Hard light photography isn’t a difficult lighting set up. Hard light refers to the quality of the light being hard.
With photography lighting there are two types of light quality:
- Hard light
- Soft light
In portrait photography we often get carried away with soft light and forget about using hard light. 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:
- What is hard light?
- What is hard direct lighting?
- How to create or find hard light
- How to take a hard light photo
- 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 header image at the top of the page.
By the same token, you can also have deep shadows with soft light – I do it all the time with boudoir photography.
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. So with hard light photography the edge of the shadow is very clearly defined.
Hard light can be created with direct light or reflected light.
It’s easy to see a photo that was taken with hard light – just look at the shadows.
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.
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. A white reflector will create soft light. It’s the shiny surface that creates the hard 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.
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
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:
- Use full sun
- Use a bare flash
- Or if using a softbox or umbrella on the flash or strobe, simply move it further away from the subject.
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.
It’s important to meter the exposure correctly so that the lit part of the subject is not overexposed.
Darken the shadows
For more dramatic hard light photography, with deeper shadows, make sure that no light is bounced back into the shadows from a nearby surface. This will lighten the shadows.
To make the shadows even blacker, especially with split lighting, 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.
Further reading: Using fill light in photography – essentials you need to know
Butterfly lighting using natural light.
Control where the shadows fall
The most important factor to remember with hard light photography for portraits is to be aware of light patterns. Because the shadows will be so clearly defined, you need them in the right place to be flattering.
Shadows caused by hard direct light from the sun spoil this photo, because he’s not angled correctly for the light.
The most common lighting patterns you see with hard light photography are:
Lighting patterns are as relevant to natural light photography as they are to flash photography.
Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know
Rembrandt lighting pattern created with hard light from a low sun.
5. What is hard light best suited for in photography?
Because shadows are 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 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!
Further reading: 7 quick tips for photographing outdoors in bright sunlight
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If you have any questions about hard light photography, let us know in the comments.
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