Changing the Shape of Catch Lights in Photography

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Introduction: Changing the Shape of Catch Lights in Photography

About: I'm a (mostly) pet photographer in Melbourne, Australia, and a DIY junkie. Particularly when it's photography related.

When taking portraits of living things catch lights in the eyes are essential, whether it's from a natural light source or artificial one (LED, flash, etc), they make eyes look alive and give them a 3 dimensional look. With practice you can tell a lot about how a photo was taken just by looking closely at the catch lights too. Sometimes you can see the photographer and background, in studio set ups you can see what shape the flashes are and start guessing at the lighting setup.

So catch lights are quite cool!

A while ago I had the idea of creating custom shaped catch lights by adding a lightweight styrofoam modifier to a flash softbox and ended up making one prototype which worked surprisingly well. It's not the best fit on my old softbox though and needed heaps of gaffa tape to hold it on and stop light from spilling out the sides. The second photo here was taken with the my old speedlight/cheap softbox system.

I have a new lighting setup now and wanted to make a better version that looks and fits better so was time for version 2!

The minimum photography equipment to use this modifier is:

  • DSLR camera or a camera that can talk to an external flash (surely iPhones are close?)
  • Camera flash - a speed light works fine, but the more light the better. I used a Nikon SB700 speed light first time, now it's a Godox AD600
  • Light stand or someone who can hold the flash in place
  • Softbox of any size - I used a 60cm square one originally, now it's an 80cm octagonal
  • Flash trigger and receiver so you can use the flash off camera (or a flash that can be triggered by your camera's inbuilt flash)
  • Subject with eyeballs (a human would be much easier than a dog)

Supplies

  • styrofoam sheets - you can probably find them at hardware or craft shops, but if you can find some that are heading to landfill that's ideal. Mine were used as chicken shed insulation in their previous life and were destined for the bin. They're a bit grubby and dented, but nothing paint can't fix. My sheets are around 2cm thick, but as long as you're careful it could be much thinner and still be fine.
  • very sharp stanley knife - if it's blunt it's more likely to tear than cut and won't be pretty
  • plaster/drywall saw
  • tape measure
  • marker - different colours are useful if you're like me and stuff up the measurements a lot
  • protractor if you want a star shape (any basic shape would work though)
  • matt black acrylic paint
  • metal ruler (optional but very handy)
  • painter's tape (optional, depending on the size of your sheets)
  • stick on velcro or velcro and glue (optional)
  • an area you can make a big mess in

Plus previously mentioned photography equipment.

Step 1: Measure

I measured the inside width of my softbox from flat edge to flat edge which was 72cm. Softboxes are pretty flexible so there's some wriggle room, but I do want it to sit snugly so there's minimal light leaking out the sides.

I also measured my styrofoam sheets and they were 60cm by 160cm so more than one sheet was needed. This wasn't a bad thing though as space is limited in my studio so it's nice that it can be packed down small. The sheets are also made to link together which means light won't leak through the crack.

I slotted the 2 pieces together and then used painter's tape to keep them together. As it was a pretty big sheet now I cut it down to 80cm tall by cutting first with the stanley knife and and then cutting with the plaster saw.

The stanley knife wasn't long enough to pass through the whole sheet, so I just used it as a way to create a cut for the plaster saw to follow. I used this for all of the cuts as a precaution as it would have been easy to stuff it up just using the saw.

Step 2: Start Drawing Lines

Knowing that the softbox is 72cm from edge to edge, I started by drawing a box in the centre of the foam that was 72cm square, then marked the horizontal centre line. The vertical centre was already marked by the join in the 2 pieces of foam.

I Googled how to draw an octagon and sensible people start with a circle, but I didn't have a compass lying around so decided to wing it. Given I knew how many cm it was between the flat edges and I had horizontal and vertical lines it was pretty straightforward.

