Light is the essence of photography and the type of light you use to illuminate a subject deeply impacts the mood of an image to stir emotions in the viewer. For this reason there really isn’t any such thing as good light or bad light, only the right light for the situation.
I’m not talking about using natural light vs flash light. Or even what color the light is. I’m talking about light quality and there are two types of light quality:
- Soft light
- Hard light
Now let’s look at the 4 things you need to know about soft light photography:
- What is soft light
- What is the effect of soft light
- Why we use soft light
- How to create or find soft light
Photographed in the studio using softboxes for soft light.
1. What is soft light in photography?
The easiest way to see soft light in photos is to look at the shadow area, or more specifically, where the light areas transition into shadow.
- Does the shadow have a hard, clearly defined edge? If it does, this is not soft light.
- Is the transition from light to shade gradual? In other words are the edges of the shadow area soft? If they are, this is soft light.
Sometimes the light is so soft that you can’t even see shadows.
A very overcast day is a perfect example of this – sometimes the clouds are so thick, making the sunlight so soft that you can’t even see your shadow. Quite the opposite of a bright sunny day when your shadow is very dark and very clearly defined.
So seeing soft light in natural light is quite easy. But what about other light sources?
The same rules apply – if the shadow is hard and clearly defined, the light is hard and contrasting. If the edge of the shadow is soft, gradually becoming darker, the light is soft and the photo less contrasty.
Photographed with natural light only at 7pm in the summer on a very overcast evening.
2. What is the effect of soft lighting?
When considering the type of light to use for an image, you have to think about it from two points of view:
- Flattering or enhancing the subject
- Creating a mood in an image
Because shadows are softer and not as obvious with soft light, they are less distracting. In fact, we often don’t even notice the shadows in soft light photography.
Further reading: How to use tonal contrast in photography
3. What is soft light used for?
In portrait photography soft light is very flattering on subjects. Because the transition from light to shadow is gradual and shadows areas aren’t as dark, wrinkles and skin texture is less defined.
This is why soft light is so popular for photographing women, especially older women.
Another effect of soft lighting in photography is that it feels calmer, gentler, friendlier and more dreamy. So if your subject is soft and dreamy like a newborn baby, a puppy or ice cream soft light would work well.
Landscape photographs taken in soft light conditions, and therefore less contrast, also tend to be softer in feeling. This is why landscape photographers are most active at the start and end of the day, avoiding the harsh shadows of the midday sun.
So, as we can see, in all genres of photography, the quality of the light, soft vs hard, is an essential part of the feel of the photo and must match the subject and intended message of the photographer. This is an element of unity in photography composition.
Further reading: How to use unity in photography for good design
4. How do you make a soft light?
It’s just as possible to make natural light soft as it is to make flash light soft. You just have to go about it differently.
Let’s start with soft light photography using natural light.
This photo was taken moments before the main photo at the top of the article, which shows how sunny it was. For this photo I wanted soft light so asked her to step into the shade of the building.
Natural soft light photography
Direct vs indirect light is the biggest factor affecting soft lighting in natural light photography. So, on a bright, clear sunny day, you need to get out of the hard, direct sunlight and into the shadows. The indirect light in the shadows is beautifully soft.
If you’re somewhere with no natural outcrops, trees or buildings to create shadow, like the beach, you have two options:
- Hold up something to block the light hitting your subject i.e. make shadow
- Position your subject with the light behind them so that their face is in shadow
This creates a flat lighting pattern, which by definition is very soft light with minimal shadow.
Taken from the same position. The only difference is that on the left she faced away from the sun, casting her face into shadow, and on the right she turned to face the sun.
If you’re photographing indoors, for a soft light photograph near a window without direct light coming in. To soften the light even more, hang sheer curtains in the window. The sheer material acts as a diffuser to further soften the light.
Soft light photography with flash
With flash photography, we can control and move the light, so we have a lot more options open to us to make soft light. They are:
- Distance of light from subject
- Use modifiers to soften the light
- Bounce light
And here’s what I mean…
i) Softening light with distance of light from subject
Your first priority is to make the light as big as possible in relation to your subject and there are a few ways to do this.
Get the light as close as possible to the subject while still keeping it out of frame.
Here’s a quick way to test this theory…
Hold your hand above any surface and shine a torch from above onto your hand. Now move the torch further away from your hand and pay attention to what happens to the shadow, in particular the edge of the shadow. Do you see it?
Now bring the torch closer to your hand and see what happens to the shadow.
On the left is the 2 foot octabox I used with a double layer of diffusion for soft light… but not as soft as the next photo.
ii) Modifying flash for soft light photography
Light modifiers include:
- Diffusion panels
Just like with using sheer curtains on a window, when you place some sort of diffusion in front of flash, the light will be softer. You’re effectively making the light bigger, because as the light hits the material it scatters.
This is why larger umbrellas and softboxes are better for soft light photography. The bigger the modifier, the bigger the light and therefore the softer the light will be.
For even softer light, move the speedlight or strobe further away from the diffusion material so that it scatters further. If shooting through a diffusion panel (or even a white sheet), just be careful that you don’t move the light so far back that it spills around the side of the diffusion material onto the subject.
When using umbrellas, don’t push the umbrella close to the light mounting. It’s also why a deep umbrella is better for soft light photography than a shallow umbrella. This applies to both shoot through umbrellas and reflective umbrellas.
For even softer light, add a layer of diffusion. In the case of an umbrella it looks like a big white shower cap that you put over the front of the umbrella (see image below).
I used a large, deep, white umbrella with a layer of diffusion to soften the light further for the soft light portrait on the right. Although there are more shadows, because of the angle of the light, they’re softer than in the image above.
iii) Bouncing light for soft light photography
If you don’t have an umbrella or a softbox, the best way to produce soft light from a speed light or strobe is to bounce the light back into the subject.
That said, bouncing light into the inside of a white reflective umbrella is a great way to create soft light. Umbrellas are cheap, lightweight and easy to set up for both flash and strobe lighting.
But getting back to your options of bouncing light if you don’t have modifiers.. By pointing the flash at a reflective surface and bouncing that light back into the subject you’re effectively creating a bigger light source.
Your reflective surface can be anything, but the most important thing to remember for soft light is that the surface should not be shiny. A shiny surface creates hard light. You want a matt surface, such as a:
The other thing to bear in mind is that the color of the surface will be bounced back onto your subject. So, if you don’t want your subject to look like Shrek, don’t bounce the light off of a green surface.
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