Soft Light vs Hard Light: theory & practice

If Photography is the Art of Capturing Light, recognising its nature is crucial to convey the right emotion.  In this episode, I give you a thorough explanation of what Soft & Hard Lights are starting with some theory and followed by the real life experiment.


Prelude:

The intro was shot at the Lauriston Castle near Edinburgh. You can find all the details about this amazing place here: Lauriston Castle

Many more videos will be shot there in the future, and I will try to share with you its magic.


The Theory:

When one mentions the nature of Light, one often refers to its characteristic, being either Soft or Hard (Harsh).

What is a Soft Light?

A Soft Light is a light which wraps the subject, illuminating highly contrasted shadows in the process. Instead one ends up with a nice gradient of tone from the brightest to the least. Like below:

Portrait where soft lighting is used

Portrait where soft lighting is used

Portrait where soft lighting is used

Portrait where soft lighting is used

Photo with natural soft lighting

Photo with natural soft lighting

Landscape photo with natural soft lighting

Landscape photo with natural soft lighting

What is a Hard Light?

Well, it is simply the opposite. It is a light which produces strong & contrasted shadows which are easy to trace the contour of. Here are a few examples:

Portrait with some hard light

Portrait with some hard light

Portrait with some hard light

Portrait with some hard light

 

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How to obtain a Soft Light?

There are two factors which lead to a Soft Light: distance of the Light source to the subject & size of the Light source to the subject.

Distance od the Light source to the subject:

The closer the Light source is to the subject the softer the Light is. The image below shows how much the angle of wrapping Light diminishes as the Light source gets farther from the subject:

Subject to light distance matters

Subject to light distance matters

The size of the Light source to the subject:

The bigger the Light source to the subject, the softer the Light is. The image below illustrate how hard the light is bound to be (since it is a very small Light source and unless using it for insect it will most likely be smaller than the subject one wants to capture) when using a regular Speedlight Flash by default:

Size of the light matters

Size of the light matters


The Sun: Soft or Hard Light?

The Sun is the most powerful Light source and the biggest we know. Therefore, based on all the above it is easy to conclude it produces a Soft Light. HOWEVER, its distance to us is so huge (about 100 time its size) that we see it as a small light torch which by default always produces Hard light.

Distance between the sun and earth affects the quality of light

Distance between the sun and earth affects the quality of light

But how can we then obtain Soft light with only Natural Light (Sun)?

The Sun Light requires a diffuser and the clouds fulfil that role. As illustrated below, the clouds are so much closer to Earth and represent a much bigger surface than the sun that it acts as a giant diffuser. Scotland is blessed with a nearly 365 days per year of free Soft Light. 😉

When the natural light is soft

When the natural light is soft

The Experiment:

Regular Speedlight:

This photo was taken using a YN565EX Speedlight flash at 1/4 at arms length from the model, on Karen’s left. We can clearly see how such a Light source produces a Hard Light with a good defined shadow contour:

sample shot with hard light obtained with a small flash

sample shot with hard light obtained with a small flash

Light source power:

This image was taken with the same YN565EX flash but a full power positioned on the left side of the model. While the left side is clearly over exposed, the contour of the shadow is no less, though. This illustrates very well that the power of the Light source has no effect on the Softness or Hardness of the Light:

sample shot with hard light obtained with a small flash with increased power

sample shot with hard light obtained with a small flash with increased power

Softbox:

This image was taken using the same YN565EX at full power, but this time it is inside a 30″ Wescott Apollo strip softbox diffuser positioned on the left side of the model. The Light source is no longer of the size of the Speedlight flash but the softbox, and the light is now soft:

sample shot with hard light obtained with a small flash inside a softbox

sample shot with hard light obtained with a small flash inside a softbox

Bigger is even softer:

Here I used the same YN565EX at full power but inside a 50″x50″ Wescott Apollo softbox positioned on the right side of the model. The resulting Light is undeniably even softer than with the strip softbox:

sample shot with hard light obtained with a small flash inside a bigger softbox

sample shot with hard light obtained with a small flash inside a bigger softbox

Here I pushed the vice to keep the same setting but got closer to Karen. The Light is tremendously diffused now:

sample shot with hard light obtained with a small flash inside a bigger softbox and closer to the subject

sample shot with hard light obtained with a small flash inside a bigger softbox and closer to the subject

Conclusion:

Bigger, Closer are the criteria to guarantee good soft light. Subsequently, small and far Light source will fulfil your Hard contrasted light needs. Now that you understand what is Soft & Hard Light, how to obtain either I hope you feel empower to make up your path to emotional photography. In future episodes will see the type of diffusers and when and why to use them.

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