To draw the star I roughly followed FrankTheTurk's instuctable: https://www.instructables.com/How-to-draw-a-5-point-star/. I still didn't have a compass to draw a circle, but did manage to find a protractor to measure the angles. You could guess these but I didn't want it to look wonky. I figured around 10cm into the octagon would be a good size for the star so it wasn't too close to the edges.

Step 3: Cut It All Out

I decided to cut the octagon shape first as it'd make cutting out the stars less awkward, so once again cut it with the stanley knife first and then the plaster saw. I used the metal ruler to guide the knife, but this could also be done by eye.

The 2 sides were split apart for this and it made cutting out the inner star shape really easy, although care still needs to be taken in the corners. Foam is both strong and fragile and it can snap easily.

After cutting them out I taped the 2 halves together again to check it fit in my softbox and it was perfect!

Step 4: Paint

When you're making your own light modifiers there are a couple of very important considerations:


  • colour cast

and

  • how light will reflect


We don't see colour casts with the naked eye very well, but a camera definitely does! So if you're using a coloured material you're inevitably going to see it turn up in your photos. My foam sheets were originally a pale blue and had already been painted black and white, but they needed fresh coats because they looked crappy and I didn't want the pale cut outs bouncing light around in a weird way and affecting the outline of the star.

So I painted the freshly cut areas thoroughly with matt black paint which will also seal the edges a bit and protect them from damage. I also put a bit of painter's tape over any holes and painted over it before recoating everything in black.

Step 5: Add Velcro (optional)

I tested the fit again and was very pleased, but did note that there were some gaps which could potentially let light escape. As there's already velcro on the inside of the softbox I added stick on velcro to the edges of the foam so it'll pull the edges in towards it and make it a tighter fit.

You can see in one of the photos how much of a difference it makes - one side has velcro, the other doesn't.

The glue on the stick on velcro is a bit rubbish and I'm assuming it'll pull away from the foam as soon as I pull the foam out of the softbox* as it's not very good quality stuff. I used some contact adhesive in spots where I thought it'd pull away the most, but have had mixed results with that so far (meaning I'm too impatient to let it set properly and there is glue everywhere right now).


* it did

Step 6: Let the Photography Begin!

This is both the easy part and the hard part. A bit of trial and error is required to get the angle of the subject's face and/or softbox right. The closer the softbox is to the subject the larger the star will be*, so keep this in mind when setting up the flash. I closed the curtains in the living room and used a dark grey curtain for the backdrop when I tried this the first time, this time it was in a dark studio with a black paper backdrop. Both work equally as well, although the studio is a lot easier to work in!

There's a bit of light being lost and the subject won't be evenly lit, so these need to be considered. For my first go at it I used a fairly wide aperture - f5.6 with a 105mm macro lens so I could get a detailed shot of my dog's eyes, but this also left the depth of field very shallow. Some people love this kind of look, but I'm not a big fan of losing so much detail. My speed light doesn't have a modelling light (a constant light on the flash that dimly illuminates the model so you can see where the light is pointing) either so there was a lot of guess work to get the positions of everything correct.

This time I used a 50mm lens and this flash has a modelling light so the shape could be seen reflected in my dog's eyes before the photo was taken. The aperture was set to f8 as there was plenty of light to play with, resulting in a deeper depth of field and more dog in focus. The ISO was on 200, shutter speed 1/180 second. I also took some at f16 and there was still plenty of light, but I liked the poses more from the first batch at f8.

I also played around with the lighting set up a bit. Initially it was the one light with the star modifier, but then I tried a reflector on the other side of the dog to fill in a bit of light, then added a second light with a grid on it to the right of the dog to fill it in even more. This was a bit tricky to do as it risked adding a octagonal catch light to their eyes as well and I can see it a bit in one of them but it's not too bad.

Ultimately this step is about playing around to get the look you're after :) Photography is a very creative endeavour, especially when you start adding in artificial light, so you can spend hours playing around with these things.



