Hard Light vs Soft Light: Spot the Difference

women taking photos during sunset.

An immediate way to set the tone of a photograph is the essential choice between soft and hard light. As one of the fundamentals of photography, it is important for any visual artist to master this technique. You may find yourself utterly overwhelmed when choosing between hard vs soft light the moment you pick up a camera and consider it to be a career.

Flattering images are not easy to master. Being a photographer in any field takes an immense amount of technical ability and stamina. Eventually, the goal is to mix hard and soft light to create a stunning image. This is where a deep understanding of light- to ultimately build a lighting setup – comes in handy.

This concept of hard light vs soft light poses a tricky question: why does it even matter? The photo surely gets altered in post-production.  

It may seem nagging to a beginning photographer to put in the extra effort for light and shadows, especially if there is a solid background in image manipulation and digital design. Even the most skilled photographer can fall victim to this, as there’s a misconception of ‘ease’ that comes with editing, which we will soon debunk with extensive information on hard light and soft light.

As a photographer, it’s important to stick to authenticity and integrity. Applications like Lightroom and Photoshop should advance a photograph, not act as a crutch.

black and white hard lighting.
Image demonstrating the perfect balance between soft and hard lighting.

Hard Light or Soft Light

The way we, alongside our audiences, perceive the light of new images is phenomenal. Countless studies have been done on this matter, truly proving the importance of understanding hard and soft lighting.

The Answer Routes Back to Science

Neuroscientists at MIT, alongside researchers of the 2014 journal entitled Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics, made a riveting discovery about human perception, light, and immediate recognition of photographs.

This proceeded to create the term rapid identification. The term describes our primary cognitive processes when met with visual stimuli. Cognitive processing simply refers to our mental process of thinking– composed of five sub-categories after seeing a hard or soft light.

Conveniently, we can use this to our advantage when choosing between hard and soft lighting. The formal definitions will be clarified further down in the article.

reflection of light in the eye.
Seeing is believing. Lighting plays a large role in this, as the light reflected in our retina relays sensory information to our surrounding systems.

The Five Sub-Categories

  1. Remembering
  2. Reading
  3. Logical Reasoning
  4. Paying attention
  5. Learning

Remembering

What light sources made a photograph memorable? Was it the tone, subject, or story? An impactful photograph is an everlasting one. 

In order to increase drama and impact, a small light through hard lighting would be ideal. We see this in lighting for product photography.

To cause an emotionally quiet- yet impactfully sweet- reaction, soft light as compared to harder lighting would be best. 

Reading

lighting for emotional photography.
A hard-lit image of a woman allows the viewer to infer emotions such as stress and dismay without any prior verbal or written descriptions.

What can the audience create from an image without any prior written clues? The time period, emotion, and setting? If the viewer can piece this together, the photographer has successfully illustrated the difference between hard and soft lighting.

Hard light gives contextual clues to the audience, like physical setting, hard emotion, and fine-lined details.

Soft lighting, on the contrary, can change hard light by reading as a comforting and supportive.

Logical Reasoning

emotional portrait of a man with hard light.
The viewer can logically process the tone and emotions of our man. Hard lighting assists this process.

Is the image abstract, true absurdism at its finest? Does the light create an insane structure, painting a clear and logical picture? In short, this is the gathering of visual data to produce additional information.

Hard lighting tends to clearly highlight these elements of a photograph through a distinct shadow-such as gritty facial expressions or hard emotion- to allow the viewer to interpret the scene directly. 

Soft light makes more interpretation, as it is welcoming and comfortable. 

Paying Attention

sinking ship soft light image.
The soft-lit image of a sinking ship demands attention because of the perceived tragedy. Soft lighting prompts empathy.

Think of an image that was just too intriguing to look away from. It may have included tragedy, victory, or dismay. Whatever the subject or setting may be, keeping our audiences attentive through light and shadows draws attention.

As used in dramatic cinema, hard lighting demands the attention of an audience through heavy shadows and light sources. 

Softer lighting, however, voids shadow and pulls the viewer into the scene gently. It grabs the attention through friendliness as compared to force.

Learning

hard lighting with dramatic affect.
The photo of a blacksmith provides not only educational information but utilizes lighting to prompt intrigue and further understanding of the subject matter.

This especially applies to camera flash or hard light street-style photography. The image must prompt a worldly view or a newer intelligent viewpoint.

Street-style photography is often bold, real, and unapologetic. Hard light pairs perfectly with this. 

Documentary is raw, honest, and believable– hence why many documentary photographers go down this route as compared to street. The soft light setup will either bounce light off the sun or diffuse the light source.

MIT Findings

Multiple rounds of extensive research proved our brains would process the light from an image within milliseconds.

From 13 to 80 milliseconds, our retina takes in light as per the light source and immediately redirects it through visual stimuli to an area of the brain called the ‘occipital lobe’. As a visual processing hub in the brain, the occipital lobe holds the V1 cortex, an essential communicator to compose, identity, and location.

There is an average of 50 milliseconds between the light hitting your eyes and deep cognitive processing. This, alone, proved the importance of mastering these lighting techniques. Learning to play with light is to learn how to convey your message to the viewer. 

To have a pre-production light modifier is essential, as our brains gather context clues through familiarity and recognition. 

