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Seeing and Shaping Light

Lesson 6 of 17

Study the Catchlights

Lindsay Adler

Seeing and Shaping Light

Lindsay Adler


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Lesson Info

6. Study the Catchlights
Catchlights offer several clues as to how that image was lit, including where the lights are placed and what type of light modifiers were used. Learn how to reconstruct portrait light by using the clues that you can find in catchlights, whether there's one catchlight, multiple catchlights or none at all. These clues offer insight into the light source and position of the light.


  Class Trailer
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1 Class Introduction Duration:04:58
3 Lighting Patterns Duration:16:29
4 The Science of Light Duration:13:49
5 Lighting Pattern Demos Duration:27:53
6 Study the Catchlights Duration:17:42
7 Study the Shadows Duration:08:31
8 Soft & Hard Shadows Duration:28:57
9 Shadow Demos Duration:21:50
10 Rim Lights Demos Duration:23:44
11 Background Light Duration:08:23
13 Complications Duration:22:10
14 Lighting Set Ups Duration:27:19
15 Studio & Natural Light Set-ups Duration:06:50
16 Advanced Set-ups Duration:17:06
17 Creative Lighting Set-up Duration:10:09

Lesson Info

Study the Catchlights

So, we are going to start with item number one, the first thing that I look at, when I look at a photograph, is the catchlights. Because the catchlights tell you so much about, main light of a photo, fill lights of the photo, the placement of the flood lights, like all of that. There's more than just the shape of the light. So, I'm gonna break down everything, all the questions that I'm asking. And again, that's catchlight is. In case, you know, in case you missed this, catchlight is that specular highlight in the eye. But there can be one, there can be many, they can be different shapes. So the very first question I ask myself, and if you've got that checklist, you see the question there. How many catchlights are there? The number of catchlights. There can be one. There can be multiple, and then sometimes, it's actually just one thing that looks like multiple. A lot of times, a big window, that's divided by different windowpanes, ends up looking like multiple lights. So, this is what ...