* my dogs are very used to this and will jump onto the platform as soon as the flashes turn on as they know they'll get a lot of treats and praise for their work

Step 7: Review Photos & Edit

As you can see in the camera the catch lights worked really well! After importing into Lightroom and doing some basic colour and exposure adjustments I pulled them into Photoshop for a quick tidy up. But they were pretty much exactly where I wanted them straight out of camera which is always very satisfying.

I'm planning on making a second one with a moon shape on it and seeing if I can have both star and moon in their eyes at the same time, that should be a fun one to try.

And that's it! If you have any questions please leave comments below, especially if some of the photography terms were confusing. Please also share your own versions of this if you end up making this too, I'd love to see what kind of variations could be made, as well as improvements on my own somewhat dodgy modifier design :)

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    30 Comments

    0
    AlishaW7
    AlishaW7

    4 days ago

    Very creative love it!!! I did a light box with styrofoam and it works great with my phone since I can't get a good camera like I want to. I love that I can also use a back drop easily enough in it for small items such as crochet and jewelry making. I also love doing stuff like this!!! This is a great idea thank you 😊

    20190204_153218~2.jpg
    0
    AlishaW7
    AlishaW7

    Reply 4 days ago

    Doing something like this with my boy's eyes would be awesome especially if it was something like sports they are playing doing a ball for that sport or something like that.

    0
    danthemakerman
    danthemakerman

    9 days ago

    This is very clever! Thanks for sharing.

    0
    huplescat
    huplescat

    Reply 5 days ago

    Thanks Dan :)

    0
    bas.kirmani
    bas.kirmani

    8 days ago

    A nice tutorial and a very photogenic dog!
    Love the fact that you upcycled your hencoop polystyrene. Well played!

    0
    huplescat
    huplescat

    Reply 5 days ago

    Thanks! I'm always happy when materials can be recycled, in this case it was being reused for a third time which is great when it's a material that never breaks down and is terrible for the environment.

    0
    CareyP6
    CareyP6

    10 days ago

    Nice idea and it works well. But, while fun, I think it is a bit over the top and makes the portrait a bit hokey. Maybe it's the subject and it would look better in the eyes of a performer with some excitement going on in the image. I think I'd water down the star effect so it was just a hit of a star and not so in yer face. Personal preference I'm sure! If ya like it, go for it!

    0
    ekearns
    ekearns

    Reply 7 days ago

    Interesting comment and it's written moderately well. But, while seemingly innocuous, I think it is a bit judgemental and makes me wonder why you wrote it. Maybe it's the word 'hokey', but it's not necessary to comment like this about projects that are not one's 'cup of tea'. I think I'd remove the opinion and stick to the bits about how you might use the technique so the comment isn't so "in yer face".

    "Personal preference" is a hint for what one should comment on. If ya don't like it, keep it to yourself!

    Signed,
    Keeping it Constructive.

    0
    CareyP6
    CareyP6

    Reply 7 days ago

    I agree. Thanks for the feedback.

    Carey

    0
    schreib
    schreib

    Reply 10 days ago

    basically true what you say, but, as an innovator, I see this as a transitional concept to something even better. Also, it is pretty amazing that the eye is SO perfect it can be used to such advantage.

    Just think of the ideas this can generate(in readers) for other possibly fantastic effects. Potentially, one could strategically place a sphere in a photo to effect surreal phenomenon.

    0
    huplescat
    huplescat

    Reply 10 days ago

    Exactly Schreib, it's about the concept more than anything else. I used my dogs as they're a captive audience, but it could be applied in a lot of creative ways :)

    I have a pet photography business but don't know if this would be of any use commercially as it's tricky to get it right and normal catch lights have a wider appeal.

    0
    justinayers
    justinayers

    10 days ago

    I have a suggestion. Instead of the thick styrofoam you used, try foamcore, which is readily available for use in signs/posters. It's thinner but still rigid enough for this application and it's used all the time in the motion picture industry as a lighting modifier. It's backed with paper on both sides with denser foam inside so it's way easier to cut and the edges will be crisp without shedding foam bits. You can buy foamcore that's already black on one side and white on the other, eliminating the need for any painting steps. You could also consider taping just one side of the seam between the foam pieces with 2" black gaffer's tape. That way you have a hinge you can use to fold for storage, like a V-flat.

