Hard light vs soft light and how it applies to still life, food and product photography
The concept of hard vs soft light comes up all the time, particularly on YouTube, but it’s typically in relation to portraits and other photographs of people. It’s rarely given much air time when it comes to other genres where you have control over the light, like food and product photography or still life.
But in this video from V-Flat World, commercial product and food photographer Hudi Greenberger walks us through the principles of hard and soft light, how we can apply them to our small scale scenes and the overall effect that different relative sizes of light source will have on your shot.
Put simply, what makes a light “hard” or “soft” has to do with its size in relation to that of the subject and how the shadows look as a result. It’s not just a case of saying “this light’s small, therefore it’s hard and this light’s big, therefore it’s soft” because the largest light source in our solar system is the sun. But as it’s around 93 million miles away from us, it creates a very hard, harsh and contrasty light when it’s not being diffused by clouds. It’s all about relativity.
Indeed, a single light source can be both hard and soft, depending on how large it is compared to your subject and how far away from it they are. And the further away the light gets from the subject, the harder it becomes, even though its size doesn’t change. Of course, when you move it further away, you’ll need to bump up the power. This is common knowledge for just about anybody who shoots portraits. It’s why we often love those big 4ft octaboxes as close to our subject as we can get them!
But when it comes to things like food, drinks, products – especially ones with transparent or translucent elements – the question of hard vs soft light doesn’t just determine the presentation of the shadows, but how the light transmits through objects, too and how well each element in the scene pops out from or blends into its surroundings.
And even if you don’t photograph products, food and drinks, it’s worth having a watch of the video and then experimenting with the principles it explains, just to see the effect it has on your scene.
What type of light do you usually prefer for your non-human subjects?
John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.