Hard Light vs Soft Light (Differences & How to Create them)
Photography is all about light, and that light has the quality of being either “hard” or “soft.”
Hard light vs. soft light is a choice that many novice photographers don’t realize they’re making, but a skilled photographer will know exactly which type of light they need and how to create it.
While we use the term “quality” to refer to both hard and soft light, it doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. It really depends on the mood you’re going for and the impact the light will have on the outcome.
So let’s take a look at the difference between hard light and soft light and when to use them to improve your photography in 2021.
What Is the Difference Between Hard and Soft Light?
- Hard Light
Hard light is light that contains very sharp, immediate transitions from highlights to shadows. The edges of the shadows will be very defined and “hard.”
There will also be a stark difference between the darkest and lightest areas of the image. The contrast between the two will be highly defined – you know exactly where the light stops and the shadows begin.
- Soft Light
In contrast, soft light transitions gradually from light to shadow. The greater the softness, the more gradual the transition. The edges of the shadows will be gentle and the light will seem to “wrap” around subjects.
The easiest way to distinguish hard light vs. soft light is to look at the transition between light and shadow in your scene.
Soft light also tends to be very even – the areas of contrast aren’t as harsh or striking.
- What creates hard and soft light?
The quality of your light will depend primarily on two factors:
- The distance between your subject and your light source, and
- The size of your light source
What You Need to Know About Hard Light
Hard light is much more difficult for beginners to work with, but has some very dramatic effects you just can’t get with soft light.
What is hard light used for?
Hard light is useful for creating a dark, dangerous, dramatic or mysterious mood, both in photography and in film.
The dark shadows can create a sense of mystery or unease. You can see this in horror films like The Silence of the Lambs, TV shows like The Twilight Zone, and film noir.
In portrait photography, hard light is often used for creative shadow patterns (see image above). It can also be used to connote danger or intensity in a portrait.
For example, if you want a sports player to look particularly formidable, harsh light can bring this out.
Just be aware, hard light is quite unflattering in the majority of portraits. It accentuates textures and details of your subject – including pimples, wrinkles and other skin imperfections you just don’t want to be exaggerated.
Also, it’s rarely used with women unless you’re wanting them to look particularly formidable.
The exception to this is using hard light as a hair light or rim light. In three-point lighting, this light is used from behind to help differentiate the subject from the background. (You don’t need three lights to use this effect…)
Outdoors, photographers will use hard light when shooting landscapes and cityscapes when they want a scene of high contrast and/or intend to convert to black and white.
It’s also a favorite of street photographers, as capturing people walking in and out of hard-edged shadows can create some mesmerizing effects.
Architecturally speaking, hard light can create some great shadow patterns, both in indoor spaces and outdoors.
In essence, use hard light if:
- the story you’re telling has a sense of danger, mystery, intensity or drama
- the shadows are the primary focus
- you’re shooting in black and white
- you want to set your subject off from the background
Now let’s take a closer look at how you actually create this type of light in photography.
How do you create hard light?
Hard light is created (or found) when the light source is both smaller and farther away.
In outdoor photography, the naked sun high in the sky will create hard light. This is one reason why most landscape photographers shoot closer to sunrise and sunset on clear days.
However, if you’re wanting harsher light (e.g. in street photography), an unimpeded sun at high noon and the hours before and after will be your best source of hard light.
Is sunlight ‘hard’ all the time? No, the sun can provide both hard light and soft light depending on the time of day and if anything stands between the light and the subject.
Inside, window light can be hard if it’s through naked glass (i.e. no curtain of any type) and if the sun is positioned directly outside the window.
The easiest way to create hard light (when not using the sun) is to use flash photography. Naked flash and strobes, in particular, are an extraordinarily harsh light source. You’ll need to be very careful where and how you place them, however, since hard light is not very forgiving.
An on-camera flash at full strength rarely looks good. Instead, try placing your light source away from the camera so you can better craft where the shadows will land.
For example, placing the light source at 90 degrees to one side will create a very defined line down the middle of the face. (See photo below.)
Another way of both creating and controlling hard light is to attach a light modifier that narrows the light beam. Snoots, barn doors, and grids all work great for this.
A gridspot is especially useful for this and will work in conjunction with any speedlight or monolight.
What are the pros & cons of hard light?
- Intensifies the mood of a photo
- Creates interesting shadow patterns
- The high contrast looks great in black and white
- Accentuates skin imperfections
- Creates a harshness that is often unflattering
- The distinct shadows require a high degree of precision when using lighting modifiers
Now let’s look at some ways you can utilise a harder light source to your advantage.
