Eyes tell you so much about a person. The cheeky glint, the intense stare, or the kind, gentle look. Curiosity, amusement, mischief, intelligence. There is a world of stories in every gaze. 

Do you ever see photos where the eyes are so sparkling that the photo seems alive?

What is it that makes eyes pop like that in a photo? 

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Surely you need a good camera, right? Well, that never hurts, but the real secret has nothing to do with your camera.

Creating this sparkle is ALL about light. 

Lighting a photo is a whole subject on its own, and I’m not even going to attempt to cover that in one small blog post. What I want to give you here are two simple formulas for creating a catchlight in your subject’s eyes that will really breathe life into your photos.

You can use these with any camera, including the one on your phone. You can use them for photos of your children or photos of your grandma. You can use them with your camera on completely automatic settings, or in full manual mode. 

All you need is a window.

Some Amazonian tribes believe that having their photograph taken will capture their soul. Some photos make you understand that belief! If you want to be able to take photos of your children that really capture their essence – that make you feel their energy and mood and personality shining through – then try these two techniques to catch that glint in their eyes. 

All of the photos in this blog post are just snaps taken during our everyday life, using one of these two set ups. They aren’t using any special backdrops or studio equipment – just a window and a camera.

 

BASIC SET UP

 This classy background is the carpet in our playroom. It's actually a murky greeny colour, but thankfully you can't tell too much here. We did go out of our way to find a little patch that wasn't littered with tractors and trains and books (that's often a pretty big ask with two little boys!), but other than scooting a few toys out of the way, this is just a quick snap in the playroom. The lighting makes ALL the difference!

This classy background is the carpet in our playroom. It's actually a murky greeny colour, but thankfully you can't tell too much here. We did go out of our way to find a little patch that wasn't littered with tractors and trains and books (that's often a pretty big ask with two little boys!), but other than scooting a few toys out of the way, this is just a quick snap in the playroom. The lighting makes ALL the difference!

 

Have your subject stand a couple of metres or so away from the window, facing towards the window. You stand between them and the window. 

Don’t use a window with direct sunlight coming through onto your subject. If they are looking into the sun, it will create harsh shadows on their face, and they won’t be able to open their eyes to get the full effect. Windows create beautiful, soft light (we’ll go into this more in another post), but to make the most of it you need to choose a time of day when the sun isn’t streaming through the windows.

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Key points

Have your subject stand:

  • Within 2 metres of the window
  • Facing the window
  • With no direct sunlight hitting them

DRAMATIC SET UP

 Zachy is standing in front of a dark sofa in our playroom here. With the light hitting his face and not as much of it reaching the couch, the background almost disappears and his eyes are the focus of the photo.

Zachy is standing in front of a dark sofa in our playroom here. With the light hitting his face and not as much of it reaching the couch, the background almost disappears and his eyes are the focus of the photo.

 

This set up is my favourite. 

Have your subject stand as close as possible to the window (within a metre or so is perfect), but towards one end of the window. Have them face along the length of the window – slightly towards the window, but not directly facing it.

This is perfect if you have a corner with a plain wall or a dark couch or cabinet behind your subject. 

This can be a great set up even if there is sunlight streaming through your window. Just make sure your subject stands far enough towards the end of the window that the direct sunlight isn’t quite reaching them.

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Key points

Have your subject stand:

  • Within 1 metre of the window
  • Towards one end of the window
  • Facing along the length of the window
  • With no direct sunlight hitting them

Some extra tips

This really is as simple as it sounds above! I know the reality of photographing young children can be a bit trickier than the theory though, so here are a few more tips to put these into practice in real life.

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Turn off any lights inside the room, so that the only light is coming in through the window.

Try to make sure there aren’t any other windows behind your subject that are going to be visible in your photograph. Any bright patches in the background will be a huge distraction from your subject.

Get in close. That sparkle in their eye has the most impact when their eyes are big and shining in the middle of your photo.

 

When photographing young children, set up something for them to play with in this spot. I totally realise that babies and young children don’t just do exactly what you ask! Get them in the general area, and let them get settled and playing happily. Get into position yourself (ie between them and the window) and interact with them – play with them, chat to them, be silly with them. Keep your camera tucked away until they are settled.

Bonus points if you can set up a permanent play area for your children in this spot, with them facing the window. You’ll be able to catch them at their best every day!

(Or maybe, like us, you have a dining table in front of the window, and you can catch them at their messiest!)

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If your window is higher up, have your subject look up. With young children, stand as close as you can to them so that you are almost hovering above them, and photograph down. When they look up towards you, they will have beautiful catch lights in their eyes. It also give you a bit more of a unique angle! (This tips works with full length windows too.)

 

Use your camera’s selective focus mode, if it has one. Most Apple and Samsung phones have this option. Focus on your subject’s eyes, and your camera will blur anything further away.

If you are using manual controls on your camera, set your aperture to a low number (f1.8 of f2.8, or as small as your lens allows).

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You can use this same approach for young babies – just lie them next to the window. If you set up their usual play space next to a window, you will have the perfect spot to photograph them every day. As an added bonus, most babies love to spend hours gazing out a window at leaves blowing in the breeze or clouds drifting by. This is the perfect play spot whether you are taking photos or not!

 

 

And there you have it. I use one or both of these set ups in ALL of my studio photography sessions, with babies, toddlers, older children, families, you name it. The only difference is a backdrop so that we have complete control over the background.

There are many other ways to capture a catchlight in your subject’s eyes, but these are two of the easiest and most effective. 

Happy photographing!

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