Photography - Knowledge

Soft Light vs. Hard Light: Know the Difference and Learn How to Use It

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The key to get that perfect shot is the lighting. The perfect light can move the people emotionally and makes it extraordinary. A picture should, of course, have enough lighting but it is the quality of light that gives the picture a new life. As a photographer, it is crucial to understand the various qualities of light. The hard and soft light produce such varied results that a lot of photographers spend hours to understand it. In general, you would want pictures shot in soft light and to achieve that you can adopt various ways. The easiest way to do it is by shooting on a cloudy day or by bouncing the light off a surface. When it comes to soft light vs. hard light, you would see that a few photographers who completely disapprove of shooting in hard light.

However, a few others use all kinds of lighting so as to create a completely different picture. Let’s take a look at what these both types of lighting are and how you can use them in your pictures. 

Understanding Soft Light and Hard Light

Let's know what difference lighting can make to your photos. Also, understand the science behind soft light and hard light.

What is Soft Light in Photography

The soft light comes from a large source of light which is relative to the subject. The light is diffused and casts very few shadows. One great soft light photography example would be the kind of lighting on very cloudy days. Everything seems to be evenly lit. This happens because the clouds work as large softbox. The softboxes are used when clicking pictures as a very small source of light. The closer you bring the light source to the subject, the softer and larger the quality of light will be. This is the reason why the light seems to appear softer as the sun gets closer to the horizon. 

The soft light is usually regarded as more flattering and friendly for the subjects. This is why it is often used in corporate work and in portrait photography. The result that it produces is meant to be warm and welcoming. 

What is Hard Light in Photography

When talking about soft light vs. hard light, most beginners often wonder as to what is hard light in photography. The hard light comes from a very small or a distant light source. In simpler words, a single-point light source which is aimed from a distance would be a hard light. This light leads to very hard shadows which can create deep contrast in the pictures. This happens because the light is direct and doesn’t really scatter as compared to the diffused light. The subjects that are lit with hard light seem to have very defined and sharp edges. The transition between the highlights and the shadows creates this effect.  

A very common example of a hard light situation would be a bright and clear sunny afternoon. Of course, the sun is a large source of light but as it is far away from the Earth during the noon, it acts as a small light. The streetlight during the night would be another great example. 

soft light vs hard light
Soft Light vs Hard Light (source)

Soft Light vs. Hard Light

When comparing between, soft light vs hard light, you would notice that hard light isn’t often preferred by most photographers because it is seen as more dramatic. This kind of light is also much more complicated to work with. This happens because of the contrasty nature of the images. But, if you figure out the way to work with it, it can produce fabulous results. The soft light, on the other hand, is what preferred by most people. The light tends to be flatter in contrast and the highlights hold more detail. This makes the shadow’s edges soft and open.

How to Create a Setup for Hard Light Shoot? 

To create a studio setup for the hard light shoot, you would need to place the main light (it could be a strobe head with a 12” modifier) towards the left and a teeny bit behind the subject. The light that you get might be very broad. You would, therefore, need to concentrate the light a bit which can be done by adding a 35-degree grid to the modifier. 

You could make a few adjustments to the position and height of the main light until you get the desired lighting. The idea here is to use the light in such a way that it appears pleasing in the final picture. You could even consider placing a black sheet towards the right of the setup so as to accentuate the shadows and get rid of any unwanted reflections. 

Other than that, white sheets could be used in front of either side to have control over the amount of detail. A second strobe light could be used at the back of the setup to illuminate the background. It depends on the kind of picture that you wish to capture. 

hard light setup
Hard Light setup (source)

Basic Setup for a Soft Light Shoot

For the soft light setup, the main light is to remain in the same place as it was with the hard light. However, this time you would be using a 4’x4′ full diffusion panel between the light and your subject. The grid that was placed in the main light should be removed for a broader light. The black sheet would be replaced by a white sheet to fill in the shadows. Next, you could pull the background light a bit and add a diffusion disk to soften the beam and cover the background. This would give you a softer and brighter setup with a lot of ambient light to fill the picture. 

soft light setup
Soft light setup (source)

How to Change Hard Light into Soft Light? 

You might have spent quite a lot of time in setting up your lights and in achieving that perfect setup. But, later you realize that it is not what you want. You don’t need to worry as it is possible to change one type of light source into the other. 

A hard light can be made into a soft one by simply placing a diffusion material between the subject and the lighting. This would give you the chance to control the light and the angle. Using a softbox is another option which you can take advantage of. The softbox would soften the light and make it broader. 

If you wish to go the opposite way and change the soft source to a hard one, simply change the distance of light from the subject. This would produce a more focused and harder light. Light could be bounced around with the help of umbrellas or reflectors to soften up the light

Summing Up 

When it comes to soft light vs. hard light, you as a photographer need to be flexible and should be able to handle both efficiently. You should have an idea in mind for the kind of picture that you want but it is quite obvious that the product would look different in different lighting conditions. 

As a photographer, you should try to play around with different lights. At times combining the hard and soft light can produce stunning results. Keep practicing and sooner or later you would definitely get amazing results. 

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