How do we convey an emotion or feeling from a character without changing the overall mood of the scene? Some subtle eye light may help!
Describing an emotion visually in an image or scene can often be multi-layered; we tend to use focal length, camera movement, color, and lighting to communicate and emphasize how we want our audience to interpret the feelings in a scene—or the emotions of our character within that scene.
Generally, when using lighting, we might use light to create an overall mood. But we can dive in a little deeper and use something as subtle as catchlights in the eye to further depict how our character is feeling in a close-up—or how they’re perceived.
No Eye Light
Here, our subject is shrouded in darkness—we can barely make out the features of his face.
This was lit from above, with our subject sitting just forward of the light spread to create a shadow on the face. We also had another light bouncing from the ceiling to fill in the shadows on the front, just a little—you can about see the eyes, and they look lifeless.
Since there aren’t any catchlights in the eyes, it’s hard to feel any emotion from our subject, and we may be left to interpret it ourselves through the music or the context surrounding the scene. The lack of catchlights might suggest any number of things—unfamiliarity, blankness, danger—a feeling of mystery or ambiguity.
Small, Central Eye Light
Let’s add a catchlight into the eyes while trying not to change the exposure on the face too much.
We did this by attaching a small pocket LED panel just above our camera, with the brightness on the pocket LED turned right down.
Compared to the scenario with no catchlights, we’re now getting more of a feeling from our character, just from his eyes. Since the light source is small, the catchlights are small, and the position of the light by the camera places the catchlights quite central in the eyes. It’s direct—and we can feel this directness from our character. It almost feels aggressive.
Small, High Eye Light
What if we moved our catchlight a touch higher?
We boomed our pocket LED just above and in front of our subject to achieve this.
Compared to the previous catchlights, it still feels like our character comes from a place of strength, but maybe somewhat less aggressively. This could feel reassuring in the right situation—like strength in the darkness.
You can see how changing the placement of the catchlight has changed our feelings toward the character.
Small, Low Eye Light
Let’s move the catchlight down to the lower part of the eye.
For this setup, we placed our pocket LED on the floor below our subject.
Compared to our previous catchlight scenario, we’ve brought back that aggressive feeling from the centrally placed catchlights. Still, placing them in an unnatural position toward the bottom of the eye now feels much less like human aggression and something more devoid of humanity. It looks a bit scarier.
Notice how simply changing the position of our catchlights changes our perception of the character. Even though our overall lighting remains similar between each shot, the feeling of the image changes.
Large, Low Eye Light
We can even experiment with changing the eye’s catchlight size.
Here, we placed some bleached muslin material on the floor in front of our subject to reflect into the lower part of the eyes.
Compared to the minor source, we’ve introduced a little more light to the face, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed.
The larger catchlights bring more emotion to the eyes, and although our character still appears somewhat angry, he also seems more determined—more human.
Large, High Eye Light
Let’s move these larger catchlights to the top of the eyes.
We boomed a large gridded octabox above our subject to achieve this.
Compared to our smaller catchlights at the top of the eyes, we have an overall softer look to our character’s face. This isn’t just because the light at the beginning itself is slightly different.
If we focus on how the eyes feel, we might get a somewhat gentler feeling from our character with larger catchlights. He doesn’t feel quite as strong—there’s a feeling of vulnerability.
Catchlights can often go overlooked—or just used as a practical way to get some light into the eyes. But they can also work as a subtle tool to create and exaggerate feeling and emotion in your character and image, setting the tone for the ideas contained within the scene that your audience can pick up on in a more subconscious way.
For more lighting and cinematography inspiration visit the blog posts below!