I mean by multiple catchlights in the eyes. So there's one above, and one below. There is a setup that I like to do, that actually has a catchlight in the top, and three in the bottom. I remember, long ago, I was reading about something in portraits, and they were saying, how you're not supposed to have multiple catchlights and like, it's fine. I look at fashion photography all the time, there's tons of different catchlights, so. Just just like I heard this rule, don't worry about it. Multiple catchlights, are fine. Okay, so, catchlight placement. Well, for the first part, how many catchlights are there? That's just telling you, how many light sources are illuminating this subject. And I'm gonna talk about it, 'cause you can tell, how many actually light sources, versus how many fill cars. Is it a silver reflector, a white reflector, is it a piece of foam cord, is it light bouncing off of the floor, you can tell that, and you're gonna say, "Okay." First thing is, how many are there, and the next thing I'm gonna look at is, okay, what are they? Let's go onto a different question. The placement of the catchlight, actually tells you a lot. So let's take a look here. If the catchlight is more or less centered with the pupil, it's telling you that that modifier is probably more or less center to the face. I mean, it doesn't have to be exactly, 'cause even like a little tilt of the head will change it, but remember, it's not the placement of the light relative to the camera, it's placement of the light relative to the subject. So if they turn to the side, the catchlight placement in the eye will totally change. So, if it's more or less centered, it's telling me, "Okay, more or less, "it is centered to the subject's face." Alright, let's go on to the next one. Alright, well that catchlight moved off to the side to the right, so it's telling me, relative to the subject's face, that light is further to the right. What's great is even in photos that you can't really see the catchlights, like they're far, so you can't really tell what they are. You can see where they're placed in the eye, so it's giving you secrets to the placement. The next question on the line is going be "Is there any fill light that I can see?" And so, let's just take a look at how I'm looking in the catchlight, so. Here's the no fill. I've got this particular modifier that you can see, it is actually the modifier that I have here. It's the beautydish. We're gonna talk about this in second, but a beauty dish with giveaway is a circle within a circle. But that's what you see for a beauty dish. So in this first one, I've got one catchlight. And so this is telling me, there's probably not any other fill, in the front of the subject. There's no other reflectors right in front or other light sources, but let's click over to the next one. If I see something, very defined and bright like that, it's usually telling me it's a strobe. There's a strobe filling, and the placement is telling me, it's lower in the eyes, so it's beneath the subject, and it's a little bit to the left. And if I look at the behind the scenes photo, it's lower and to the left. The secret's right there, it's telling me in the catch light, even if I can't see anything. So if I couldn't even see the zoomed in version, if I could only see her face, you can see that. You see the little bit of round, so it's a beauty dish, and you can see it's pretty much centered, and then lower you see something defined, and to the left. So, got that secret there. But some other things to watch out for, is another shape that might be defined could be a silver reflector. But I want you to know, and I'll show you this later, depending on how you tilt this silver reflector, it's shape changes. So there's not really like, a defined silver reflector shape. It can look long and narrow, it can look all broken up, it can look like a rectangle. It just kinda depends. But if it's more specular, if it's brighter, if it's crinklier, then you know it's probably a silver reflector. So this is one lower in the eye and again, if I have in this example lower, but it could be off to the side, and it would give you the position of the reflector. And then here is white fill. White fill, you need to train yourself to look for, 'cause a lot of times it's super subtle. And you'll just see like a little highlight in the eye, so if you're not looking for it, you might now know it's there. So in this case, if I'm looking, see just a little highlight in the bottom of the eye, I go, "Okay, so there's gotta be some kinda white fill "from below." Whereas, when it's more defined, I know that it's gotta be something silver or maybe it's actually a strobe. So this giving me, and all of these, are examples of clamshell lighting. Clamshell lighting, very popular headshot and beauty photography lighting setup. When there's one light above, and then another lightsource below. And so basically, you know, the two lightsources are going to be the shells, and your head is the pearl in the clam. The birthday girl's head. Anyway, so, it doesn't matter what the bottom fill light is, but you can tell by the catchlight which one it is. So so far, you know part of the questions I've said is, "Alright, how many catchlights are in the eyes?" Well, let's take a look at the placement, if I can tell where they are in the eyes, 'cause it's kinda telling me where is that main light, where is that fill light placed. And then can I look at that fill light, and can I see what it is? Is it white, is it silver, is it another light source? And that's telling me it's hun already, if you can see the catchlights, you're giving yourself a ton of information. So next one would be, where is it placed in the eye and how small is it? How much is it can you see? So when we had the fill, I mean I could tell that it was lower, that's part of the height of it. I can tell that it's beneath the subject's face, when it's again, beneath the pupil. But it could also be an example like these, where we're gonna see the beauty dish in the eye. And in this example, I can see it nice and defined, I can see the entire circle, I know that it's pretty low to the face. Because as I take the beauty dish, and I raise it up, and up, and off, I begin to see less, and less and less of that catchlight. So we raise the beauty dish up, I see a little less, and I raise it all the way up, and I end up seeing no catchlight at all. This is when catchlights don't help you. And this was the example when somebody you know, astutely asked, "you know your angle?" Yeah, if somebody tilts their headdown, you might lose that catchlight all together, and then you've lost that secret. So, yeah, things are not always completely spelled out. So that brings us to, alright, if I'm looking at the photo, do I think one of the catchlights is missing? And this is gonna be later in combination with looking at the shadows, but if there's only a shadow in the bottom of the eyes, it might not be the only light, it just might be the only catchlight I can see. So I'm kinda register that, you know, in my mind, "Alright, if it's low in the eyes, "sure it could be the only light, "but I'm gonna have to check back in with the shadows." Like, I'm gonna have to look at the shadows to verify this. So, here's when there is, little or no catchlight. Now, if I look really close, I can see that there is one, but from far away, I can't see it at all. So I might as well have nothing. But, we'll talk about shadows, I can figure out exactly where it's placed by looking at those shadows right now. We have, paramount lighting. And paramount lighting, we talked about. Where it means the light source is, so. Even if I don't have my catchlights, I can still tell, but catchlights are gonna be my go-to. Now, this is a situation where you've got a catchlight, but it's the only one in the bottom. And I actually see this a lot in fashion photography, and a lot in character portraits, what it means, is that that main light was so high up, that there was no catchlight. But then either another reflector or another light source gave the bottom catchlight. This tends to look more mysterious, it tends to look more ominous, and the example that I saw, was a Subway ad. And it was you know, the movie Les Misrable, and Anne Hathaway was in it? So, what had happened was, that main light