Hard and soft light

I’m giving a very small talk tomorrow, at Wolfson College with the other photographers who are exhibiting there at the moment: ‘Behind the images - photogaphers talk photography’.  I thought I’d use the book photos I’m showing to talk about hard and soft light.  

The two photos below are of sunlight shining through the pages of a book to produce a shadow on the wall behind.  They were taken a few seconds apart.  When the upper photo was taken, the sun was covered by diffuse cloud.  This has the effect of spreading the light over the clouds, effectively making the light source bigger.  When the lower photo was taken, the sun wasn’t covered by cloud.  In the upper photo, the shadows are less distinct; the line between shadow and non-shadow is broader - the shadows are fuzzier.  The lower photo, on the other hand, has much sharper, more distinct shadows with higher contrast between the shadow and non-shadow regions. The light in the upper photo is said to be softer than that in the lower photo.  Soft light is produced by larger (nearer) light sources; hard light by smaller (further away) sources.  

Both hard and soft light have their uses: hard light can produce dramatic portraits - rock stars on stage, for example; whereas soft light can produce gentler portraits.  There are examples of both hard and soft light portraits in the ‘people and events’ section of my photos on this site.

Using Format