Quality of Light: Hard and Soft Light in Photography

Photography is the capturing of light. A common lighting misconception made by those new to photography is that only the amount of photography light is important when it comes to taking a picture. But quality of light is one of the most vital aspects of picture making.

Quality of light is largely determined by the light’s size and source. Other qualities, like color and direction are also integral to creating beautiful photographs, but they will be discussed in another article. Light is often described as hard or soft, and choosing one or the other will affect your photo’s mood and overall appearance.

Hard Light

Photography Light

Juliet in hard light by Jay DeFehr

One studio light was the sources for this portrait with deep shadows cast from the subject’s chin and nose.

Hard light comes from a small or distant light source. This kind of light results in harsh shadows that create deep contrast in images, since the light is more direct and doesn’t scatter as much as diffused light. Subjects lit with hard light appear to have sharp, defined edges.

A common example of a hard light situation is a clear, sunny day at noon. Though the sun is actually a very large light source, its distance from the Earth in the middle of the day makes it a small light.

Soft Light

Photography Light

33/366 – Portrait of Live, with scarf by Andreas Øverland

Soft light from a window on a cloudy day evens out skin tones and minimizes shadows.

Soft light comes from a big light source relative to the subject. It is diffused and casts few shadows. This type of light is abundant on cloudy days. Everything is evenly lit because the clouds serve as a giant softbox.

Softboxes are used to make a small light source, such as as strobe, cover more area; the light source is enlarged. The closer the light source is brought to the subject, the larger and softer the light quality will be. This is why light appears softer as the sun gets closer to the horizon.

Quality over quantity is a motto that rings true in photographic lighting. It is, of course, crucial to have enough light, but the quality of light is what lets your photo take on a life of its own. Though some photographers refuse to shoot in hard light, others use all types of light to their advantage to create a variety of looks in their images.

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Profile photo of Nicoal Price About Nicoal Price

​Nicoal is a New England photographer with a penchant for learning. Her work ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Visit nicoalprice.com for more info.

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