As you may already know, the literal meaning of photography is “drawing with light”. Light is the key ingredient in all photography, without which it would be impossible to capture images.

Although we don’t use light to expose film in order to “burn” an image onto paper in digital media, the importance of light in photography is still immensely important to a photographer. It helps him or her set a mood and create their personal style in their images.

Soft Light vs Hard Light

Bright or dim? These are usually the only ways that a person would describe the way the light in the room looks. But light can be described in so many different ways! White or yellow, from above or below, from the left or the right, and hard or soft are just a few examples… 

Wait… How can light be hard or soft? Aren’t those two adjectives usually used to describe boiled eggs… 

In fact, the decision to use hard or soft light is a choice that a photographer makes with every photo they take. Though, for amateur photographers, it is often an unconscious choice. 

So today, we’re going to explore the difference between hard and soft lighting. The difference between the two has to do with the harshness of the lighting conditions.

A photograph that utilizes mostly soft lighting may look like what you would consider “normal”. You would see some highlights, some shadows, and a good number of middle values in the photograph.

A photograph that utilizes mostly hard lighting would have high contrast with very few middle grey values. The edges of the subject may appear “cut out” from the background somehow.

For information about how to control hard and soft lighting in natural light settings, check out this post.

Soft Light

Soft or Hard Light - process image

A soft light effect is created when you have a BROAD light source (like a large window), or DIFFUSED light source (like the little white umbrellas used by professional photographers in portrait photography).

Most photographers prefer to have soft light for their images. Soft light creates a gradual transition from light to dark and often gives the subject a soft or romantic feel. It is also notable that soft light tends to hide facial imperfections in portraiture. If you’d like to see a video description of how to achieve soft light, click here!

Anne Geddes works with mostly soft light. Her subjects are often little babies and she has an amazing talent for making them seem even more angelic than they already appear. Soft lighting gives her photos that soft romantic feel which works so well for photographing infants.

Hard Light

It seems like I was really praising the merits of soft light, but using hard lighting definitely has its place. The trick to using hard light effectively is that you need to do it on purpose. Amateur photographers can fall into the trap of using hard lighting just because they don’t know any better. But believe me, in this instance ignorance is not bliss!

Hard light is created when you use a NARROW light (like a flashlight) or a DISTANT light source (like sunlight). It is also a common appearance in studio lighting when there is no diffusion. 

Texture is emphasized when using hard light, so not usually desired for portraits because it will amplify any imperfections in the subject. The photographer will also get harsh, well-defined shadows both on the subject and behind it.

If it’s high contrast that you’re looking for, then a good hard light is just what you need. Neil Moralee uses hard light with great effect in his street photography. In complete contrast to Anne Geddes, he tends to photograph older individuals and it is his intention to capture every wrinkle and every imperfection that comes with the human experience.

Which Light is Best?

How do you choose which lighting works best for your photography? Well, that depends on what you’re trying to achieve. What is it that you want to capture? 

Are you wanting to create a warm or gentle mood? Are you capturing traditional portraiture where you are trying to lessen imperfections and emphasize beauty? Then maybe you need to look into creating soft light!

Are you trying to create a more dramatic mood? Are you trying to emphasize the texture in your subject(s)? Is it harsh shadows you want? Then hard light is for you!

Playing with light is fun! It’s a huge part of being a photographer. Being able to distinguish between these two types of light will be important to help budding photographers move forward.

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