Hard light vs soft light – when and how to use both types of lighting

I’ll say it again and again, light has the biggest impact on a photo. It sets the mood and tone for an image. Because it’s so important, your decision to use hard light vs soft light, is a big deal.

But not so big a deal that you get stuck trying to decide between hard light and soft light. You can actually use both at the same time, but more about that in a moment.

First let’s look at how each type of light works and and the pros and cons of hard vs soft lighting portraits. I’ll cover:

  • The difference between hard and soft light
  • Is sunlight hard or soft light?
  • Which is better – hard or soft light?
  • When to use either hard or soft light
  • Examples of both hard and soft light
  • Using hard and soft light together

Hard light portraits with flash and sunlight

These two photos are a great hard light vs soft light comparison. For the hard light photo on the left I used off camera flash with bare bulb and for the soft light photo on the right I fitted a softbox to the off camera flash. Both images were backlit by hard light in the form of direct sunlight.

What is the difference between hard and soft lighting?

The quickest way to tell whether hard or soft light has been used to light a subject is by looking at the shadows in an image.

Hard light produces clearly defined shadows that suddenly transition from light to dark.

The harder the light, the more defined the shadow edge will be and the quicker the transition from light to dark.

Soft light produces soft shadows that gradually fade from light to dark.

The softer the light the less obvious shadows become, to the point that in some images you can barely notice them.

Hard light photography with natural light and flash

I used direct sunlight from the front in the butterfly lighting pattern and added a bare bulb off camera flash as a backlight this hard light portrait

How to create hard light vs soft light

Size of light, relative to the subject, is key to creating hard vs soft light.

Changing between hard and soft light is as easy as moving the light:

  • Further away from the subject – hard light
  • Closer to the subject – soft light

The reason why distance changes hard light to soft light and vice versa is that the closer the light is to the subject, the bigger it is in comparison to the subject. Because it’s bigger, the light becomes softer.

Like anything, the closer you are to it, the bigger it is.

And just to be clear, about how size impacts light quality… If you keep the light in the same position, but simply make it bigger by attaching a modifier to a flash, for example, the light will become softer.

This changes the light from direct light to indirect light. Which leads to the second way to change hard light to soft light…

Diffusion of light also impacts hard vs soft light, but not nearly as much as size of light.

When you diffuse flash by adding a light modifier, such as a softbox or reflective umbrella with diffusion layer, you scatter the light and also make the light much bigger than if it was just a bare bulb. This softens the light.

To diffuse hard, direct sunlight flooding in through a window, put up sheer curtains to create a softer light source.

Hard light vs soft light with natural light only

I used natural light only for these examples of hard light vs soft light portraits. On the left the hard light comes from direct sunlight and for the photo on the right the soft light is the diffused light of a heavily overcast sky.

Is the sun a hard light?

Yes and no. It depends.

  • On a bright sunny day with no clouds the sun produces hard light
  • Any time the sun is obstructed by clouds it becomes a soft light

Despite the fact that the sun is huge, it’s far away. So, going back to the previous point on how the size of light impacts whether it has a hard or soft quality, from our perspective it’s actually a small light source.

When clouds block the sun, they diffuse the light and the reason diffusion makes light soft is that it disperses the light and effectively makes it bigger. This is why portrait photography on cloudy days works to well – the light is flattering for skin.

You can see the difference in everyday life – on a very overcast day your shadow almost disappears, but on a bright sunny day it’s very clearly defined.

Which is better – hard light or soft light?

This is another “it depends” answer and goes back to my opening statement that light determines the mood of a photo.

Hard light suits gritty, vibrant and energetic moods, which is why it’s used so much in fashion.

Soft light suits a soft, gentle, wholesome mood. For example newborn and family photography.

Your choice of hard light vs soft light should also suit the subject. Neither one is better than the other.

A person with flawless skin can be lit by hard or soft light. However if your subject has blemishes or a lined skin, soft light is more flattering. On the other hand, if you want to create a gritty portrait of someone with deeply lined skin, using a hard light source would suit the image more as the contrast of light and dark adds mood.

Hard light vs soft light with multiple light sourcesCan you tell if I used hard or soft light for this portrait? Clue – look at the shadows on her face. Are they hard or soft?

When should you use hard light?

To emphasize texture, use hard light, because as it skims across uneven surfaces the strong contrast between highlights and shadows will show the texture clearly.

