The choice for shooting hard vs soft light is quite an easy one for many people. But if you don’t understand what the difference is, what difference it makes to your subject, or how to create it, soft light can be a bit of a mystery. Soft light is fantastic for portraits, though. It’s particularly flattering, especially to ladies, and isn’t that difficult to understand.
This video from Caleb Pike at DSLR Video Shooter walks us through how to get it and why we need it. Caleb uses his lights for video, although the principles are exactly the same for photography, too.
Soft light is defined lit areas that transition into shadow very gradually. It wraps around your subject to provide a more pleasing look. It helps to fill in the dark lines around wrinkles, and generally creates a more “friendly” look to your subject.
At its core, how hard or soft a light presents depends on the size of the light source. For hard light, this is typically a “bare bulb”. A small light source. For soft light, it means a larger surface, with an even spread of light coming from across the entire face. The larger the surface, the softer the light.
But the size of the this surface isn’t the only factor that affects how the light presents on your subject. How close the bulb is to that large surface also plays a large part. When the light is very close, it doesn’t have the time to adequately spread. So, you’ll get a bright hotspot, which can present as quite a hard light. When the bulb is further back from the larger surface, it is able to more easily fill it out. This is why softboxes are often very deep.
There are a number of ways you can get that large soft, diffused light source.
- Bounce the light off a large surface
- Bounce the light into a reflective umbrella
- Shoot it through the diffuser panel of a 5-in-1 reflector
- Shoot it through a dedicated diffuser panel
- Use a softbox or octabox
How close this large surface is to your subject also places a factor. When the light is further away, it starts to get that small hard light source look again. This is why the sun, the largest light source in the solar system is considered a hard light. It’s 93 million miles away. If the sun were much closer, and larger in the sky, the light it emits would appear softer. Of course, we’d all be burned to a crisp, so it wouldn’t really matter how beautiful it was.
With softboxes, though, you can get them very close to your subjects to produce that soft, flattering, wraparound light.
I still think hard light has its place, especially for photography, but there is something inherently beautiful about soft light. It’s fantastic for portraits, and works really well for things like interviews on video, too. It can also be especially good for certain types of product photography, too.