IN FOCUS: Hard light vs. Soft light – lighting in photography

Understanding lighting in photography as a photographer is not as easy as people may think, and in order to deliver great images, it is imperative that the correct lighting to flatter the subject is used.

Shooting under the two different types of light will generate contrasting results, meaning that photographers need to think long and hard in order to decide which is the best lighting to shoot in, which generally depends on the subject of the picture. The quality of the light is absolutely fundamental to achieving the desired ambiance of the developed picture.


The majority of photographers favour soft light, spending hours on end trying to decipher ways to diffuse light for a softened end result. Umbrellas and soft boxes are great tools to create soft light and do so in a simple and straightforward way.

But what is soft light? Well, soft light creates subtle gradient tones that envelope the subject in the most flattering way. It doesn’t create harsh images and is easy on the eye.

Soft light is created by being up close to the subject and using a large surface area to generate the light itself. This in turn creates smooth lighting that wraps around the subject and fills shadows as well as lowering the contrast of the shot.

In short, soft light is the lighting tone that will keep the photographer away from the Photoshop software; good, dreamy lighting does it all for you, although spending tools and equipment to attain the look may be imperative at first.

Ways to find and create soft light:

  1. In the shade on a sunny day
  2. Twilight
  3. Using a flash in direct sunlight
  4. On a cloudy day
  5. Sunset
  6. Sunrise
  7. Umbrellas and soft boxes to diffuse light


Hard light does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s hard, harsh and not very forgiving. However, when used in the correct way, hard light can create a dramatic image. Subjects who have good skin, no deep set wrinkles or blemishes or glaringly obvious imperfections are perfect for a hard light subject; the overall effect can be interesting and even glamorous.

What is hard light? Hard light creates sharp edged shadows that can look almost solid and is created from light that comes from a single point light source, ie, the Sun.

What many people don’t realise is that hard light was actually the favoured lighting of the so-called glamour era of the 40’s and 50’s; movie stars head shots were taken in a hard light setting in order to create an image that showed a true depiction of the subjects beauty. Transferring hard light images to black and white can deliver a richer effect, as they did in the Golden Era.

The use of hard life really does depend on the subject at hand and how they wish to be depicted; those with interesting faces may go for the hard light option to deliver an image that is interesting to look at and not necessarily stereotypically beautiful. Those who are more confident in their looks organically may think they can pull it off and don’t need to rely on soft light to flatter them; this will make their image ping compared to many out there that can become a little samey.

Ways to create and find hard light:

  1. Sunny afternoons
  2. Using one glaring light source focused on the subject
  3. Stray away from equipment like umbrellas and soft boxes

To learn more about lighting in depth book in for one of our Studio Lighting Photography courses here:







By |2018-01-31T19:52:42+00:00October 23rd, 2013|blog|0 Comments