If you’re into photography, you might have heard the terms ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ light before. Light is an essential tool within photography as it can dramatically change the outcome of your pictures.
Those that prefer pictures with lots of contrast might prefer hard, or harsh, lighting. On the other hand, those who like to take flattering portraits, like boudoir photographers, may favor softer lighting. But what do these terms mean?
In a nutshell, hard, or harsh light, creates lots of shadows and contrast. This lighting can be tough to work with, especially for beginners. However, it creates bold and distinct effects that can’t be recreated with soft light.
Soft light is the opposite of harsh light. Instead of lots of contrast, the shift from light and dark is more gentle. Soft light is known to blur out imperfections and invoke a warmer atmosphere, which is why it’s often used in portrait photography.
You’ll find out more about the differences between hard light and soft light in this article. You’ll also learn what the two techniques involve, as well as how to create hard and soft light in your photography.
What Is Harsh/Hard Light In Photography?
Hard lighting produces visible shadows with a distinct jump between dark and light areas. This is often seen in film noir and horror films, as it creates a darker, brooding, and mysterious mood.
Hard lighting does look dramatic, but it can be unflattering. It can make imperfections like skin texture, wrinkles, and acne stand out.
If hard light is used in portrait photography, it can make the subject look powerful and intense. This can be a great choice for athletes and authors, but it may not be the best lighting for children or political figures – though this does depend on the person in question.
Hard lighting can make people look intense, but there is a way to reduce this effect and keep some contrast within the picture. This is done by using the hard light as a rim (or hair) light.
A rim light is used within three-point lighting. It is placed behind so that the subject doesn’t fade into the background, but you don’t need the other two lights for this effect.
By using hard light as a rim light, you still achieve shadows and contrast, but the person is still illuminated well.
Overall, hard light is great for creating intense shadows, black and white photography, or creating dramatic effects within your photos.
How To Create Hard Light
Hard light is often created by putting a light source further away from your subject, or closer to it. For instance, hard light is seen outside during the midday sun. The sun’s light is high in the sky and creates lots of shadows.
This can be great for street photography, but landscape photographers may prefer shooting when the sun is lower, as it creates fewer shadows.
One easy way to manually create hard light is through a flash. Flash and strobe lights produce lots of harsh light, but they aren’t as flattering, so keep that in mind when using them.
Camera flashes aren’t the best when placed in front of a subject, but you can experiment with their placement to see what shadows it creates.
Positioning the light at a right angle to the subject will produce a distinct shadow in the center of a face. You could also try narrowing the light beam to create larger shadows. Grid spots do this well and work with several monolights and speedlights.
What Is Soft Light In Photography?
Soft light envelops a subject so that areas of light and dark meld into each other. There isn’t much contrast, but it creates a gentle and inviting mood. As soft light is so flattering, it’s often used in portraits, landscapes, and even product photography.
Unlike soft light can blur out skin imperfections to convey beauty, happiness, and alluring qualities in pictures. If you’re shooting an impartial subject or want to create a neutral mood, use soft lighting. Hard light works well at adding drama and intensity, but you can work with soft light so it meets your preferences.
You can use soft light among other lighting tools in a studio. For instance, if your main lighting sources are causing unwanted shadows on your subject, you can use soft light as a fill. This will reduce the amount of contrast and eliminate any darker areas, which can look more flattering.
Overall, soft light is great for blurring out imperfections, creating a warm or romantic mood, and shooting neutral photography.
How To Create Soft Light
Soft light is produced from larger light sources that are placed nearer the subject. You can also create soft light by filtering it through thin material, like gauze, net, or diffusion gel.
Indoors, white or translucent material placed over a window can create soft light. Soft light is seen outdoors when the sun is lower in the sky or on an overcast day, as the clouds filter any harsh sunlight.
If you’re working with windows, drape the glass with white fabric or diffusion material. The light filtered through this will look much more gentle than if it shone through clear glass. If you have more time, you can wait until the sun is lower in the sky, like sunrise or sunset.
Other tools you can use for soft light include softboxes, beauty dishes, and even umbrellas! Diffusion gels also work well, but if you don’t have this available, smearing petroleum jelly across a lens recreates this hazy effect.
If you’re shooting a smaller subject, like hand or product photography, opt for a lightbox. This will be draped in diffusion material, except the front, so you can take the picture.
Lastly, you can use a white wall or bounce card to reflect camera flashes. This will soften the light by diffusing it over a greater surface. This can be done both indoors and outdoors, as long as the material is white, silver, or gold.
The Bottom Line
Hard light and soft light have many differences. The one you use will depend on your preferences and photography style. More experienced photographers will generally have experience using both types, as they can create a greater variety of pictures by using them.
Softer lighting can create a gentle mood, but they’re also better for neutral subjects. Hard lighting produces too much contrast, so it’s typically only used for dramatic or intense photography.
The tips above will help you recreate hard and soft light at home, but if you don’t have many tools available, natural light is your best friend! If the sun is high in the sky and creates lots of shadows, you can practice shooting in hard light. On the other hand, sunrise, sunset, or a cloudy sky gives you the chance to shoot in soft light.
You might start to prefer one lighting style over another, but it’s always best to practice with both lighting types, as this will make you a more versatile photographer.