Good Catch!

Catch light, that is. The life of the portrait.


They say it is all in the eyes. And in portraits the eyes come alive with the presence of a catch light. But before we talk specifically about catch lights, a refresher on reflections. After all, we don’t photograph people, places, or things. We photograph the light that reflects off of those people, places, and things. There are two basic types of reflections. Diffuse reflections define the subject and its texture. We base our exposure on the diffuse reflections, whether that be skin, a tree, a flower, etc. Specular reflections are direct reflections of the light source, like a mirror. We also have shadows, which are areas that don’t get lit.

As you change the distance between your light and your subject the diffuse reflections get brighter or darker. Move them closer together and you have to lower your exposure to maintain the correct exposure. Move them farther apart and you need to provide more exposure. Pretty simple and intuitive. The diffuse reflections loosely follow the Inverse Square Law of physics. I am going to skip the math and science part here, but basically it tells us that changing the distance between the light and the subject will have a bigger effect on the exposure than you might expect. Light falls off rapidly as you move the light farther away.

Then we have the mirror-like specular reflections. Specular reflections are the same brightness as the light source, no matter the distance. You can easily see this by pointing a flashlight (torch) at a mirror and observing the brightness as you move the light closer or farther away. At this point you might start to ask why these highlights don’t follow Inverse Square. The answer is that they do! But in a different way. As you move the light source farther away from your subject the specular reflections get smaller, as you move the light closer the specular reflections get bigger.

Once you have an understanding of this you can start to consciously control the relationship between the various highlights. And that is where we come to discussing the catchlights in the eyes of our subjects. This stems from a question I recently received, “Can I make the catchlights less noticeable by moving the light farther away from my subject?” And the answer is, No. Moving the light farther away will make the catchlights MORE noticeable. They will be smaller, yes, but they will also be brighter in comparison to the diffuse reflections. The followup question was if dimming the light would reduce the brightness of the catchlight. Again, the answer is no. Dimming the light lower both the diffuse and specular reflections and you will need to increase the exposure, leading to the same relationship between them.

Let’s look at what is happening. Start with a light in a softbox at about 36-inches from our subject. We meter the light and find that the proper exposure is at f/8. Now move the light back to 48-inches from the subject. To maintain the same f/8 exposure we have to raise the power of the flash up about 1 stop. Now the face is still at the same exposure level (moving the light back and raising the power level compensated for each other). But the light is 1 stop (2X) brighter and because the catchlight is a mirror reflection, it is now twice as bright than it was before, making it much brighter than the diffuse reflection.

We can also look at this going in the opposite direction, bringing the light in closer to our subject. If we bring our light in 3 times closer, say it was originally at 9 feet away and now we move it in to 3 feet away, what happens? We have to stop down (change aperture or lower the flash power) by 3 stops to maintain the proper exposure. That makes the specular highlights 9 times darker than they were. Let’s see that that looks like in pictures.


In the top image the lights are set 36-inches away from the subject. In the lower image the lights have been moved back to 48-inches from the subject. In doing so I had to increase the flash power by one stop to maintain the correct exposure on the “skin.” This in turn made the catchlights one stop brighter in the lower image. So even though the catchlights are smaller in the lower image, they are brighter in comparison to the rest of the face.

For this next example I attached a small mirror to the mannequin’s forehead and made two photos lit with a 2x3 softbox being reflected directly back to the camera. The one on the left had the light 9 feet away from the subject. The one on the right had the light 3 feet away. You can see how bright the softbox reflection is on the left, causing a lot of lens flare and haze, compared to on the right. The exposure on the face, though remains approximately the same. The reflection in the mirror on the right is 9x less bright by bringing the light in to 1/3 the distance. You can also see the difference in the highlight on the tip of the nose, small and bright when the light is far away, larger and more translucent when the light is in closer. The catchlight in the eyes on the right gives away one of my little signatures, the black bars of tape across the front of the softbox to simulate a multi-plane window.


