Design, Photography, & Fashion

What Is the Difference Between Hard Light and Soft Light in Photography? Learn How to Create Both Hard Light and Soft Light

Written by MasterClass

Aug 23, 2019 • 3 min read

MasterClass Video Lessons

Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography

Lighting creates a visual mood in a photograph, and in photography, there are two main types of lighting: hard light and soft light. A skilled photographer should know the difference between hard light and soft light, how to create each, and which one works best for a given shot.

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What Is Hard Light?

Hard light is a focused, often bright light that casts harsh shadows and draws attention to a specific part of a photo.

In hard lighting, the transition between the light and the shadows is very harsh and defined. When your subject is bathed in hard light, their silhouette will cast a distinct, hard shadow. Think of hard light as how things look on a sunny day, with the sun shining directly onto an object.

How Do You Create Hard Light?

Hard light is created by setting up a single point of light that casts very distinct shadows and provides a high-contrast look to your shot, with sharp gradations between light and shadow.

A camera flash is an example of a light that creates hard light. You can use it on-camera to create harsh shadows or off-camera for less severe shadows.

What Is Soft Light?

Soft lighting is a type of light with few hard shadows that’s bright yet balanced. In soft lighting, the transition between the light and the shadows is more of a gradient and much smoother. When your subject is bathed in soft light, there will be little to no shadows on their face. And if there is a shadow, it is not as dark as they are in shadows cast in hard light.

Think of soft light as how things look on a cloudy day or an overcast day, with clouds creating a diffusion between the sun and an object. The cloud diffuses the light from the sun, which lights the object from every direction, creating a soft light.

How Do You Create Soft Light?

To create a soft light, set up a light and bounce it off of a reflector or shoot it through a diffusion panel. If you don’t have lighting equipment, window light and natural light can serve as soft light sources, though be careful that the sun isn’t too harsh, shining directly onto your subject.

When Should You Use Hard Light vs. Soft Light?

Hard light and soft light create different visual moods. Here’s when to use each one:

  • Hard light has adds dimension, depth, and complexity to your subjects. The high-contrast nature of hard light creates a strong sense of drama and gives your photos an edgy, gritty look. Photographers use a hard light source to make their subjects appear strong and serious. It’s also used to give a raw, hard-edged feel to moments in film noir, drama, and action movies.
  • Soft light is more flattering than hard light. It’s more natural-looking and makes your subject appear warm, welcoming, and friendly. Soft light is more forgiving than hard light and requires less retouching. It can help smooth wrinkles, hide acne, and bring out the light in someone’s eyes. Soft light is commonly used in shooting portraits, fashion photography, travel photography, and food photography. Learn more about portrait photography in our complete guide here.

Whether you’re just starting out or have dreams of going professional, photography requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has spent decades mastering her craft. In her first online class, Annie reveals how she works to tell a story through her images. She also provides insight into how photographers should develop concepts, work with subjects, shoot with natural light, and bring images to life in post-production.

Want to become a better photographer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master photographers, including Annie Leibovitz and Jimmy Chin.

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