Hard vs Soft Light: A Comprehensive Guide to Beautiful Lighting

Most beginners don’t know this, but when you choose to use hard or soft light in your shots, you dramatically alter your photos. Hard light tends to produce edgier, high-contrast images, whereas soft light results in more flattering, pleasing shots.

However, neither hard light nor soft light is fundamentally better than the other, and as a photographer, it’s important to understand how these different lighting types are produced, how they work, and how you can use them for the best results.

Below, I explain everything you need to know about these two forms of light; that way, by the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll be well-equipped to use them in your own photos.

What Is Hard Light?

Hard light refers to light that offers very sharp transitions from light to shadow.

Take a careful look at the image above. Do you see how the edges of the shadows are very precise and defined? And do you see how the difference between the lightest areas and darkest areas is very large? That’s what you get when you use hard light. 

Now, there are a few common sources of hard light you should be aware of, both natural and artificial.

First, a naked (i.e., unmodified) flash offers very hard light. If you point a flash at a subject and fire it, you’ll get extremely hard light, which results in very strong, harsh shadows.

Second, the sun produces hard light, but only when it’s high overhead in the middle of the day. Toward the end of the day, the light gets a lot softer.

What Is Soft Light?

Soft light is the complete opposite of hard light: It offers gradual transitions between light and shadow.

It’s also very even, which means that you don’t have to deal with very bright areas and very dark areas in your photos (relative to hard light, anyway). That’s why softly lit images tend to feel much more gentle.

You can use soft light from a few different sources. First, if you modify a flash, you’ll end up with softer light. By this, I mean that you can add something in front of the flash, such as a diffuser, which broadens the light and causes it to become more even and gradual.

This is what photographers are doing when they add umbrellas or softboxes in front of their flash. They’re softening the light so they can achieve a gentler effect.

You can also find soft light in nature. First, toward the end of the day, when the sun is low in the sky, the light is soft – much softer than the dramatic, harsh light of midday. Second, when the sky is very overcast, the clouds act as a giant softbox, causing the light to appear much softer than usual. So cloudy days are another great source of soft light!

By the way, it’s important to note that light doesn’t have to be extremely hard or extremely soft. It’s really a spectrum. For instance, the light a couple of hours before sunset is softer than the light at midday, but it’s not as soft as the light just as the sun sinks below the horizon, and it’s definitely not as soft as overcast light.

What Affects the Quality of the Light?

Now that you understand what hard and soft light actually is, it’s time to discover what affects hardness and softness so you can modify and adjust the light as you take photos.

Simply put, the light’s quality is determined by two simple factors:

  1. The proximity of the light to the subject. The closer the light, the softer it appears. 
  2. The size of the light source. The larger the light source, the softer the light becomes.

These two characteristics work together to determine the overall hardness, which means that a large, close light source is going to be far softer than a small, distant light source. On the other hand, a large, distant light source and a small, close light source may be pretty equivalent.

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To cement this concept even further, let’s take a look at a few practical examples:

First, when you’re working with the midday sun, the light source is technically big. But it’s also very far away, which overpowers any size advantage (after all, think about how large the sun looks; it’s just a tiny ball in the sky, right?). However, when you add clouds to the mix, they expand the size of the light source because the light is diffused. And this makes the sun effectively larger – large enough that you get beautiful soft light.

The same is true for unmodified and modified flashes. Remember how I said unmodified flashes offer very hard light? It’s because they’re so small. But put an umbrella in front of the flash, and suddenly the light source becomes far larger – and softer – because the light diffuses through the umbrella. 

Hard vs Soft Light: Which Is Better?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to the question of whether hard or soft light is actually better. The truth is that different types of light are good for different occasions and effects, which is why you should be comfortable using both. 

Plus, if you’re a natural light photographer, you don’t really have the option of modifying your light source, which means that you have to work with what you’ve got. 

That said, photographers do tend toward soft light. It’s generally more flattering, plus it brings out colors better. So when in doubt, use soft light. It’s not always the better option, but it often is.

When Should You Use Hard Light?

As I mentioned above, hard light is less popular than soft light. However, there are some situations where it pays to use hard light to produce dramatic, shadowy, contrast-heavy results. 

For instance, if you’re photographing a sports player, you might want to use unmodified flashes. These will emphasize the player’s intensity, and while the result may not look especially flattering – the shot will be full of harsh edges and lines – you may not be after a standard flattering portrait. 

Hard light is often a favorite of street photographers because it produces such heavy shadows. You can capture your subject walking in and out of hard-edged lines thanks to the shadows that hard light provides, or you can capture a subject that’s illuminated by hard light but is surrounded by dark shadows.

When Should You Use Soft Light?

Unless you have a specific reason to use hard light, I’d recommend going with softer illumination. In my view, soft light should really be your default source of light because it looks really, really good and offers consistently stunning results. 

If you’re shooting portraits, for instance, soft light is going to be the most flattering.

If you’re shooting macro images, soft light will help bring out color by gently illuminating your subjects. If you’re shooting landscapes, the soft light of early morning and late afternoon will ensure that you get beautiful results (plus, early morning and late afternoon also offer sunrises and sunsets!).

If you’re shooting product photos, you’re going to need to heavily modify your light source with a softbox, strip box, or umbrella. If you’re shooting wildlife or bird photos, then, as with landscape photography, the soft light of early morning and late afternoon is your friend. 

Capture Some Beautiful Photos with Hard and Soft Light!

Photography is all about the light. Therefore, if you can learn to master hard light and soft light, then you’ll capture far more impressive images.

So always remember the distinction between hard and soft light, and carefully choose the right form of light for the job. If you’re not sure which approach is best for a specific scenario, consider trying both types of light to see how the images turn out. Happy shooting!

Hard vs Soft Light FAQ

What are some common sources of hard light?

If you’re looking for hard light, you can shoot during the middle of the day when it’s sunny. The distant sun produces very hard light, which results in harsh shadows with hard edges.

What are some common sources of soft light?

If you’re looking for soft light, you can shoot when it’s very overcast. The clouds act like a giant softbox, diffusing the light over a broader area and giving you a beautiful soft effect. You can also shoot early in the morning and late in the day (the so-called golden hours).

Is soft light always better than hard light?

No, not always. It’s true that soft light is very popular among photographers, but there are also times when hard light is better, such as when you want to capture a more intense portrait.

What makes light hard or soft?

Hard light is produced by light sources that are both smaller and far away. As a light source moves closer to the subject or gets bigger, it starts to produce softer light, until you end up with a very large, very soft effect.

About the Author

jaymes dempsey author

Jaymes Dempsey

Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel. You can connect with Jaymes on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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