Home Photography Lighting Creative Ways to Use Hard Light in Photography

Creative Ways to Use Hard Light in Photography

8 min read

Its a shame that many photographers have come to fear the use of hard light in photography.

Why do they fear it? Because, they’ve been taught that soft diffused light is the only type of good lighting in photography.

Soft light is known for smoothing out imperfections and softening shadows within a photograph; traits which tend to make a photo look more appealing. Hard light in photography has been known as the enemy because it accentuates the shadows and imperfections within a photograph.

In this article, we’re going to teach you creative ways on how to use hard light in photography. After learning these tricks you’ll know how to achieve amazing photos with hard light that other photographers have never imagined capturing!

Now, onto the photography lighting tips!

Capture a Shadow Portrait

Most photographers focus too much on a direct subject and don’t think to capture the shadows it casts.

By using hard light in this way you can create stand-alone portraits of people or objects that tell a unique story. Take a look at the sample photos below and notice how hard light was used to create interesting shadow portraits. How did they do it? Its simple. By positioning a hard light so that it shines directly onto a subject which casts the shadow against a wall.

hard lighting in photography portrait
Photos by Rev Stan and floorvan

Use Heavy Shadows to Create Dramatic Looks

People love dramatic photos and hard light can help achieve this effect.

When your taking pictures always be on the look out for natural occurrences of hard light that’s casting dark shadows onto a scene.

A great time of day for hard light to occur from the sun is on a clear day between 12-2pm when its at its brightest and smallest size relative to the earth. Look for ways to use shadows cast by the sun to your advantage.

Capture unique shadows cast by objects as with the photo of the steps and handrail below and/or position your subject so that the shadows are a dominant part of the scene like the photo of the boy walking.

hard light dramatic look
Photos by fodt and orphanjones

Create the GOBO Effect

A photograph lighting trick with hard light that is often under utilized is using the “GOBO effect”.

The GOBO effect is when an object is is placed between the light and the subject and its shape is used to cast shadows on to the subject. Lots of things can be used to create a GOBO effect, including: window blinds, plant leaves, cardboard cutouts, screens, etc.

This trick can also be used with soft light but when using hard light in photography its best to use an item that creates clear and sharp outlines of the pattern. Samples of the GOBO effect are below.

hard light gobo-effect
Photos by GS+ and CEBImagery.com

Use Hard Photography Lighting to Show Off Textures in the Skin

Hard light can be used to show off the textures of the skin in a photograph.

You can achieve this lighting effect in photography by positioning your  hard light source to one the side of your subject, rather than straight on.

This positioning causes each ridge and texture in the skin to cast a hard shadow – emphasizing its details. Take a look at the photo below of the older person’s hand to see how effective this technique can be.

Showcasing the texture of the hand really emphasizes the age of this person. Hard light can also emphasize the muscles and strength of a person. The photo of the fighter below displays this effect. Positioning the hard light to the left side of the fighter creates shadows that emphasize his strength.

hard light texture
Photos by cogdogblog and Popphoto

Utilize a Strong Backlight

Another great use of hard light in photography is to use it as a backlight to make your subjects pop off the background.

In the photo of the couple below the photographer used the hard lighting within the scene to create a silhouette of the two people. You can also use hard light as a backlit rim light to create a dramatic portrait. The photo of the woman below can easily be accomplished with a flash triggered from behind the subject.

hard light backlight
Photos by Astragony and .ervin

We hope you enjoyed this tutorial on creative ways to use hard light in photography. Tell us which of the above is your favorite trick by commenting below!


  1. […] Creative Ways to Use Hard Light in Photography – a great article that details the difference between hard and soft light, and discusses how to use hard light as an advantage in some circumstances to create strong and compelling imagery.  A very well written piece, full of great tips and tricks. […]

  2. Vinko Jovanovac

    January 13, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Some rly nice ways (=

  3. Frankiebolo

    January 14, 2012 at 9:24 am

    My favourite is Utilizing a Strong Backlight
    Thanks for the tutorials

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