Surrounding lights reflect in eyes to form small white dots called specular highlights. The shape, color and location of these highlights tell us quite a bit about the lighting.
In 2006 a photo editor contacted me about a picture of American Idol stars that was scheduled for publication in his magazine (above). The specular highlights were quite different (insets).
The highlight position indicates where the light source is located (above left). As the direction to the light source (yellow arrow) moves from left to right, so do the specular highlights.
The highlights in the American Idol picture are so inconsistent that visual inspection is enough to infer the photograph has been doctored. Many cases, however, require a mathematical analysis. To determine light position precisely requires taking into account the shape of the eye and the relative orientation between the eye, camera and light. The orientation matters because eyes are not perfect spheres: the clear covering of the iris, or cornea, protrudes, which we model in software as a sphere whose center is offset from the center of the whites of the eye, or sclera (above right).
Our algorithm calculates the orientation of a person’s eyes from the shape of the irises in the image. With this information and the position of the specular highlights, the program estimates the direction to the light. The image of the American Idol cast (above; directions depicted by red dots on green spheres) was very likely composed from at least three photographs.