The Softest Light You Can Get: An Easy Guide

The Softest Light You Can Get: An Easy Guide

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.

Closing Thoughts

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. 

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.

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How do you deal with colorcasts? All my images would be green if I used your method in my house.

Use a white balance and grey card

Honestly, I get the same problem when using colored backgrounds, in particular red. Unfortunately, besides clever post-production, there are few methods to resolve this issue.

"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."

Maybe check out this-

Mola makes high end beauty dishes. They are often used "bare" and can be used with a diffusion sock, in fact Mola makes 4 different socks to diffuse / soften the light from the reflector..

Thank you for sending these along, Mike!
I've played with the mola a little bit, and I can't say I like the look too much. This is personal taste of course, and I might fall in love with it in a decade.

Diffusion and softness are two completely different qualities of light. There is hard/soft light, which is controlled by the relative size of your light to the subject, and specular/diffused light, which is controlled by the placement of diffusion fabric on your modifier.
As such a Giant 300 without a diffusor will make soft specular light if placed close to a subject.

Molas IME are very tricky to use, most of the time I see photographers using it like a big reflector, but the key thing is to find the zone (penumbra) where the light is interesting. Usually the light has to be very close to the model, not a on a stand 8 feet away, more like just out of frame.
I never really got the sweet spot and just used it as large reflector, but the photographer I used to share a place with shot fashion and headshots and knew the trick.

I agree with Illya; diffuse light is different from soft light. Making a light source diffuse, such as with a diffusion sock over a beauty dish, does not make the beauty dish a larger light source, and therefore does not provide a softer light. It does make the light source more diffuse, which means that the light rays leave the light source more evenly, and you can sometimes see this in slightly less harsh highlights.

In practice, making a light source more diffuse often does little or nothing with regard to making a light source softer. Making a light source larger always makes the light softer.

Thank you for reading, Alwin! It's always great to have people who understand light in the audience :)
I love your carriage in the storm photo by the way -- looks like a Henri Renard painting.

Absolutely correct - it is ALL about the relative light source size relative to your subject. (And why it is hilarious to see companies advertising little diffusion modifiers on small flashes claiming that they can create a 'soft light' - maybe they can IF they diffuse the light around a room letting the walls become the actual light sources they could help!)

"it is hilarious to see companies advertising little diffusion modifiers on small flashes claiming that they can create a 'soft light"

Exactly, that's hilarious (and marketing...)

Oh I can't with the marketing. Honestly, take a hard reflector and diffuse it. The light won't be softer.
An easier way would be to take a flash head, and shoot it without any protective glass, and then put on a milky protective glass and see what happens.
It's false advertising haha.