Kuzmenko McKim.

After plugging in the board to turn on the lights, Shelby held the plugged in board for me right in front of Tori’s face as I shot through the hole in the board. I had a few lenses available to use, including a Canon 24–70mm f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.4, and a 100mm Macro f/2.8. Since these particular LED lights were pretty weak, so I ended up shooting with the 50mm, bumped ISO up to 800, and opened the aperture to f/1.6 (it’s difficult to nail focus on the eyes, especially when you’re so close to the model’s face, with f/1.4).

Tip: If you decide to try this out, find stronger/brighter LED lights and an extra extension cord to make sure you’re not stuck by the power outlet because the LED lights’ cord is very short.

Adding the Final Touches

To finish the images I added a few touches in Photoshop, and we’ve got these stunning portraits with interesting catchlights in the eyes and magical soft light.

If you decide to try this out for yourself, I would love to see your results. Feel free to post them in the comments section below.

About the Author:
Julia Kuzmenko is a Los Angeles based beauty photographer & retoucher.

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9 responses to “How to Achieve Multiple Catchlights in a Portrait Subject’s Eyes”

  1. sugavanam says:

    interesting idea,….

  2. Debbie says:

    Im confused. You showed in diagram that you turned off the flash at the side. Then mentioned using your Einstein and turning slave off. Show does that mean you only used the LED lights through the cardboard to get the lighting or did you turn the slave back on?

  3. Mark Corder says:

    When I was working as a portrait photographer back in the 1980’s – this would have been considered ‘bad-form’ for traditional portraits!
    The studio I worked for was adamant about retouching all-but-one of the highlights from each eye! (You left the ‘main’ one that corresponded with the general direction of the light, of course.) The feeling was that leaving the highlights caused by every strobe made a person look ‘glassy-eyed’…
    I used to have to do this to each print with a tiny brush and special photographic dyes! Of course, these days it’s just a couple of clicks with a graphics program and you’re done.
    Don’t think I’m knocking what you have presented here – it certainly does produce an interesting effect that is striking … but if I would have produced a portrait like this back-in-the-day, they would have suspected that both me and the model were on psychedelic drugs!

  4. Debbie,

    The Einstein was left there with the slave off, but modeling lamp on – it would be very difficult to focus in the dim light that the LED lights produced:
    “When we were ready to shoot, I set my Einstein to my left and turned the slave off, so that I could use only the modeling lamp and focus properly.”

  5. Mark,
    Thank you for your comment!
    I’m not really sure what your point was, and I admit that I have never heard the approach you’re talking about. Maybe because I studied photography in 2008-2010 and have been only working as a photographers for the past 6 years.
    I currently live and photograph in 2013, like most of the photographers who read this article.. maybe just except those who are on psychedelic drugs :)

  6. Jon says:

    Lovely images, Julia! I don’t know what Mark was on about. Obviously you intended to catch those stars in her eyes. And it worked wonderfully.

  7. Thank you Jon! I’m really glad that some artists can see what I see :)

  8. Tracey says:

    I totally love this and I too live in the present. I think that 80s and 90s photography is kinda gross. No offense.

  9. Lise says:

    Hi, please how’d you make the picture look so brown and warm,? Was that done in post? If yes pls how?

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