Photography is all about capturing the essence , the emotion of the scene. Light plays and important role in this. Soft light photography is one of the techniques which uses soft, pleasant light to create a particular image aesthetics.
Understanding how lighting can affect your image is very important. In this post we will try and understand soft light photography in more detail and how different it is from hard light photography.
Both hard and soft light photography techniques have their own place and both create completely different “look” of the image.
You can also read our post on sunset portrait photography an excellent example of soft light photography.
What is soft light
Soft light in photography is a light which creates very soft or no shadow on the subject. The transition from bright to dark is more of a gradient rather than a sudden change.
The image below shows transition from pure bright to pure black in a gradient manner. This is how an image will look like in soft light photography.
In case of a hard light , this gradient will be very harsh and there will be sudden change from bright to dark.
The light kinds of wraps around the subject and creates a beautiful soft , pleasant image which has no or if at all very soft shadows.
Any DSLR or a mirrorless camera sensor has a dynamic range and is only capable of handling a certain range from brightest to darkest part in the image. In case of soft light it is very easy for camera to meter and expose the scene properly.
Colors also appear more soothing and pleasant and in some cases more saturated in soft light photography.
The main reason for light to become “soft” is something known as diffusion. Soft light is hence also known as diffused light. Diffusion is the scattering of light by reflection or transmission and this is what creates the softness.
In soft lighting it appears as if there is no single source of light and the light is coming from a big low intensity source.
Soft lighting can be experienced in nature and can also be created in a studio. Lets see a bit more about these two soft light methods.
Natural soft light
If you ever shoot outdoors on a bright sunny day then you will always have hard top – down shadows on your subject. This is because of the sun directly over the subject acting as a high intensity point light source.
On an overcast day however the cloud covers the sun. The cloud reduces the intensity of the light coming from sun and also distributes it more evenly.
Clouds act as large diffusion surface. The light gets diffused and it appears as if the light is coming from all directions on the subject. Because of this there are no hard shadows and the subject appears to be more pleasant and softly lighten.
Natural shades due to trees also provide diffusion lighting and can give similar effect.
Reflectors are often used to fill some light on the shadow side. This also creates a soft lighting but shadows cannot be eliminated completely.
Artificial soft light
Artificial soft light can be created in studio or at any photography location by using some of the accessories. These include a off camera flash , soft box , reflector or just a plain piece of cloth.
How to create artificial soft light
Soft lights are created in studios using various techniques. Here are a few simple ones.
- Using a soft box lighting : Soft box does exactly what it says. It softens the light and makes the shadows on the subject very soft. Soft box generally has a high intensity light source covered with a diffusion medium such as a cloth or plastic. The surface area of the diffusion medium is much bigger. This makes the light coming from soft box to appear to be coming from a much larger and softer source as against the high intensity original point light source. Multiple soft boxes are generally used in studio quite often to create the required lighting effects.
- Using a large layer of cloth in front of existing light or a window : This also gives the same effect. Any large white cloth an be used in front of the light source to create a soft diffused light.
- Bouncing the light of the ceiling : This is also a very effective way of creating a soft diffused light. Ceiling which is generally white in color acts as a large light source and provides the diffusion effect.
- Using fog : Using artificial fog is also a great way to create diffused soft lighting. Fog particles reflect the main light source and converts it into a large low intensity surface light source.
Candles also make a great soft light possibility. You can read all about it here.
Hard light : What is it exactly ?
Hard light refers to a concentrated, bright light that often casts harsh shadows on a photograph and draws attention towards a particular part.
Hard lighting creates a sharp transition between light and shadows that is defined and harsh. Your subject will have a distinctive, hard shadow if they are exposed to hard light. Hard light is like the sun shining directly on an object in bright sunlight.
In a hard lighting situation the camera generally struggles to meter and expose the scene properly. This generally means we either loose the details in the shadows or in the highlights. This is also known as clipping in photography terms.
Hard light is not always bad though. Hard light is often used to create a more dramatic and attention grabbing image.
When looking at hard light and soft light, the shadows are key. Hard light is marked by an abrupt transition between light and shadow.