Let’s look at a different example, this time a still life/product photo. This shiny can was lit with one 60-inch octabank. On the left the light is about 48-inches (120cm) away from the can. On the right the light was moved in to 12-inches (30cm) away. There are a few things to observe here. On the left there is a strong highlight that you can see in the red cap and behind the text on the label. While you can read the label text, it is a bit washed out by the highlight. On the right, with the light in closer, the highlight looks much nicer on the red cap and the text on the label is much easier to read. You might also note that on the right the overall look of the text and the can is lower in contrast and color saturation. That is one of the downsides of using a large soft light in close. A set of soft grids on the octa might have helped bring back the contrast, but at the cost of seeing the grids in the highlights. Below is another series of photographs of this can. This time lit with a 2x3 softbox. On the left the light is 48-inches from the can and we see the bright highlight making the text hard to read. In the middle the softbox is set 12 inches from the can and the text is more readable. Over on the right I added a soft grid to the softbox. I think I see a bit more contrast and saturation, but you can see the cells of the grid in the highlight, especially in the red cap and at the shoulder of the can (see my post about grids for more info).


And now for the controversial question about what shape catchlights are preferred. My preference is for rectangular catchlights. That is the shape you get inside from a window, a doorway, or a skylight. It is also what you get from a wide open sky outdoors. So many people talk about, and advertisements for lighting modifiers mention, “natural” round catchlights. I have to assume they are referring to the shape of the sun. But when we photograph people out in the sun we don’t usually get a round catchlight as they are either squinting, or turning away from the sun. Sure, in many animal photos we see small round dot catchlights, but rarely with people. And they remind me of department store family portraits from the 1960s. It comes down to personal taste. It is a rare client who comments on or requests a specific shape to the catchlights in their eyes. Dare I bring up the topic of pupil size? Maybe next time.

round catch lights

Until then, if you have any questions about this or any other lighting questions please comment below or join my studio lighting group on Facebook.


Light as a Feather

Feathering the light is using the shadow edge of your light to control your shadows.

Most beginning photographers seem to start out in the studio with their light pointed directly at their subject. And this works in many situations. You can keep doing that and all will be well. But if you want to take things up a notch and gain more control over the light on your scene you will need to learn how to position the light to control its coverage. And that’s what we are here for today. Control the stamp of light on your subject be feathering the light.


The first thing to learn about feathering your light is that it does NOT make your light softer. We know that the larger the light source as seen by the subject the softer the light. What happens when you feather the light? Take a look at the images on the right where we are looking over the model’s shoulder at the light. On the top the light is pointing directly at the subject. On the bottom the light has been pivoted towards the camera to point more across the face of the subject. In doing so the light has become narrower, which is smaller. If you think back to the post about shadows you will see this is more like a strip light where the shadow edge quality will be the same up and down (the long dimension of the softbox is still the same size), but the shadows from right to left across the face (the nose shadow) will be harder because the width of the light is narrower.

The light across the face is slightly harder, but it is more even. The coverage is wider. But it isn’t any softer.

We can also feather the light away from the camera, towards the background. This will make the light across the face narrower and harder with deeper shadows. It is more akin to a split light when you do this. Let’s look at examples.

Feathering the light using a hard light source (an 11-inch deep zoom reflector)

Here I am using a hard light source to emphasize the shadow edges. On the left the light is pointed directly at the subject. In the middle the light has been pivoted towards the camera to cover a wider area of the face, opening up some of the shadows while at the same time making the shadow edge harder and more defined. Over on the right side I pivoted the light towards the background for another look that is even more shadowed and contrasty. Again notice that the nose shadow to the side has become very hard edged due to the light becoming much narrower.

Feathering becomes an even more powerful tool when working with multiple subjects in the photo. Here I have two subjects and a hard light.

Again, with the light pointed directly at the pair there is a strong falloff in light from left to right with deep shadows on both faces. By pivoting the light towards the camera the light evens out between the two faces as seen in the middle. Pivoting towards the background makes the difference in exposure between the subjects even farther apart.

Now let’s look at it with a softer light, this time a 2x3-foot softbox.


This time I changed the order and you will see why in a moment. I started out the same with the softbox pointed directly at the subjects. Turning it towards the background exacerbated the problem of uneven exposure on the two subjects. Feathering the light towards the camera for the third image evened out the exposure. And in the bonus image I turned the light even more towards the camera and you can see that this lit up the subject farther from the light more than the subject closer to the light.

Here is a diagram to help explain.

There is your control via feathering.


Don't confuse contrast with quality of light

One more time with feeling!

We are coming to the end of my 10-week intro to studio lighting class and I still see confusion between light quality (determined by the size of the light) and contrast (determined by the environment).

