If you’ve ever wanted to capture beautiful photos, then you’ve probably been told one thing over and over:
Photography is all about the light.
And it’s true:
If you can learn to manipulate the light, you’ll have great success as a photographer.
Because different light gives very different results. And while some light works exceptionally well for beautiful photography…
…other light is often best avoided.
That’s where this article comes in handy.
Because I’m going to tell you all about a key lighting distinction:
Hard light vs soft light.
If you can understand how to work with hard light versus soft light…
And you can understand which is better for your purposes…
Then you’ll be on your way to much stronger photos.
Let’s dive right in.
Table of contents
What Is Hard Light?
Hard light refers to light that offers very sharp transitions from light to shadow.
It looks like this:
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 (that is, 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 ends of the day, the light gets a lot softer.
Which brings me to the next section:
What Is Soft Light?
Soft light is the complete opposite of hard light:
It offers gradual transitions from light to shade.
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 (at least, relative to hard light). That’s why softly-lit images tend to feel much more gentle on the eyes.
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 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 ends of the day, when the sun is low in the sky. As the sun rises and sets (and in the few minutes before sunrise and after sunset) 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.
It’s worth noting, by the way:
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 goes over the horizon, and it’s definitely not as soft as overcast light.
What Affects the Hardness/Softness of the Light?
Now that you understand what hard vs soft light actually means, as well as common sources of hard and soft light, it’s time to discover what actually affects hardness and softness–so that you can modify and adjust light as you take photos.
The hardness and softness of the light is determined by two simple features:
First, the closeness of the light to the subject. The closer the light, the softer it appears.
And second, the size of the light source. The larger the light source, the softer the light becomes.
These two characteristics work together to determine overall hardness, which means that a large, close light source is going to be far softer than a small, distant light source. But a large, distant light source and a small, close light source may be pretty equivalent in terms of their softness.
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’s light much larger–large enough that you get beautiful soft light.
The same story 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 is far larger, because the light diffuses throughout the umbrella.
Hard vs Soft Light: Which Is Better?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to the question of which is better, hard light or soft light.
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.
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, because hard light produces 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 it 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?
All the time, unless you have a specific reason to use hard light.
Soft light should really be your “default” source of light, because it looks really, really good, and gets consistently stunning results.
If you want to shoot portraits, for instance, soft light is going to be the most flattering, every single time.
If you want to shoot macro images, soft light will help bring out color by gently illuminating your subjects.
If you want to shoot 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, an absolute bonus!).
If you want to shoot product photos, you’re going to need to heavily modify your light source via softboxes, stripboxes, umbrellas, and the like.
If you want to shoot wildlife or bird photos, then–as with landscape photography–the soft light of early morning and late afternoon is going to be your friend.
Hard vs Soft Light: Conclusion
As I said at the beginning of this article, photography is all about the light.
Which means that, if you can learn to master hard light vs soft light, and you understand what works in what situations, then you’re going to capture much more impressive images!
So always remember the distinction between hard and soft light.
And carefully choose the right form of light for the job.
That way, you’ll always be pleased with your results.
Hard light refers to light that offers very rapid transitions from light to dark (that is, from highlight to shadow). Because of this, hard light produces very harsh shadows, which can look very dramatic, but also unflattering.
Soft light is very gentle, even light. Shadows produced by soft light are very gradual in their transitions, which means that you get much more flattering results, especially in portraits. While hard light does have its day, soft light is a go-to for many photographers, including portrait shooters, landscape shooters, macro shooters, and much more.
If you’re looking for hard light, you can shoot during midday when it’s sunny. The distant sun produces very hard light, which results in all sorts of harsh shadows with hard edges. If you’d prefer to create hard light in the studio, then simply remove the modifiers from your lighting equipment. Naked flashes and strobes generally offer very hard 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”). The light won’t be quite as soft and even as overcast lighting, but it’ll still look very nice, and won’t offer overly-harsh shadows. If you want to create soft light through artificial lighting, you’ll need to modify your source of light with an umbrella, a softbox, or a diffuser of some sort. These tools are specifically designed to soften light (by widening it over a broader area), and so you can use them for great results!
No, not always. It’s true that soft light is very popular among photographers, thanks to its gentle quality and the lack of harsh shadows it produces. But there are also times when hard light is better, such as when you want to capture a more intense portrait (portrait photographers use hard light to photograph athletes all the time), or when you want interesting, dramatic shadows (which street photographers love). So don’t get too hung up on using one type of light over the other in every instance. Hard light can make sense; you just have to know how to use it for great results!
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 diffused, very soft effect, such as in the case of clouds on an overcast day.
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.