5 hard light photography tips you need to know, plus pros and cons

Hard light photography refers to the quality of the light being hard. While the lighting setup is the same as with soft light, hard light produces hard shadows for a more dramatic image.

When discussing the quality of light in photography, quality doesn’t mean good or bad. The two types of light quality in photography are:

  • Hard light
  • Soft light

In portrait photography we often get carried away with soft light and forget about using hard light to light subjects. It’s considered more flattering, especially for older skin. I know I’m guilty of that.

But hard light is interesting and dramatic, so it’s well worth learning. Plus, it’s just as easy to master as soft light photography. You just have to pay more attention to how the light is falling on your subject.

So, for our deep dive on hard light photography, we’ll look at:

  1. What is hard light?
  2. What is hard direct lighting?
  3. How to create or find hard light
  4. How to take a hard light photo
  5. What is hard light best suited for in photography?

I’ve included hard light photography examples, plus a really easy exercise to understand hard light that you can do without moving from where you are right now. All you need is your mobile.

1. What is hard light?

Before I tell you what hard light photography is, you need to know that it has nothing to do with how dark the shadows are.

It’s very possible that you’ve read or heard somewhere that you need hard light for deep shadows, but that’s simply not true. As you can see from the first image in this article.

By the same token, you can also have deep shadows with soft light – I use it all the time with boudoir photography, which I photograph in a dark and moody style.

Hard light is a light that creates a hard shadow.

By this I mean that the transition from shadow to light is sudden. There’s no gentle transition from dark to light. With hard light photography the edge of the shadow is very clearly defined. So, to judge whether a photo that was taken with hard light or soft light, just look at the shadows.

Hard light can be created with direct light or reflected light. More on this in a moment.

2. What is hard direct lighting?

Sunlight shining straight onto your subject on a bright sunny day is the most familiar form of hard direct lighting.

Direct sunlight making subject screw up face

It’s also really difficult for your subject if the light is shining directly at them. So, you need to be conscious of whether they’re screwing up their face and consider changing position slightly.

But that’s not the only type.

A bare flash pointed at your subject will also create hard direct lighting, but it does depend on how close to your subject the light is.

3. How to create or find hard light

Reflected hard light

Hard light doesn’t just have to be direct light, although that’s the easiest to use. It can also be created with reflected light.

If you use a gold or silver reflector (or any shiny surface) to bounce light back onto your subject, chances are the light will be hard. It’s the shiny surface that creates the hard light.

A white reflector will create soft light.

Size of the light source

Many photographers assume that if they use a softbox or an umbrella they’ll avoid hard light, because of the layer of diffusion material that the light must pass through. This is a mistake.

The number one way to create hard light is with a small light source relative to the subject.

In other words, the further away from the subject a light is placed, the harder the light becomes, because the smaller it will be in relation to the subject.

You can test this for yourself right now using your mobile. Here’s how:

  • Hold an object with a clearly defined edge, like a pen, an inch or so above a piece of paper (or light colored surface)
  • Turn your mobile’s flashlight on and hold it at least a foot away while shining it at the pen (or whatever)
  • Take note of the shadow on the paper – it’s hard
  • Move the phone/flashlight closer to the pen until it’s almost touching
  • Try to keep the phone at the same angle as you move in
  • Now see how soft that shadow is!

Your hard light became soft and the only change was the distance of the light to the subject. As it moved closer to the subject the light became bigger, relative to the subject.

This is why the sun casts a hard light on cloudless days. The sun is huge, but it’s far away from us, so relatively speaking, from that distance it’s a small light source.

Hard direct light from setting sun
Taken with natural light just before sunset on a sunny day. The sun is directly behind me.

4. How to take a hard light photo

The purpose of hard light photography is to create drama with tonal contrast in an image. To accurately capture the contrast you need to:

  1. Use a small light
  2. Take care with exposure settings
  3. Protect the shadows
  4. Control light direction

Use a small light

You know by now that to create hard light, you need to use a small light relative to the subject size. So:

Now you also know how to soften your light. So, if you feel that the shadows on your subject are too hard, get your light closer to the subject, or use a white reflector to fill in shadows.

Hard light exposure settings

Because the contrast between light and shadow is so great, it’s important to meter the exposure correctly with hard light portraits to avoid overexposing the lit part of the subject.

Protect the shadows

For more dramatic hard light photography, with deeper shadows, make sure that no light bounces back into the shadows from a nearby surface. This will lighten the shadows.

To make the shadows even blacker, especially when split lighting portraits, hold a non-reflective black piece of material close to the shadow side of your subject.

This will absorb light and create negative fill on your subject, which deepens the shadows.

Direct sunlight on model in outdoor photography
I used natural light in a butterfly lighting pattern for a classic fashion look

Control where hard light shadows fall

Because shadows feature heavily in hard light photography, for portraits you must pay attention to lighting patterns formed by the direction of light. Control the light direction to ensure shadows fall in the right place and flatter your subject’s features.

Lighting patterns are relevant to both flash photography and natural light photography.

Harsh shadows from direct sunlight
I quickly grabbed this shot during a family shoot, but the lighting is all wrong. Shadows caused by hard direct light from the sun spoil this photo, because he’s not angled correctly for the light. Below you can see how much softer the reflected light from the back of the bench is on his face.

Reflected light from bench lighting the subject with soft light

Of the 5 portrait lighting patterns, the most commonly used with hard light photography are:

Hard light portrait lighting pattern
Here I used hard light from the low setting sun to create a Rembrandt lighting pattern, which adds to the drama of the image

5. What is hard light best suited for in photography?

Because shadows are so clearly defined with hard light it’s great for showing texture, whether that’s a smooth texture like glass, or rough texture like a brick wall.

For this reason, in portrait photography, hard light is usually better for younger, smooth skin.

The exception to this of course is if you want to highlight the lines on a person’s face. In which case, hard light is perfect on older skin!

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about hard light photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my hard lighting tips and stories have helped you to use hard light, share that too.

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