When should you use soft light?

Unless you want to emphasize lines, wrinkles and skin imperfections, use soft light. The light will wash across the skin and smooth out texture with soft shadows.

Examples of hard light vs soft light

Bear in mind that the transition from hard light to soft light is gradual. It extends from really hard, crispy light to hard light at one end of the scale through to softer light until you get to really buttery smooth soft light at the other end of the scale.

We’re photographers, so showing you examples of lighting in photos makes much more sense than writing about it…

What is an example of hard light?

Below are two hard light photography examples, including:

  • Natural light
  • Off camera flash with bare bulb

Hard light portrait lit with direct sunlight

Above is an example of hard lighting where I used direct natural light only on a bright sunny day. It was a winter’s day, so the sun was low in the sky.

Hard light with multiple light sources

In this hard light portrait example I used off camera flash with a bare bulb to camera left and direct sunlight as a hair light to camera right.

What is an example of soft light?

These five soft light photography examples include:

  • Overcast natural light
  • Open shade natural light
  • Bounced natural light in open shade
  • Off camera flash with a softbox in open shade
  • Off camera flash with umbrella with diffusion

Overcast natural light creates soft light

For this soft light portrait photography example I used natural light only in very overcast conditions. True story – this was just 30 minutes after the photo above it. We went from full sunshine to heavily overcast really fast!

Soft light in open shade

For this image we took a few steps closer to the building to be under the covered entrance of a building so we could use open shade for soft lighting. The overcast conditions (from the image above this one) beyond the open shade made the light even softer.

Soft light bounced

I took this image in the same open shade as the image above. As she’s turned away from the light part of her face is in shadows. However, I used the window for bounce light to add just a touch of light to the shadow side of her face.

Soft light flash and natural light

This image was taken the same day, before the clouds covered the sky. Photographed outdoors in open shade using off camera flash fitted with a softbox close to the model for very soft light.

Umbrella soft light portrait photography

I took this image in my studio using a large umbrella with a white interior and fitted with a diffuser for very soft light. The size of the umbrella, it’s white interior and the diffusion panel all helped to create the soft light.

Using hard light and soft light together

Who says you have to use either hard light or soft light? Think sweet and sour or hot and cold. Combining hard and soft lighting looks great in photos!

You can do it with:

  • Natural light only
  • Flash (or continuous light) only
  • Or a combination of both natural light and flash (or continuous light)

Hard and soft light portrait

I used a reflector to bounce soft light back into the front of the model who was backlit by the hard light of direct sunlight, which created a beautiful hair light

Using natural light to mix hard and soft light

All you need is the sun and a handheld reflector.

On a bright sunny day use the sun as backlight and then fill in the shadows by bouncing light back into your subject with a white reflector.

On a cloudy day you can use the diffused sunlight as your key light (aka main light) to light your subject from the front and a shiny reflector (silver) to create either backlight or rim light.

Using flash to mix hard and soft light

For this you’ll need two flashes – one to create hard light and one to create soft light. And there’s loads of ways to do it…

How to use soft light as a key light to light the subject:

  • Add a light modifier to your flash such as a softbox or umbrella
  • Or use a bare bulb very close to the subject
  • Or bounce the light off a wall or reflector back to the subject
  • Or shoot through diffusion material

Add hard light as a backlight, rim light or a hair light:

  • Bare bulb
  • Or bounce the light off a reflective surface back to the subject

Soft light flash and hard natural light

In this example I used both hard light (the sun to camera left) and soft light (off camera flash with a softbox to camera left) close to the model. I positioned her just inside the open shade cast by a building, close enough to the edge of the shade so that the sunlight just caught her, creating a lovely rim light effect.

Using flash and natural light for a mix of hard and soft light

What? Now we’re getting fancy. But it’s not as complicated as it sounds.

Using flash and natural light to light a subject opens up so many possibilities. In fact, any and all of the options above can be used.

My preferred way to mix off camera flash and natural light is to:

  • When photographing on a sunny day, use the hard light of direct sunlight as backlight
  • and flash fitted with a modifier as soft light (or bare bulb for hard light) to light the subject

But it doesn’t have to be done that way. Mix it up.

Leave a comment

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

Also, I love good news, so if my portrait lighting tips have helped you to understand the difference between soft light and hard light, share that too.

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