source was so high up, that there was deep shadows in the eyes, we'll talk about that. But there was no top catchlight. But then, there was just a little spec of a catchlight in the bottom of her eye, and she had kind of tears welling up in her eye. And so it gives you that melancholy, sadder look, so just keep that in mind, if you were trying to say, "I want dark, mysterious, sad, melancholy," it might be more appropriate to only see the bottom catchlight. Whereas if you see both, sometimes it gives you that glamour look. So in this instance, what this is is a silver reflector catching the light from above. And when we study the shadows later on, we'd be able to tell that as well. Okay, this when it will be very, very useful to use this as a reference and a guide, taking a look at the catchlights. If you can actually see the catchlight, you can figure out what modifiers were used. And so, I'm just gonna run through some of these, and I've got some of these modifiers here, so we can take a look. The very first one is going to be, a three by four foot softbox. So, I'm just gonna grab this, and if I topple stuff. Okay. When you look at this softbox, when you see, okay, you see the rectangle shapes, you know it's gotta be rectangular in shape. But you cannot quite know the size, you can't know that it's three by four, because this could be, a three by four very close, or it could be a four by six a little further away. So that's why that science of light and the catchlights, fundamentally they're the same thing, just depends on the distance. So we've got our three by four. And then we're gonna switch over to the next one. The four by six. You don't see too much change, it gets a little bit longer. And you'll have to study these again later as we're taking a look at how it effects the shadows. But we're just looking at the catchlights. If you just see a point source of light, it usually means, it's either a bare head with nothing on it. Or, it's one of these, this is a zoom reflector. And the reason this is called a zoom reflector, is you've these lines on the side, and based on where you place it on the head, it focuses the light or lets it spread out. So, you're zooming the light in or out. But anyway, so when you see a point source of light like that, it could either be the bare bulb with nothing on it, or one of these far away. 'Cause you pulled this far away and it looks like a point source anyway. So you can't quite tell but it'd probably do the same things, it's pretty close, it just gives you a little bit more focus. Alright, let's take a look down the line at another one. So that's the beauty dish. The circle within the circle. Here the complication. With a beauty dish you can add two attachments on the front, that'll change what the catchlight looks like. The first one would be a grid. And remember how we talked about the grids to focus the beam of light? Well, you can also focus the beam of beauty dish. When you do this, it makes the edges a little bit more defined. It focuses on the light so it doesn't spread everywhere, but in the catchlight, it depends on the beauty dish, sometimes you'll actually see the grid shape in it, depending on if it's close. Other times it'll just look like a circle, with a little bit of like sketching in it. So it might be a beauty dish if it's just solid, round and big. But you can't see that inner circle. The other example, is you can put a piece of diffusion material in front of it, called the sock. So what you do is, in front of this beauty dish, you actually see what's in the front of the umbrella there, the same exact material that's on the front of the softbox. You put it in front of the beauty dish, and it softens it. It makes those highlights not so bright, and the shadows not so dark. But then it just looks like a solid white circle, and you don't see the circle within the circle. So if you see a circle, it's probably a beauty dish, unless it's an octobox that's so faraway that you just can't see the edges. Makes sense? Okay, so we're gonna keep taking a look at these. Next one down the line, I'm gonna go back one more. Next one down the line is, I'm gonna pass this off, too. That umbrella with diffusion. See how that it kinda looks like a circle, but you can see that it's not as defined. What that is is this. It's an umbrella, with diffusion. When you use an umbrella with diffusion, it makes it a little bit more like a softbox. And it also helps, remember how I said umbrellas, it's like that pan of water, the light goes everywhere. This helps control the spread of light a bit. Has nothing to do with the catchlights, but that's what it may look like. Let's pop on, moving on from this. So there's large umbrellas, there's smaller ones. Octobox, looks like a circle, except for you can see the edges there. And, octoboxes come in different sizes. Two foot, three foot, five foot. I think there's even seven feet. Yeah, seven feet. I just can't imagine having a seven foot octa but they exist, so the point is, if it's big in the eye, it could be a small one close, or big one little bit further away. Or if it's small in the eye, it could be a big one really far away, or a small one, okay. So octaboxes. Here's a shoot through umbrella, you kinda see a little bit of the shape of the umbrella in it. Silver umbrella, you just see a little bit more crunchiness. It's more specular. Usually it's not softer, it's got a little bit more texture to it when it's a silver umbrella compared to a white. The whit tends to be just a little less textured in it. It also depends on the umbrella you have. A snoot, which I have someplace over here. A snoot, is a way to focus the beam of light. And as you can see in that picture, you see how much it does focus the beam compared to the last one? Well, I think of this like the bucket of water example. If I've got my umbrella, I've got a pan, and it goes everywhere. But if I've got a deep bucket, it hols the shape of the bucket, so it'll focus where the water goes, like a long hose. So, same concept. What this will also look like a point source in the eye. Which is what I said that the zoom reflectors look like. So you'd have to check the shadows as well. The zoom reflector, the light is still kinda gonna go everywhere. With a snoot, you're gonna get much more of this focused look. So, is catchlight combined with, alright, how is the light behaving. Both of those together you've gotta consider. Next one down the line. We have is a strip softbox. There's only a couple of times when you ever use this actually on the subject's face. But you'll see that narrow strip of a softbox. But for example, one of the photographers that's been here on Creative Live, Peter Hurley, lot of times he does use more strip, or longer light sources. And I put them in a triangle, I put both of them together in different shapes. And so you'd wanna know it could be one of those. More commonly he has his own lights, his own lighting system. But then also there's something called kinoflows. With kinoflows, there's strips, they're tubes of light. But you actually, you can actually see those. You can actually see the shape of it in the eye. So, could be a strip light. Just something long and narrow. And then, we've got our telezoom reflector. It's basically a deep bucket version of this one. And in the eye, you'll have that circle, but I'll be a bigger circle, 'cause it's a bigger reflector. Just a bigger light source. And then zooming on, let's keep looking at a couple of these. And then just the regular zoom reflector, point source of light. So I just kind of ran you through the general categories. I mean, you really wanna do is just look at the reference that we have, weather you buy the course, or whether you get the guide, take a look at it, and you piece apart what it is, but know, size and relative distances will change the shape of it. Alright now, talking about that, and just to demonstrate the point again, the size of the catchlight. So, for the size of the catchlight, it can indicate the size or the distance of the modifier. One of the two. So the perfect example is, we've got that octabox close, or we pull that octabox away, and the catchlight size changes. And if it's back far enough, now you can't tell if it's an octabox anymore, of if it's a zoom reflector. It can trick you a tiny bit.

