Hard Light Versus Soft Light Explained

It seems hard light is trending these days. From elaborate food spreads in Bon Appetit to fashion shoots for Burberry, hard light is in. If you've ever wondered how to create this look, this quick and simple tutorial will lay it out for you. I'll share a few concepts, and you can watch the video for a demonstration. 

There are two things that affect the hardness and softness of your light: size and distance. The rule for size is: the smaller the light source in relation to your subject, the harder the light will be. Alternately, the larger the light source, the softer the light becomes on your subject.

This is an example of hard light. I shot this with one bare-bulb strobe from the left and a white reflector on the right to bounce a hint of light back.  Photo by Michelle VanTine Photography

Hard light has bright highlights, dark shadows, and less transition between the two. You can achieve this look by having a small light source: bare bulb, for example. Also, you can adjust the intensity of the light by bringing it closer to or father away from your subject. The farther from the subject you get, the harder the light becomes. 

This is an example of hard light. The highlights are very bright, the shadows are very dark, and there is very little transition between the highlights and shadows. Photo: Michelle VanTine Photography

Soft light has softer highlights and shadows, and the transition between the two is smooth and gradual. You can achieve this look by having a large light source such as a softbox or umbrella. 

This is an example of soft light. I lit the model with two strobes: one had a 60" softbox on it and the other had a 34" softbox. The light wraps softly and gradually around the subject. Photo by Michelle VanTine Photography

As you can see, with the two large softboxes placed close to the model, the light wraps around the model softly with very gradual transitions.

This video above shows one setup lit both ways: with hard light and soft light. You will see how simple it is to create both looks.

Lighting can sometimes seem more intimidating than it actually is. I remember earlier in my career being overwhelmed by the thought of off-camera lighting and staying away from it completely. Eventually, I decided to "do it scared." I wrote about that here: If You Can’t Beat the Fear, Do It Scared: Tackling 2022 With Courage.

I quickly realized that it's not at all as overwhelming as it seemed. I adored having more creative control over my work once I knew how to more precisely shape my lighting. The best way to learn is to grab your light and see what you come up with. You can start with this easy assignment. Tag us on our Fstoppers Instagram to show us what you create.

Have you tried hard and soft light? What's your favorite? Is there any other lighting trend you've wanted to learn more about? Leave a comment below. 

Michelle VanTine's picture

Michelle creates scroll-stopping images for amazing brands and amazing people. She works with businesses, public figures, sports & products. Titled “Top Sports Photographers in Miami” in 2019 (#5) and 2020 (#4), she was the only female on the list both years. Follow the fun on IG @michellevantinephotography @sportsphotographermiami

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