Home Photography Lighting Hard Light vs Soft Lighting in Photography

Hard Light vs Soft Lighting in Photography

9 min read

Have you ever heard of the terms “hard light” and “soft light” in photography?

If not, we’re going to teach you about these two types of photography lighting techniques.

When you take a photograph inside or outside the scene must be illuminated by light in order to capture the photo. Light comes in two forms: hard light and soft light. Depending on which type of lighting is in your scene will greatly affect how your photo looks. We’ll begin by introducing the gray zone.

Understanding the Gray Zone

In every photography lighting situation there’s a variation of light between the brightest and darkest areas. This gradient of light is what photographers call the “gray zone”. Depending on what type of lighting is in the scene, hard or soft, determines how harsh the transition is within this gray zone.

hard lighting in photography versus soft light seir soft light photography
Hard light photo by Robbie W T Soft light photo by seier+seier

Hard Light

Hard light casts hard shadows and creates high contrast within an image.

There is not much of a gray zone in these photos. You see this type of light when you are outside on a very sunny day. Imagine looking at a building where the side facing the sun is illuminated while the opposite side is in shadow.

Soft Light

Soft light wraps around a subject and fills in the shadows creating low contrast within an image.

There is a lot of gray zone in these photos. You see this type of light when you are outside on a cloudy day. Imagine looking at a building where all sides are evenly illuminated.

What Causes a Light to be Hard or Soft?

There is only one thing that causes hard lighting or soft lighting in photography. And, that is the size of the light source relative to the subject. Its not how bright the light source is or how much it has been diffused. Its all about its size. The bigger the light, the softer it becomes.

A large light source wraps light around a smaller subject and fills in the shadows. This also lowers the contrast and creates a slow transition of dark to bright areas in the gray zone.

A small light source directs light onto a larger subject creating hard shadows and high contrast which also results in a fast transition of dark to bright in the gray zone. Sometimes a light can be so hard that there is no gray zone transition whatsoever!

rawb hard light vs soft light photography seir soft light photography
Hard light – Small light source, Large subject
Photo by Shortcourses
Soft light – Large light source, Small subject
Photo by Shortcourses

A Detailed Example

Here’s an example to help you understand the difference between hard lighting vs soft lighting in photography:

Imagine the sun shining light on a landscape scene. The sun is a small dot in the sky compared to the wide open landscape, which makes the sunlight is hard. This results in photos with dark shadows and bright highlights without much of a gray zone in between.

Now imagine a cloudy day. The clouds act as a diffuser for the sun and spread the light causing it to be bigger than the landscape below. The shadows are filled in and there is a larger gray zone in between the shadows and highlights. Sometimes if the light is diffused enough you may not see any change of brightness/darkness in the gray zone because the subject is evenly lit.

Creating Hard Light and Soft Light in Photography

You’ll find that some photos look better using hard light while others look best with soft light.

This is especially true in portrait photography.

Most photographers prefer soft light in portraits because its more flattering. Soft light helps to smooth out the skin and hide imperfections. The light is even across the subject. Hard light, on the other hand, draws attention to imperfections because you see dark shadows in these areas.

kevin-dooley soft light photography kevin-dooley soft light photography
Soft light portrait by Kevin Dooley Soft light portrait by okko

There are two ways to soften a light source:

  1. Move the light closer to the subject – the closer the light the more its illuminated
  2. Use a reflector or diffuser – these accessories spread the light making it larger. Examples include using an umbrella to reflect the light or flash and/or using a large softbox light.

And, two ways to harden a light source:

  1. Move the light farther from the subject – the farther away the light the less the subject is illuminated
  2. Use a bare bulb or bare bulb flash – without a reflector or diffuser the light is smaller and more pointed

We hope you enjoyed these photography lighting tips on hard light vs soft light in photography. Leave a comment below and tell us what type of lighting you prefer to use!


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