This light type is known for its dramatic and edgy nature. Hard light is often used for portraits of men and athletes, where you want to create a more appealing but hard , edgy look of the subject.
Hard light makes a strong contrast in landscape and street photography. It often works well in black and white.
On camera flash is an example of hard light. It creates a harsh shadow on the subject.
Hard vs soft light photography
Both hard and soft lighting in photography creates different moods and emotions. Both have their place in photography and are used effectively for different purposes.
Hard vs soft light generally gets separated based on the area of the light source. The smaller the light source, the harder the light and the larger the light source, the softer the light.
Here are some suggestions for usage of hard vs soft light in photography.
- Hard light : Your subjects will have more depth , complexity and a sharp edgy feel to the eyes of the viewer. Hard light has a high contrast and creates drama in your photos. It gives them a gritty, edgy look. Photographers use hard light sources to make their subjects look serious and strong. It can also be used to give moments a raw, hard-edged look. Portraits of athletes , fighters , boxers , automotive product , action films , horror films use hard light to a great effect. Hard lighting is very difficult to work with while shooting as well as during retouching.
- Soft light : It is flattering and more pleasing than harsh light. It looks more natural and makes your subject feel warm, friendly, and welcoming. Soft light is easier to work with than hard light, and it requires less retouching. Soft light can smoothen wrinkles, conceal acne, and bring out the beauty in people’s eyes. Soft light is often used for portraits, fashion photography and travel photography , landscapes , seascapes , flower photography , food photography.
If you need more contrast then you should go for hard lighting and if you need less contrast then you should go for soft lighting.
Soft light photography examples
Soft light is used in many different types of photography techniques. Lets see some examples of soft light photography.
Flower photography using soft lighting
Flower photography practically always requires a soft lighting. Flowers appear very harsh and not so beautiful in hard light. Here are some examples of flower photographs using soft light. If you are shooting outside on a sunny day you can use a simple umbrella to create shade on your subject and then use a reflector to light the subject the way you want.
Soft light is usually low-light so you might need to use high ISO or wide aperture to get a fast shutter speed that you can hold the camera. To create a dreamy, soft effect, blur the background with a large aperture.
Stunning portraits using soft lighting
Portraits outside in a natural environment or inside a studio both appeal more in soft lights. There are some specific conditions when hard lights are also used for portraits but in general portraits are better to be shot in soft lighting than a hard lighting. Family photo shoots also prefer soft studio lighting setup in most cases.
If you only take photos with natural light (i.e., without flash), then you should look for shade. It will be plentiful in the evenings and late afternoons.
Landscape photography uses both hard and soft light to a great effect. Soft diffused lighting during sunset is used to a great effect in landscape photography. This time just before the sunset is also known as golden hour.
Seascapes are often shot after sunset and this creates stunning effect with an overall soft lighting. The soft light with slow shutter speed creates really beautiful images.
To get a good exposure at this time of night, and when the light levels are low you will need a tripod with a slow shutter speed. This creates a stunning effect by blurring the water’s movement.
Fashion photography in studio with soft lights
A three point lighting is very common in fashion photography. Multiple soft light sources placed different locations are often used to create a bright but no-shadow look in this case. Reflectors are also often used as a fill in light.
A prime lens with wide aperture and fast shutter speed can help to take some great fashion shots.
Macro photography using soft lighting
Macro photography or detail photography is greatly helped with soft lighting. You can easily see all the small details with a soft light as nothing gets hidden behind the shadows and camera is best placed to capture the required details in the mid-tone region.
Soft light photography tips
Here are some quick tips to create beautiful soft light images in many different situations.
- Shoot during golden hour and avoid direct overhead sunlight. Use reflectors and ND filters on camera to create soft light effect even in case of a sunny day.
- Use natural shades or create shade on your subject and use a reflector as a fill in light on the shadow side.
- Always shoot with sun behind the subject whenever possible and use a large reflector to light the subject. This will create far less harsh shadows.
- While shooting in studio use multiple soft boxes instead of using just one. A softbox and reflector combination can also be used to create soft lighting effect with minimal shadows.
- Use a white color card in front of you flash or point it to ceiling to create a softer flash light.
- Use fill flash method while outdoor shooting to create a softer lighting