There are numerous applications for soft light, from portraiture to product photography, from macro to fashion. Soft light stands as one of the cornerstones of photographic expertise.
In this concise guide, I will elucidate how to effortlessly achieve soft light. Soft light proves valuable across all photography genres that necessitate external lighting. It serves as an uncomplicated means to illuminate a headshot or perhaps a fashion shot. Recognized for its gentle quality, soft light imparts a captivating and appealing touch to nearly any scenario, given proper application. It gracefully smoothens imperfections, offering a stark contrast to hard light, which accentuates every detail.
The fundamental ingredient for achieving soft light is not diffusion or a softbox. You can attain soft light without employing either of these. The critical aspect to grasp about soft light pertains to the light source's relative size compared to the subject. The larger the light source's surface area in relation to the subject, the softer the resulting light.
This core principle of lighting holds true universally. For instance, if you position a standard three-foot octagonal softbox in close proximity to the subject, you'll generate remarkably soft light. As soon as you move this softbox farther away, the light will progressively turn harder. The light source remains unaltered; it's still the same softbox. The only change lies in its relative size concerning the subject. This is a misconception I frequently encounter among photographers who seek to create soft light by introducing diffusion.
Does Diffusion Equal Soft Light? No
Applying a layer of diffusion won't inherently soften your light source. Soft light arises solely from a substantial light source in relation to the subject. Diffusion only alters your light's specular highlights and diminishes hotspots. Consequently, placing diffusion over a hard reflector and positioning it far from the subject won't yield soft light. Conversely, positioning the same hard reflector very close to the subject might produce some softness. However, it's important to note that soft light shouldn't stem from hard reflectors aimed at the subject. Here are the most effective techniques for achieving ultra-soft light in a studio setting:
Bouncing Light With a Twist: My Way
As previously mentioned, the size of your light source relative to the subject dictates light softness. What's the most expansive light source at your disposal? Precisely, it's the room you occupy. If you succeed in illuminating the entire room, making the walls and ceiling into light sources, soft light naturally emerges. Various methods achieve this, including simply pointing a bare-bulb flash at the ceiling and walls.
However, a more optimal approach exists, particularly for smaller spaces. Given the need for the largest possible light source, consider bouncing light from a v-flat onto the walls and then directing it towards the subject. While this method is commendable, it bears limitations, as it can't efficiently produce top-down lighting for facial structure and dimension. This leads us to the third method.
I prefer coupling a softbox with bounced light. Essentially, it mirrors the first setup, replacing the bare-bulb source with a softbox for diffusion and softening the light exiting the source. Consequently, the soft light emanating from the softbox becomes even softer through wall reflection. This method is ideal for generating soft light in confined spaces, effectively transforming any area into a vast light source.
This represents my approach to achieving the softest possible light. It's a technique I frequently employ for shoots demanding uniform illumination. While far from the most versatile, it is certainly a good problem solver for those times when you have limited space to work with.