Basically, contrast is the depth/darkness/density of the shadows. It is controlled by the environment. If there is a lot of light bouncing around off of the walls, ceiling, floor, or other nearby surfaces the shadows open up. Adding a diffuser to your light spreads the light out to bounce off all those objects to lower the contrast. The bigger and darker the environment you are photographing in, the more contrast you will have. Narrow beam reflectors and grids can be used to control spill (the opposite of adding diffusion) and maintain or increase contrast when working in smaller spaces with light color walls, ceiling, etc. Please, do not add diffusion material in front of your grids!

Quality of light is the transition from highlight to shadow. It is controlled by the size of the light. The larger the light is as seen by the subject, the softer the light is as the light hits the subject from many angles and provides its own fill light. Yes, it lightens the shadows, but the main thing is that it does away with the abrupt edge that you get from a smaller/harder light. 

Adding a diffuser such as a scrim or a shower curtain some distance in front of a small light source turns it into a larger source, making the light softer. But diffusion right on the light (which doesn't change the size of the light) will not change the quality of the light. While the shadow is less dark, it still maintains a hard edge if the light source is small.

Some pictures to help explain…

One more time. With Cubes!

Cue the Cubes!


Again??? Well, yes. I do these blog posts for myself as much as for my readers. They are my public notebook of lighting tests and experiments.

Here we have three exciting and vibrant still life studies in gray. All three photos were made with the Interfit Deep Zoom Reflector on their Badger Unleashed strobe head. The image on the right was with the bare reflector. In the middle I added the included diffusion sock, and on the left I added an additional layer of diffusion (double-diffused as some might say). I have identified three places in the images to look at and compare.

At point one I want you to look at the primary shadow of the gray cube onto the white cube (scroll down to the bottom of the post for larger versions of the cube photos). With the open reflector there are actually multiple overlapping shadows. The open reflector is not even across. There are multiple light sources: the flash tube, the glass dome, the walls of the reflector. Each is slightly different in brightness and casts its own shadow. Adding a diffuser homogenizes the light into one large source and eliminates the hot spot. You can see this in these photos of the face of the reflector.

Bare reflector, single layer of diffusion, and double layer of diffusion

Bare reflector, single layer of diffusion, and double layer of diffusion

Looking closely at the cubes you should still be able to see that there is a primary hard edged shadow at point One and that doesn’t change between the three photos because the overall size of the light has not changed. Remember, for a light to be softer with more gradual shadows the light has to come in from many directions. Once you have added a diffuser it won’t matter how many extra layers you add, it will not make the light any softer. The diffusion will alter the contrast of the scene as it spreads the light out in a wider pattern allowing it to bounce off of items in the environment such as the floor, walls, ceiling, etc. filling in the shadows and making them less dense. Less dense = less contrast. But the shadow edge, the quality, does not change.

Point Two is similar. The open reflector shadow is deeper. Adding the diffusion evens out the light from the reflector and fills in some of the shadow. But again the primary shadow edge is about equal.

Point Three is the most dramatic difference where the diffuser made the light larger and able to wrap around the side of the black cube to provide more illumination so you can see the back of the table top.

What I really want to concentrate on are the differences between the images with single and double diffusion. Or is differences the wrong word as they are actually very similar, almost identical in appearance. The main difference being that I had to open up the aperture a stop to maintain the proper exposure.

I hope this helps show that adding more and more layers of diffusion will not soften the shadows in your photographs. That comes from making the light larger. Multiple layers of diffusion require more light output or allow you to cut down the amount of light if you cannot power it down or don’t want to change your f/stop.

Click on each of the photos below for a larger version.

Open Reflector

Single Diffuser

Single Diffuser

Double Diffuser

Double Diffuser

Baffled by Baffles

Is it a baffle or a diffuser?

Being my pedantic self again here. And maybe this use of the term baffle has been going on for a long time and I've just ignored it. But recently I have seen a lot of photography sites using the terms baffle and diffuser interchangeably. I see references to the "inner baffle" on a softbox (try this Google search on softbox baffle). One ad mentions a "white diffusive baffle." This isn't just photographers writing about light, it is also in the descriptions of modifiers on the websites of lighting companies.

Let's start with the dictionary and the definitions of baffle and diffuser...

a device used to restrain the flow of a fluid, gas, or loose material or to prevent the spreading of sound or light in a particular direction.

a device that spreads the light from a light source evenly

From the definitions, these seem to be opposites. A baffle would be more akin to a grid on a light that restricts the light to make it more directional and prevents the light from spreading out. The inner translucent panel in a softbox is diffusing the light and spreading it out and trying to avoid having a directional hot spot. The outer diffuser does the same thing. And some photographers put multiple diffusers over the outside of their softbox/octa/softlighter. None of these things are acting as a baffle in my mind.

