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What do the edges of the shadows look like?

You will recall that, near the beginning of the chapter, I said, “Look at the light and think about the shadows.” The shadows will reveal many details about the lighting. For instance, you can draw a line from a point on a shadow to the spot that created it and you’ll see the direction of the light source. You can also examine the edges of the shadows and learn if the light source was small or large.

Hard and Soft Shadows

Think about the shadows! Are they defined sharply—like your shadow on a sunny day? Or are the edges fuzzy—like your shadow on a cloudy day? Photographers call a light that creates a sharply defined shadow a hard light and a light that creates shadows with fuzzy edges a soft light. In Figures 1.19 and 1.20, you can see the difference between hard and soft shadows.

Figure 1.19

Figure 1.19. I lit this shot with a single Speedlite at 45° right. Because the flash was smaller than the bunch of flowers, it created many hard-edged shadows within the shot.

Figure 1.20

Figure 1.20. Without moving the Speedlite, I added a shoot-through umbrella between the flash and the flowers. This increased the apparent size of the light source so that it could send light at the subject from multiple angles. As you can see, all of the hard shadow edges have disappeared.

Hard shadows are created when the size of the light source is small when compared to the size of the subject. Astronomers tell us that the size of the sun is huge. Yet, Earth’s distance from the sun makes it appear relatively small in our sky. So, on a sunny day, your shadow has hard edges.

Conversely, soft shadows are created when the size of the light source is larger than the subject. Let’s say that, while you are admiring your hard-edged shadow on the sidewalk, a bank of clouds drifts between you and the sun. You notice that the edges of your shadow become very soft. What causes this? Essentially, the clouds replaced the sun as the light source. Sure, the light originated at the sun. But, as it traveled through the mist of the clouds it bounced around. So instead of the light coming at you from one direction (the sun), the light came at you from many directions (the clouds).

As photographers, we have many tools to increase the apparent size of our light sources: reflector disks, diffusion panels, umbrellas, and softboxes—all of which will be covered in later chapters. For now, review Figures 1.41.6 to make sure that you understand the differences between direct, diffused, and reflected light. In your photos, the differences will be revealed by the shadows.

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