Understanding light, how it works, and the effect it can have on your subject is one of the fundamental principles of photography. It basically determines how everything in every photograph you will ever shoot appears to the camera. One of the basic foundations of light is understanding its “quality”.
Part of that quality is the hardness or softness of light. In this video, Matt from the A-Team walks us through the differences between hard and soft light and the different ways we can soften the light blasting into our scene.
Quality in this context isn’t used in terms of whether light is “good” or “bad”. You don’t really have “high quality” and “low quality” light. Here, “quality” is used in the sense of “attributes”. What are the light’s qualities?
The hardness or softness of the light is just one aspect of the qualities a light can have, but it’s pretty simple to get to grips with. The smaller a light source is relative to the subject, the “harder” it is, and the more defined the transition between the highlights and shadows being cast by other objects in the scene.
You can see this hardness above on the left shot, with the harsh outline shadow of the subject’s nose. On the right, the shadow is much softer, less defined, less harsh. This is due to the light source being larger relative to the size of the subject.
That’s the key thing with light hardness or softness is that it’s always relative. The Sun is the largest light source in the solar system, but when it’s 93,000,000 miles away, it’s a tiny hard light source relative to objects on Earth and produces hard-edged defined shadows. Yet your small smartphone screen, when it’s right next to your face, is pretty big relative to your facial features, and can actually produce softer shadows with less definition.
There’s more to light quality than just whether it’s hard or soft, but it’s a good place to get started. So, if you’re new to photography, particularly working with artificial light and modifiers, then have a watch of the video.
The same rules hold true for all light sources, whether it’s your phone screen, a speedlight, a flash strobe, the lights on the ceiling of the room you’re currently in or even the sun. And once you understand the basic principles of light, you’ll learn how to take advantage of it, and how to manipulate it to make it serve your own needs.