Diffuser vs Baffle

Diffuser vs Baffle

Am I just the old curmudgeon who can't get with the new terminology? Or should we be more precise in our descriptions?

Battle of the Round Modifiers

Does the shape really matter? Does diffusion help?

When you think of modifiers for your photo studio lights, what comes to mind first? Softboxes? Octaboxes? What about umbrellas? I will be at WPPI 2018 next week presenting about keeping it simple in the Interfit Photographic booth. I will be there on Monday afternoon at 1:30 and will primarily be talking about working with umbrellas. Think simple and inexpensive.

Yes, softboxes and octaboxes are everybody's favorites. But back in the "good old days" when I got started umbrellas were the go-to modifier. Some photographers were starting to build their own softboxes out of wood or foamcore, but there weren't any commercially mass produced boxes. Over the years it seems that umbrellas have fallen out of favor or have become 2nd class or even 3rd class options for modifying lights.

Like most everyone else, I've been using rectangular and roundish boxes for the past few years. But I have also maintained my relationship with one set of umbrellas, the Photek Softlighters in three sizes, 36-inch, 46-inch, and 60-inch. If I could only have one modifier, it would be the 60-inch Photek Softlighter. But having only one modifier is a scary fantasy notion, so let's not think of that any more.

How different are they from each other?

While preparing for my presentation I started thinking of the differences between the various modifiers. Do they really make that big a difference in comparison to their prices and their ease of set up and use? So I set up my tripod, and a remote shutter release this morning then started a series of selfies with a variety of round(ish) light modifiers. I grabbed these seven items and got to work: Westcott Apollo Orb, 36-inch Photek Softlighter, 41-inch silver metallic umbrella, 46-inch Photek Softlighter, 41-inch white satin umbrella, a 43-inch white shoot-through umbrella, and a 36-inch Paul C. Buff folding octabox (modified with a Bowens S-mount speedring). I mounted each of these in succession on an Interfit Honey Badger and you can see the results below. Use the slider over on the right side of the photos to drag left to reveal which modifier was used for each image. Each row is different modifier or different arrangement of the modifier with the full frame on the left and a close in crop on the face on the right to better see the catchlights in the eyes. Can you identify each modifier before dragging the slider?

I metered each modifier setup to read f/7.1 and kept the camera (Canon EOS 6D with Canon 100mm f/2 lens) on the "Daylight" white balance. As you can see, some of the modifiers have a strong influence on the color. The shoot-through umbrella was quite blue--maybe it doesn't have a UV coating? The Buff 36-inch octa was quite warm. The rest of the modifiers were much closer in color to each other.

Comparing the Photek Softlighter with and without diffusion

I was especially interested in seeing the comparison between the 46-inch Photek Softlighter on its own (without the diffusion panel), with the diffusion panel, and with 2 layers of diffusion panel. So here is that comparison. What do you think?

The image on the left below is the Softlighter with one layer of diffusion. The image on the right has two diffusion panels layered over each other.

So, how did you do on identifying each of the modifiers? Let me know in the comments here or join my lighting group on Facebook.



Lighting Workshop Results

Lots of learning going on

Last weekend I presented a program on speed light and flash control at the Olympic Peaks Camera Club. I followed up on that with a 3-hour hands-on workshop on studio lighting on Saturday. I will be presenting a similar workshop at Glazer’s Camera in Seattle in November.
During the second hour of the class the students got to photograph each other using the Interfit S1 battery powered studio lights. I set up two lighting stations for them. One had an S1 head in a 2x3 softbox and the other had an S1 in a 46” Phototek Softlighter II. Each also had a white reflector set up opposite the key light and a background with no light on it.

Photo by James Hagen

One of the students, Jim Hagen, shared a portrait he made of another student, Irv Mortensen. This portrait was made with the S1 in the 2x3 softbox. I asked Jim about his experience in photography in general and more specifically about portraits. His response was, “(I) bought my first DSLR a little under two years ago. Didn't know aperture from my arse. Shot a lot of photos previous but with point and shoot auto. These are the first portraits I've taken. Very excited about how things were set up and the possibities of learning lighting and flash techniques. Certainly off to a running start after Thursday and Saturday!

