Big, soft lights mean big catch lights. Do we retouch them? Do we blot the catchlights out in PhotoShop? What's a photographer to do?

This is an image of Heidi that we did for my second book; the one about studio lighting. The image is an example of the look you get when you use a very large lighting modifier close in to your subject. There is a beautiful light playing across her face and it falls off as you go from the left to the right of the image. By putting up a black velvet light subtractor to the left of frame (the right side as you look at it here) I was able to get a nice and dramatic shadow on the left side of her face, in spite of the inclusive nature of the light source.

The only thing that might give a viewer pause would be the size and brightness of the catchlights (the reflection of the big lighting modifier (a six foot umbrella) or any light source in the eyes). It's an ongoing issue because the catchlights will be there unless you go in and retouch the image. With a natural light source I am almost always inclined to leave the catchlights as they are. It's only in studio lit portraits that I waffle. I like to leave them but some clients expect them to be gone. It's worth a discussion with the people commissioning the work.

Here's the image, edited quickly, who NO catchlights:

Finally, here's an image (just below), edited even more quickly, that shows a compromise between the two extremes. There is no "right" way and I chaff at most retouching of things that occur in the actual shooting, but I'm curious to hear what others think. Not that I'll change the way I do stuff but......

I have switched to back button AF, so there is that....


  1. To me, the big ones look fine/great. The none look weiiiiiiiiiird.

  2. I prefer "compromise".

  3. I like the last (compromise) shot best too. The big catchlight in her right eye (left side of the image) looks like she has a nasty cataract. The middle shot (no catchlights) just looks unnatural and wrong. The compromise strikes a good balance between the two.

  4. I'm a unedited catch light kind of guy. One of my objectives has always been to make sure that there are catch lights in a portrait otherwise the eye can appear dead. Fine for editorial work but not for a portrait.


  5. I think our brains have a strong preference for what is normal in the natural world, which means catchlights are needed (to match the lit face), but that the catchlights should not impinge significantly on the pupil area (because our eyes normally stop down if we face too much into the light). So I am guessing this image was shot with flash. If shot with continuous light I think the pupils would have been a little smaller and then the catchlights would have seemed more natural and not have needed touching. In this example the compromise looks good, but I think if you tried it by mostly removing the in-pupil part of the catchlight you could leave the rest.

  6. I think Nicholas has it right. Big soft light like a window, big catchlight. Flash is the problem as we are combining a big soft light with an eye peering into darkness.

  7. ODL, Funny you and Nicolas mention the pupil size and catchlights. Back in the 1980's I read about two brothers who did fashion shoots and they used flash but used 1,000 watt lights bounced into 4x8 foot white boards, aimed at their models just to make the models' pupils stop down, It was a beautiful effect. A reason to use really bright modeling lights or secondary light just of that reason. Thanks for reminding me!

  8. Hola Kirk, no alcanzo a darme cuenta por qué, pero: la segunda foto me parece entre alienígena y triste, la tercera me tranquiliza al sentirla mas real, pero vuelvo a la primera y la veo mas vivaz y natural, es la que mas me gusta.
    Estoy maravillado de la cantidad de tiempo, palabras, elaboracion, consejos y ganas que pones en este blog. Felicitaciones.


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