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This chapter is from the book

Soft Light vs. Hard Light

Hard light and soft light are terms you hear photographers throw around all the time. Now it is time to actually start putting each to use when photographing people. As you remember from Chapter 1, hard light has a hard edge between the light and the shadow, while a soft light has a smoother transition. For hard light, you use a small light source relative to the subject; for soft light, you use a large light source relative to the subject.

The same light source can be hard or soft depending on its distance from the subject and the type of diffusion you use. If you place an SB-910 Speedlight 5 feet away from your subject, for example, and zoom the head to 200mm, the light will be small and hard. Add the diffusion dome over the head of the flash, change the zoom to 24mm, and the light is a little softer. Plus, because the light bounces around the room, the overall effect is a much softer light. As you can see in Figures 12.15 and 12.16, the same light at the same distance can be quite different even with just a small change in the diffusion. The room where the photographs were taken had white ceilings, and as the light left the flash, the diffusion dome used in Figure 12.16 bounced the light around to greatly soften it. Figure 12.17 illustrates the lighting setup.

Figure 12.15

Figure 12.15 For this image, I placed the SB-910 to the camera’s left and zoomed the flash head to 200mm, creating a small, hard light. You can see that the light didn’t wrap around the facial features but instead created a lot of hard shadows. You can also tell by the angle of the shadows that the light was placed at head height because the shadows move across the face from side to side.

NIKON D750 ISO 200 1/80 SEC. F/5.6

Figure 12.16

Figure 12.16 Without moving the position of the flash or the model, I created a softer light by adding the diffusion dome and changing the zoom position of the flash head from 200mm to 24mm. The light bounced around the room and created a much softer portrait light as you can see by more open shadows.

NIKON D750 ISO 200 1/80 SEC. F/5.6

Figure 12.17

Figure 12.17 This is the lighting diagram showing the placement of the light used in Figures 12.15 and 12.16.

In practical terms, if you want a hard light, just move the light further away from the subject and don’t put any diffusion material in its path. Want a softer light? Move the light in close and add diffusion. The diffusion can be a softbox, an umbrella, or a diffusion panel.

When it comes to using hard or soft light, you need to decide how you want the subject to be shown. Neither is inherently better or worse than the other, but people tend to like soft more because it is more flattering, especially to faces.

For Figure 12.18, I placed a large softbox very close to the subject to create a soft and pleasing light across her face. The only place you can even see a shadow is where her hair falls across her cheek.

Figure 12.18

Figure 12.18 For this photo of Mia, I used a large softbox as close as I could to her to get the softest possible light.

NIKON D2X ISO 100 1/250 SEC. F/4.5

For the portrait of Ted in Figure 12.19, I used a single SB-910 Speedlight with a snoot to control the spill of light and placed it quite far away from him to create a much harder light. The light created the mood and tone of the image.

Figure 12.19

Figure 12.19 Ted has a look that worked well with a hard light. Here he is lit with a single, off-camera SB-910 and snooted to control the spill of the light.

NIKON D4 ISO 100 1/250 SEC. F/4.5

Figure 12.20 illustrates a combination of both hard light and soft light. The harder light high up and off to the right of the camera creates a hard shadow on the model, which is especially noticeable under and to the side of her nose. The large reflector placed as close as possible and just out of the frame creates the much softer fill light. There is also a light on the background that is creating the pure white backdrop, but because the subject is actually quite close to the background, a lot of that light is bouncing back and causing the bright areas between her arms and body.

Figure 12.20

Figure 12.20 Using a single light and a reflector for the front of this image created an overall soft light, but you can see some harder shadows under and to the side of her nose.

NIKON D4 ISO 100 1/250 SEC. F/4.5

A hard light was used to create the hard shadows on both the face and the clothing of the subject. The original pose was for the subject to be looking straight at the camera, but something distracting happened over to the side and the resulting image ended up being one of the favorites from the shoot (Figure 12.21).

Figure 12.21

Figure 12.21 For this photo of Sam, I used a single SB-800 off-camera and you can see the hard shadow under his jaw and on the shirt.

NIKON D4 ISO 400 1/250 SEC. F/5.6

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