    0
    huplescat
    huplescat

    Reply 10 days ago

    Foam core would work great! I've used it before for other lighting applications so am definitely a fan :)

    The one big benefit to the styrofoam sheets I used is that they're pretty tough - with only a small amount of care they're pretty bulletproof whereas foamcore can be a little more fragile. Foam core may also bend or sag eventually.

    In the short term this doesn't matter, but studio stuff doesn't always have an easy life, especially when it's being stored.

    I had a think about putting a hinge in this modifier, but because of the way the pieces join together I thought it might be a bit awkward ultimately. If you were using pieces of board that didn't have a join then the gaffa hinge would be great. A strip of strong fabric glued between the pieces would be good for longer term usage since gaffa tape ages terribly.

    0
    mmishko
    mmishko

    10 days ago

    Very good instructable. And kudos to dog for its patience. Until last April, mine was also a patient participant in endless testing and tinkering, taking place and posing as soon as I took the camera in my hands;)
    I suppose the corrugated cardboard would work, too, as an alternative material, maybe producing even less mess than XPS, and most people have a cardboard box or two around...
    It may be interesting to find out if the same method could be applied to a smaller setup, using the speedlight not as the main, but as an additional catch light. This of course would result in more than one catchlight, which can be seen in many portraits, especially those made out of studio, and may require more playing with positioning and intensity, but I believe it may produce interesting results once you get familiar with it. If it works, the advantage would be you'd need smaller templates, easier to make and store.
    With human models, such lights are often held by them, resulting in catchlights reflected in the lower half if the eye, which is arguably somewhat less pleasing, or just more unusual than we're used to, but there are many ways to position the light and align it to other ones.
    I'm just saying, since you said you plan to experiment more with this, so you may want to try this, too, while you're at it...

    0
    huplescat
    huplescat

    Reply 10 days ago

    Cardboard could definitely work and of course make much less mess! I just worked with what I had which is lots (and lots) of old chicken styrofoam, but it does have the benefit of being pretty robust so I know that even with a lot of use the star modifier would going to keep trucking for a long time.

    Using more than one light would be good fun as well, I'd like to have a moon cut out to complement the star and have them both facing the subject. I'm not going to use a speed light again for it though, it wasn't as powerful so the effect wasn't as polished. I have 2 big studio lights with the same softboxes so would just make more modifiers to fit that size :)

    0
    huplescat
    huplescat

    Reply 10 days ago

    Agreed! They're very patient :)

    0
    chefspenser
    chefspenser

    10 days ago

    Very nice job-I have also seen a cat's eye cutout work on a soft box, yielding a cats eye on models - gives that "Wait minute" effect. Cheers

    0
    huplescat
    huplescat

    Reply 10 days ago

    Oh very cool!

    0
    charlessenf-gm
    charlessenf-gm

    10 days ago

    Brilliant, amazing, and wonderful!

    Fifty years ago or so, I earned a dollar* at a Pet Grooming joint by coming in Tuesdays and setting up a small table with the camera at the one end and a spot for Spot at the other.

    As the groomers finished with a pooch, often including a little bow in (her?) elaborate and fresh coiffure, they would sit the pet on the spot.

    I would chortle or make some odd sound to get Spot's attention and press the shutter at the moment Spot tilted his head - presenting that "What?!" expression in response.

    I had my lights** set up, and reflections in their eyes, of course. But stars in their eyes!? No way! Genius!

    I wonder if "hearts? is a possibility?

    Now, that would sell like hot dogs!

    * The Artful Dodger - Fine Freelance Photography

    ** Big ole Stroboflash with a lawnmower battery and a couple of Honeywell slaves.