Hard Light vs Soft Light: which light to use when?

It is important to learn about 'Hard Light vs Soft Light' because it is good lighting that separates the average from the above average.
Gaurav Achpalea

What is Creative Life?
Creative Life is a series through which I share my knowledge about photography and videography skills. Both these crafts have become quintessential for people wanting to become digital content creators. The more you develop these skills the more you raise the production value of your digital content. This eventually could translate into producing quality content that has the potential of gaining traction and popularity with time.

It is important to learn about ‘Hard Light vs Soft Light’ in photography or videography because it is good lighting that separates the average from the above average. So if you want your photos and videos to look average, you don’t need to learn about lighting. But if you want your photos and videos to start looking above average you definitely need to know about lighting. So there are mainly, very broadly, two categories of light. One is hard light and the other is soft light.

Now it is time to get into ‘Hard Light vs Soft Light’ so you can figure out which light to use when!

Hard light
Hard light is punchier, it has more contrast, it has more drama in it. It is mostly used when you want to invoke a serious emotion or a very mysterious emotion in your photograph. When you want to create some kind of drama in your photograph or your video, people tend to use hard light.
So what exactly does hard light do?
Hard light is used to create very sharp shadows and highlights in your subject. At one place there will be a ton of light and at the other place, there will be really deep shadows. This will not be a smooth transition, it will be like a very harsh transition. That is how you know the light which is being used is a hard light.
Now, how does a hard light look?
Hard light is usually small in size and is kept close to the subject. The smaller the light and the closer the light, the more harsh or hard the light gets. Harsh light is usually thrown directly at the subject whereas soft light can be bounced and/or reflected on to your subject. So this, in a nutshell, is what hard light is about. 

Soft Light
Now inverse the characteristics of hard light. The bigger the light and farther the light from the subject the softer the light tends to get.
How does a soft light look?
Soft light ideally looks like it is coming from a bigger source when compared to hard light. It is also usually kept farther away from the subject. But the softness of the light depends on the intensity of the light also. Like for example, the sun is very far from us but because (from where we are) it seems to be a tiny source with great intensity, it can create really harsh shadows and highlights when it is shining bright in a clear sky. But let’s say you are photographing on a cloudy day and a cloud comes in front of the sun, now what happens? That tiny speck of light has now become a big cloud of light! The light coming from it is now diffused. It has been reduced in intensity because of the cloud that has come in between your subject. So in totality, the size of the light has increased, its intensity has decreased and it still remains far away. Thus transforming it into a soft light! So this is how it happens in a natural environment and you can recreate the same in a studio. You might have seen those big boxes if you have visited a photo studio, that photographers tend to put over light. That box is called a softbox. Now, why is it called a softbox? Well, because it creates a soft light.
So what does a soft light do?
Soft light reduces contrast so to say. The harsh highlights and shadows are eliminated as much as possible and the transition between them is made as smooth as possible depending on how large your softbox is or your diffuser is. So there are different ways in which you can soften harsh light or hard light. You can either put a softbox, you can use a diffuser panel or you could even reflect it and even bounce it! These are things that you can play around with to transform a hard light into a soft light or for creating a very specific effect that you want to. But let’s not take a deep dive into how you can manipulate light. This post is just about answering what is hard light and what is soft light. Soft light is used to create a light, bright and pleasant mood. It is mostly used when you want a more feel-good photograph. It is most commonly used when photographing families, kids and couples. 

To conclude ‘Hard Light vs Soft Light’ – it all depends on your style, some people do hard light photography more and some tend to do soft light photography more. So it totally depends on your style of photography, which lighting do you prefer more? Once you start playing with light you will definitely develop your personal lighting style and look. Once you have perfected your lighting style your photos will be able to stand out from the rest of the photographers’ because of the specific light styling that you have developed while playing with light.

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