Class Description


  • Recreate the light from any image you see
  • Work with traditional studio lighting patterns
  • Design your own creative, complex multi-light setups
  • Understand how to use a studio lighting kit
  • Work with several different lighting modifiers


Decipher the complexities of light. From working with studio lights to using modifiers, Lindsay Adler helps photographers develop the ability to see and shape light. By the end of this class, you'll be able to look at any image and determine how to recreate the lighting in your own work.

Using clues like catchlights and shadows, Lindsay demystifies photography lighting setups. Learn how to create classic lighting setups, from a single light to multi-light setups. Build the skills to be able to recreate the light from any shot you see -- and the ability to design your own creative lighting system. Work with studio strobes, light modifiers, window light, and natural light outdoors.

Stop fearing studio lighting and start using your light kit to design create powerful portraits.


  • Any photographer ready to learn light
  • Beginners ready to learn essentials like hard and soft light
  • Intermediate photographers eager to learn to create their own lighting setups
  • Advanced photographers ready to learn the clues to recreate light from any photo


Fashion photographer Lindsay Adler is one of the most respected photographers of the genre, known for a clean yet bold style. The New-York-City-based photographer has work in some of the most prestigious magazines, including Marie Claire, Elle, InStyle, Noise, Essence and more. The Canon Explorer of Light shares her knowledge on digital cameras, posing, light and more with other photographers through speaking engagements, books, classes, and workshops.


Kaltham Ali

Wow wow wow- I finished the entire class in a day! I feel like owning and buy right away all her trainings... this is what a real trainer is al about.. I went from zero in light understanding to really looking to lights/shadows etc.. awesome thanks Lindsay .. the best purchase ever

Warren Gedye

Lindsay, you're an absolute genius!! Such a terrific teacher. You are so talented- not only as an out-of-this-world exceptional photographer, but also as a person who clearly is so passionate about her craft and has that very rare ability to teach your art in such a unique and structured manner! I have learned so much from you previous courses too, Lighting Bootcamp 101, I think was one of them. I look forward to more of your tutorials. On a side note- John in the background is such a stand-up guy! I love the rapport you have with him. I've seen him in on a few Creative Live courses now and he's a kind of guy I just want sit down and have a coffee with, and pick his very informative brain! Such a cool fella!

a Creativelive Student

Lindsay is a talented teacher. She is very knowledgable of what she teaches, but also can teach it well (which is not something all talented people are gifted with, whatever the field). She is humble, dynamic and her courses are interesting to study. The one small improvement I would have liked would have been a little more emphasis and theory on the shaping part. However, this not being the most important, it is better that more emphasis was put on seeing (if you can't see it, you can't make it). Finally, I will say that to study and understand this course, or Lindsay's methodology, you are then equipped with an understanding—you could even say partly knowing the language—of light, which gives you a huge set of tools and advantage, allowing you to progress quite substantially with your studio or out-of-studio photography.