7 Tips for using hard light
1. Use a flash – If you’re in the studio, try using a strobe or other form of flash rather than continuous light. Continuous light can make your subject squint.
2. Go for the shadows – Hard light creates fantastic shadows, so incorporate them into your subject, either alone or as part of the overall scene.
3. Convert to black and white – The high contrast in hard light looks much better in black and white than it does in color.
4. Use the “Gobo Effect” – Let the hard light pass through something (i.e. bars, a grid, etc.) to create an interesting pattern on your subject. If you’re in the studio, you can use an actual gobo but if you’re outside there are plenty of “hole-y” things around to pass light through.
5. Set your subject off from the background – Use it as a backlit rim light to make your subjects pop off the background.
6. Use a black background – If you want something truly dramatic, try using a black background while doing in-studio portrait photography. It will make some parts of your subject fall into shadow, while other parts simply pop. The end result is a dramatic portrait with added dimension.
7. Watch your shadows – Hard light is all about hard shadows, but not all shadows are created equally. Good shadows help define the features and form of a subject. Not-so-great shadows inhibit the form, creating black swaths where there shouldn’t be any (like right under the nose).
What You Need to Know About Soft Light
With soft light, it’s much easier to create flattering images. Let’s answer some of the most common questions surrounding this forgiving light source.
What is soft light used for?
Soft light is used for just about everything. From landscapes to portraits to products, soft light makes everything look good.
It’s the light source of choice for portrait photography. In most circumstances, soft light is far more flattering to the face and body. It makes skin imperfections less noticeable, and generally provides a warm, inviting feeling.
Regarding mood or story, soft light is ideal for communicating ideas such as happiness, innocence, beauty, or glamour in your pictures. It’s also helpful when you’re wanting something to come across as more neutral, as hard light adds intensity.
When using lighting systems in the studio, soft light is ideal when used as an additional fill to flush out unintended shadows cast by other light sources.
It’s also the ideal type of light for videos without a high degree of suspense or drama.
How do you find or create soft light?
Soft light comes from light sources that are large (relative to the subject) and close to the subject. It also occurs when the light is filtered through a diffusion material like gauze, silk, or a diffusion gel.
Outside, the sun provides soft light on overcast days or when it’s low in the sky.
When working with window light, place some white or nearly transparent window hangings over the glass and you’ll also get some fantastic soft light. You can also wait until the sun isn’t directly outside the window.
Softboxes, umbrellas, and beauty dishes are all fantastic sources of soft light.
You can also use scrims, diffusion gels, or other materials that spread light out when it passes through.
When photographing smaller objects (e.g. product photography), a light box is often used. It has diffusion material on all sides except the front.
Inside or outside, you can also bounce a flash off a white wall, a bounce card, or anything else white, silver, or gold. This will spread the light out over a larger surface area and thereby soften the light.
What are the pros & cons of soft light?
- Almost all subjects look beautiful in soft light
- Much more forgiving than hard light
- Reduces the noticeability of skin blemishes
- Not a great choice if you want drama, intensity, or tension in your scene
- No strong contrast
Now let’s look at a few ways you can use softer light to your advantage.
4 Tips for using soft light
1. Outside, avoid the unimpeded noon sun – For soft light during outdoor shooting, wait until the sun is lower in the sky or its light is diffused by clouds.
2. Inside, invest in a softbox or umbrella – These lighting modifiers will really revolutionize your indoor photography, especially when working with people – read our guide to softbox lighting kits for some affordable options.
3. Don’t forget about diffusion – If you’re not wanting to invest in professional light modifiers, keep an eye out for materials that provide diffusion. This can be anything from clouds in the sky to professional silks, nearly transparent drapes, or a diffusion gel.
How Can I Change the Quality of a Hard Light to Be a Softer Light?
It’s really quite easy to change hard light to soft when using studio lighting.
The difference between hard and soft depends first of all on the size of your light source and its distance relative to the subject. Moving the light source closer to your subject will soften the light. Using a larger light will also help.
You can also attach a softbox or umbrella to your light source or add some kind of diffusion material to it
Finally, bouncing the light onto your subjects using reflectors, white card, or even a white wall will spread the light out and add some softness.
Hard light vs soft light – which one should you use? Well that all depends on what look and feel you want in your shot.
Adept photographers will be comfortable using both, as there’s a time and a place for each.
Also, if you’re a natural light photographer, you’ll need to be able to work with what you’ve got, and this take practice and experience.
That being said, softer light will probably be most photographers’ light-type of choice.
What do you think?
Usnea Lebendig is a travel and landscape photographer who loves trekking in the wilderness, exploring other cultures, and using photography for social activism.