Even though that fake sunset in photoshop is beautiful, our minds will process the natural light far faster through familiarity. Ultimately, mastery of this subject reaches the masses. 

Hard vs. Soft Light

Let’s place ourselves in an imaginary scenario to further stress the importance of the difference between hard light and soft light.

Think of yourself as an old and wise sculptor, slaving away in the sun over your prized-possession project: a statue of a world leader that will sell for millions. It must be perfect. You can utilize natural light to the best of your ability.

artist working indoor.
A sculptor utilizes lighting techniques to show depth and structure within his work.

Harder Light

Hard light represents your newly chiseled, sharp, and tall statue. It needs to stand with pride- just like this world leader! 

The leader is high in confidence and defined through strong contrast of dark and light tones. The subject’s face and muscles show an immense amount of detail. There are clear blacks and whites. Every last chisel highlights a new dented detail across the subject’s face, telling a story of grit and revival. 

Softer Light

Let’s say, on the contrary, that this sculpted portrait is of a peacekeeper! 

This world leader is gentle, forgiving, and a symbol of hope. You want their features to remain in very soft light, airy, and authentic to this gentle nature.

To achieve this, instead of sharply cutting into the statue with heavy tools and hard shadows, the focus is on soft light by blending away the harsh lines.

Thankfully, these concepts in photography are quite similar.

As stressed above, both scenarios show the key factors of the way that we, as photographers, play with light sources. 

How to Achieve Both Lighting Techniques: Hard and Soft Light

lighting equipment in a studio.
Artificial lighting in a photo studio.

Now that we have a deeper understanding of light analysis, it is time to dive into the ways to achieve both hard and soft lighting. Take these techniques seriously; they elevate your images and increase overall aesthetic appeal.

How to Create Hard Light Photos

The way to create hard light is to find one single point of a small relative light source that directly casts upon the subject. Artificial lighting is a great tool for this (like a stage spotlight or a rim light), though one can also depend on many hard light shadow sources like natural light.

Examples of these hard light sources include a lamp post at night or general direct sunlight that creates hard, sharp, dark shadows on the subject’s face.

hard light portrait of a concert performer.
Event photography with a singular hard lighting source, casting directly upon the subject – © Brianna Rae Photography.

When directing hard light portrait photography, a great lighting setup is achieved by asking the subject to stand in direct sunlight where you’d ideally like distinct shadows to hit their face.

Have their body void soft light by staying sedentary whilst you ask them to follow your camera with their face. Move left to right and see the shadows hit their face, and choose the light source relative and ideal for shading the image’s tone, setting– so on. 

For example, the photo of a performer demonstrates the correct usage of the light source and hard light. There are defined shadows, and the light source is relative to our subject.

I paid attention to the singular, artificial hard light as it demonstrated split lighting. I used my body to navigate left to right, studying the way a shadow hits. The shadows showed action, liveliness, and expression. 

It is clear who the subject is, what they are doing, and the energy of it all. 

How to Create Soft Light Photos

Softer light is seen as the more “attractive” option. There is an inviting feeling. It holds no hard shadows, a gradual gradient between light and dark with less contrast. It does not highlight other skin imperfections like harder lighting. There are soft shadows and a void of high contrast.

We achieve this through the obstruction of direct light and shadows. This is accomplished by using a professional camera accessory called either a light diffuser or barn doors. Both are made of a diffusion material that obstructs the primary lighting source (the sun, spotlight, etc.) through a sheet to cast it upon the subject.

student graduation photo with soft light.
Our photo of a graduated student utilizes soft lighting to convey emotion and beauty – © Brianna Rae Photography.

If artificial lighting is not accessible, soft light sources like a window light are a great replacement and replicate professional diffusion material.

An overcast day can also interrupt the continuous light. A cloudy day allows natural light to distribute evenly. 

For example, the natural light of a graduating student demonstrates the correct usage of soft light.

The light source of the sun was utilized by a large diffuser. This showed prominent features such as her darker hair light without a shadow to obstruct the image.

As compared to a hard light source, she now appears hopeful, balanced, and kind. 

Other General Tips on Soft and Hard Light

Now that all of our lighting techniques are in place, we’ll close with some general tips. To expedite your processes and expand your clientele, make sure to note the information below.

Minimizing Labor Time

Having a true understanding of hard light vs soft light will expedite your business timelines and turnover rates.

The extensive time spent editing (tweaking the sun or adding dramatic shadows to a washed-out model face) becomes bookings, new photo endeavors, and those pesky business administrative tasks that you “just didn’t” have time for previously. 

Perfecting Composition

The structure of a photograph, as we’ve noted, is one of the core concepts of visual attraction. By curving shadows to the most dominant features of your subject to practice hard light or deflecting the light source through soft light, you’re automatically queuing the viewer in on the structure and overall aesthetic. Your photos will appear more impactful and carefully crafted.

In Conclusion

In this article, we have not only learned the techniques to create hard light vs soft light but developed a deeper understanding of the difference between hard light and soft light. The impact it has on audience perception and growth will overall make you a better photographer. With all these key factors in mind, a photo career is soaring.

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  1. This article was so informative! I feel like I learned a lot about when and where to use both hard and soft lighting techniques

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