Animal eyes reflect light differently than human eyes. The breed and species of an animal, the angle of the eye itself, and how convex (spherical) the eye actually is are all elements that determine where the catchlights in the eye fall relative to where the light sources are placed.
If a dog’s head is facing directly toward the camera and the main light source is close to the camera, the catch lights will most often both reflect from the very inner part of each eye near the nose rather than a more central location as you see in human eyes.
If we move the light source to the side for more directional light, and the dog’s head is angled or tilted, the catchlight in the eye closest to the main light will be near the center of the eye, typically around the edge of the pupil area. The eye farther from the main light will have just a small portion of a catchlight tucked up into the upper corner of the eye near the bridge of the nose or may have no catchlight at all.
It’s important to note that the shape of the catchlight itself can differ as well. If the light is coming from a large source like a large soft box, window, or the sky, the catchlight will look like the shape of the source, much like in a human eye. However, the smaller and more round the light source, the more the catch light will look like a bright dot.
Cats’ eyes reflect catchlights in a way that falls between those of a dog and a human because cat eyes are not as convex as a dog’s, and their faces have a depth similar to humans’. Be aware that cats’ pupils can change size and shape relative to the light itself, so there will always be slight variations depending on the breed as well as the light source.
Some birds and other exotic pets, especially nocturnal animals that have bulging eyes set a bit more to the side but still forward facing, typically have catchlights that form in a ridge or long shape along the line of the bulge of the eye, either on the top or to the side, depending on where the main light source is coming from.
In most cases, with animals that have very convex eyes located on the sides of the face like rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, you’ll see the catchlight in only one eye. You’ll get more pleasing results by photographing them with their head at a slight angle. If photographed head-on, there often won’t be any catch lights showing at all. This typically holds true for horses as well.
Most dogs’ and cats’ eyes refract color much better than a human’s eye. Examples are the beautiful ice blue color of a husky’s eye or the stunning green-gold eyes of a cat. Though viewers may think the eye color has been boosted in Photoshop or overworked, animal eye color can be truly vibrant.
As animals age, their eyes develop nuclear sclerosis, much like a human’s eyes. By about the age of 7, many animals’ eyes begin to get cloudy. It’s not the same as cataracts but produces a similar look. Due to the convex nature of an animal’s eyes, the cloudiness is more visually prominent when any light source is aimed at the eyes, as the eye has more area for the light to pass through.
When you think of how you want to edit or not edit the catchlights in your pet portraits, consider the viewer. For clients, you likely won’t need to edit catchlights, or only slightly edit them, because pet’s eyes will look natural to the owner. However, in photographic competition or portfolio review for certified professional photographer credentials, not all jurors and reviewers closely examining the image may be familiar with how animal eye catchlights are different from those in human portraits. In fact, traditionally, pet photographers have edited catchlights to resemble those of human subjects for competition images. This situation is in a state of change as more jurors and reviewers find common ground on critiquing animal eye catchlights, so make your own choices based on your photographic vision and the intended audience for the image.
Angela Lawson is the owner of AGL Photography, Grand Rapids, Michigan.