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Hard vs Soft Light: A Beginners Guide.


Choosing a light modifier can be a daunting task when you're faced with so many options. Beauty dish, ring flash, umbrella, softbox, grids, scrims, flags; things can get overwhelming fast. The type of modifier you should use will depend on the results you're looking to achieve in a shoot, as each light modifier produces either soft light or hard light.  In this article, we'll review the difference between hard and soft light as well as a few basic things to consider when determining which light is right for your project. 

Hard Light vs Soft Light

All modifiers can be placed into hard or soft light categories. The size of the light source relative to your subject will also determine which effect is achieved. 

Soft light tends to come from a large source in which the light "wraps" around the subject. The shadows are diffused with very soft edges, perfect if you're looking to minimize or soften the shadows in your image. Soft light is also great as a fill light source as it can reduce existing shadows without creating additional ones. It produces less contrast and works for reducing the appearance of wrinkles and making the skin look more youthful. Softboxes, octaboxes, umbrella softboxes and shoot through umbrellas are all considered soft light modifiers.

Hard light comes from a small source and is more focused and controlled. The shadows are more dramatic, have harder edges and produce more contrast. Hard light is useful for creating edgy looks or adding more drama to a shot. Some outdoor situations may require hard light when attempting to overpower the sun or balance ambient and natural light. It's often used in sports, action, and fitness photography as well as some product photography. Beauty dish, narrow/wide reflectors, ring light or magnum reflectors are all considered hard light modifiers. 

Things To Consider When Choosing a Modifier

What's the creative direction or desired mood of the shoot? 

You won't know how to build your light if you don't have a good understanding of the shoot concept. Are you creating images with a happy, bright, airy mood? Or something more punchy and dramatic? The lighting style for a carefree lifestyle shoot would look very different from an aggressive fitness shoot. 

What kind of light do you want to replicate? 

Do you want to mimic 2 pm sun or a cloudy day? Matching the quality of natural light is a good rule of thumb if your mixing ambient light with strobes. For example, hard light conditions like the full sun can pair well with a hard light modifier such as a beauty dish or a softbox would look better on overcast days and early morning light.

What are the physical characteristics of your subject?

If photographing a person, what's the condition of the skin? Softlight tends to be more forgiving on a more textured skin or someone with more wrinkles. If shooting a product or object what are the characteristics of the surface? Is it highly reflective or has a matte finish? Hard lighting can make a matte surfaced product pop more. 

These aren't hard, fast rules but good fundamental concepts to begin with. Our upcoming lighting 101 class covers this topic in depth. To learn more about what the course offers, click the button below.