Photo by Irving Mortensen

Irv then made a portrait of Witta Priester using the same setup. Witta then turned around and made a portrait of me on the other set with the Softlighter and lighter color backdrop.

One of my little "tricks" with the 2x3 softbox is to put strips of thin black masking tape across the front of the diffuser to make it look like window panes in the catch lights on the eyes of my subjects. 

Great job by Jim, Irv, and Witta. I know that many photographers are not comfortable on the other side of the camera. But I feel that if you are going to make portraits you should get used to being in front of the camera. If you don’t have someone around to photograph you, a project of self-portraits can be great experience. 

The Interfit S1 lights are very simple to operate with clearly marked controls and no hidden "secret handshake" button combinations to memorize when adjusting the lights. See the photo of the unit below. 



Feathering the light and adding a reflector

Photo by Witta Preister

Clean and easy to use control interface

Thank you to Val for inviting me to present. Thanks to Rebecca and John for their great hospitality feeding me and giving me a home base for the weekend. And thanks to everyone who came out for both the meeting and the workshop. I had a great time and look forward to another trip to Sequim, WA with all of its lavender glory.


Setting up the 7-foot umbrella and diffuser by yourself

Working alone in the studio

This may be old news to all of you out there, but I have seen some people (including myself!) struggle to attach the diffusion cloth to a 7-foot umbrella. The first few times I tried to set one up I opened the umbrella and then tried to stretch the fabric onto the open umbrella. My arms weren't quite long enough to reach across the umbrella and I wished I had a third arm and hand to hold the cloth in one spot while my other hands stretched the fabric over the umbrella.

My next attempt was to attach the diffuser to the flash head, insert the open umbrella into the head, and then try to stretch the diffuser over the umbrella. Again, I couldn't quite reach to hold the fabric to the umbrella on one edge while trying to stretch the fabric across to the other side of the umbrella.

Then one day I figured out that there was a better and faster way. Below you can see a video of me attaching the diffuser. I start with the collapsed umbrella, then I pick up the diffuser and pull it up my arm with my hand going through the center opening. Then I pick up the umbrella and stand it up with its point on the ground. I then start opening the umbrella, then pick it up and put both hands through the center opening to fully spread the umbrella out with the diffuser attached. Done in just a few seconds without the need for a third arm or another person.

Getting all the modifier that you paid for

While talking about the 7-foot umbrella and diffuser, let's take a refresher look at how some different lights interact with the big umbrellas. Even though the umbrella is big, it doesn't mean that the light coming out of it is as big as you might think.

This is especially an issue with speed lights. Here I am going to compare the coverage of a spedlight vs an Einstein studio light without the diffuser.

speed light on the left and Einstein on the right in a medium size umbrella. 

speed light on the left and Einstein on the right in a medium size umbrella. 

You can see that the speed light concentrates its output and leaves a lot of the umbrella relatively unlit. This happens even with speed lights that let you adjust the spread of the light. It is still too concentrated. The first reaction to this might be to add additional speed lights into the umbrella. But that will just make the output brighter, the light is still concentrated. The answer is to use a diffusion dome on the speed light. I believe that Nikon flashes come with the detachable dome. Canon and other flash users will probably need to get something like the Stofen diffuser to spread the light to fill the umbrella (or beauty dish or softbox or octa).

Adding a diffuser dome to the speed light helps it fill the modifier.

Adding a diffuser dome to the speed light helps it fill the modifier.

Even with studio strobe units you need to know how well they fill your modifiers. Here is a series of images of a 7-foot umbrella with an Interfit S1 battery powered strobe with and without a standard 7-inch dish reflector and with and without the diffuser.


You can see that the 7-inch dish reflector blocks a lot of light from filling the umbrella. Removing the reflector exposes the protruding flash tube and glass dome to fill the umbrella better. Adding the diffusion panel goes another step further in improving the coverage, even with the 7-inch reflector in place. Removing the reflector will give a hot spot in the middle of the diffuser that some portrait photographers might prefer.

Shiny silver umbrellas are even harder to fill with light from a small source as you can see here.


The studio strobe head used here is a Speedotron 202VF which has a very large and protruding flash tube.

What is your experience with using large umbrellas? Do you have another way to attach the diffuser? Let me know in the comments!

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John Cornicello