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 works and and the pros and cons of hard vs soft lighting. 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
For the left photo I used hard light vs soft light on the right. Both were backlit by direct sunlight.

What is the difference between hard and soft lighting?

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

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

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

Soft light – 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
A hard light portrait lit by direct sunlight from the front and off camera flash from behind her.

How to create hard light vs soft light

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

And 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 closer the light is to the subject, the bigger it is in comparison to the subject.

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

And just to be clear, 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.

Which leads to the second way to change hard light to soft light…

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

When you diffuse flash by adding a modifier, such as a softbox or umbrella, you make the light much bigger than if it was just a bare bulb.

To diffuse sunlight flooding in through a window, put up sheer curtains.

Further reading:

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

Soft light photography – 4 facts every photographer should know

Hard light vs soft light with natural light only
Hard light vs soft light portraits using natural light only.

Is the sun a hard light?

Yes and no. It depends.

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

Despite the fact that the sun is huge, it’s far away. So, going back to the previous point on size of light, from our perspective it’s actually a small light.

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.

On a very overcast day your shadow almost disappears, but on a bright sunny day it’s very clearly defined.

Further reading: 

Bad weather photography tips for great photos outdoors on gray days

7 quick tips for photographing outdoors in bright sunlight

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.

Hard light vs soft light with multiple light sources

When should you use hard light?

If you want 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
Example of hard lighting using natural light only on a bright sunny day.
Hard light with multiple light sources
Hard light portrait example using a flash with 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
Soft light portrait photography using natural light only in overcast conditions.

Funny 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
Using open shade for soft lighting. The light for this photo was even softer, because of the overcast conditions beyond the open shade.
Soft light bounced
This was taken in the same open shade location using the window for bounced light for just a touch of light in the shadow side of her face.
Soft light flash and natural light
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
Photographed in the studio using a large umbrella with white interior and diffuser for very 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
Natural light portrait lit from behind by hard light and soft light from the front by bouncing the light back to her with a reflector.

Using natural light to mix hard and soft light

All you need is the sun and a 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 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…

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

Hard light as 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
Here’s an example of using both hard light (the sun to the far left) and soft light (off camera flash with a softbox to left) close to the model. I positioned her just inside the shade cast by a building, close enough to the edge so that the sunlight caught just her hair. 

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 flash and natural light is to:

  • 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.

Further reading: Getting started with off camera flash

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 lighting tips have helped you to understand the difference between soft light and hard light, share that too.

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