What you need to know about hard light and soft light

By Nicole Tinkham

What you need to know about hard light and soft light

You don’t have to be a photographer for lighting to make an impact on your artwork. Whether you’re doing a photo shoot, taking reference photos or setting up a still life, it’s important to get the lighting just right. We know how complicated and frustrating lighting can get especially when working outside. That’s why we’re taking it step by step starting with the two main types of light: hard and soft. Here’s what you need to know about the two and how to achieve each look.

What is hard light?

Hard light produces a great amount of contrast with bright light and dark shadows. You can often see defined lines where the shadows are. You can remember hard light by thinking about the hard edges created by shadows. Use this type of lighting for a harsher look.

How to achieve hard light

To obtain a harsh contrast between light and dark, you can do one of two things. You can use the sun, in which case you’ll have to determine what direction you want the light to come from and schedule your photo shoot or art session accordingly. Really think about how you want the light shining on your subject. Do you want the light source coming down right over top of the subject? Do you want your model gazing into the sunset? When it comes to natural light, it’s all about timing. A cloudless day is PERFECT for hard lighting.
And of course you can always use studio lighting to achieve the harsh look as well. You can use a flash, a bare bulb (light without a shade) or spotlight to do this. Remember that the closer the subject it to the light, the harsher the contrast will be.

What is soft light?

Soft light is the exact opposite of hard light, producing soft shadows that seamlessly blend into light areas (unlike the harsh edges mentioned previously). You can think of it as light that wraps around the subject. The shadows are so gradual that you can’t make out where they begin and where they end. Soft light is ideal for portraits because it’s a flattering light on anyone.

The power of natural lighting

Soft light is best achieved in natural lighting which can be a little tricky sometimes. You don’t have as much control over natural lighting as you do with studio lighting but when you get it just right, the results are incredible. Here are a few things to keep in mind when going after a soft look with natural light:

Open shade
Open shade is something to be aware of when working by a building or something of the sort. The side of the building opposite the sun will produce something known as open shade. When working in open shade, your subject should face outward (not toward the building) to achieve shadows without the harshness.

Clouds are an excellent way to achieve a soft light but you can’t always count on them. When it’s a little overcast, make the most of it.

It is possible to achieve a soft natural light without going outside. You can set your photo shoot up in front of a north facing window and diffuse the light if needed with a white curtain.

Soft boxes

Soft boxes are another way to achieve a soft light. The further away you go and the LARGER the light source, the softer the light will be.

What you need to know

Basically, hard light is hard shadows that can be achieved when the light source is smaller than the subject. You can easily see where the shadows begin. Soft light produces shadows that blend into the light areas and is achieved when the light source is larger than the subject. You cannot determine where the shadows begin with soft lighting.

As far as which type of light to use, it all depends on the look you’re going for. Hard light is very dramatic and can be difficult to get just right. When done right, however, it can be very powerful. As mentioned, portraits are best done with soft light as it’s flattering on anyone. Soft light gives an overall softer look.

Lighting seems to be a never ending topic from warm vs cool, natural vs studio lighting, angles, and more. We know that our minds were spinning when doing the research on lighting. This mini guide on hard vs soft light is short and simple for a reason. It gives you just enough information to start playing around with different lighting. Stay tuned for further blogs on the topic to expand your lighting knowledge.

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