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Seeing the light; Part 3

David Hayden Photography

Seeing the light; Part 3

Some links to previous articles discussing the exposure triangle and part 1 of this series on light.



Photography, after all, literally means drawing with light. So, this is the first of series of articles that will discuss some basic principle of light that never change and that we can use to our advantage.

Seeing the light part 1 – What’s your angle?:

Seeing the light part 1 – All Light has Color:

Hard Light vs Soft Light.

Without shadows, light has no definition. Photography, is as much about shadows as it is about light.

Hard light has very distinct shadows with sharp edges.

Hard light is achieved by using light sources that, relatively speaking, are much smaller than the subject.

The sun for example is huge but since it is 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers away it appears very small compared to the objects around us.

Because of that size difference, direct sun light produces very crisp shadows and hard light. Heavily overcast days diffuse the sunlight, spreading it all around creating a huge light source and results in soft light.

Here is an example on a smaller scale. For these photos, I used a bare light source that is not only significantly smaller that the subject, but its distance from subject further decreases the size of the light source. In the top picture, notice how well defined the shadows are on the white card behind the subject.

The lower photo is identical in all respects except I added a softbox to spread out the light making it a light source that’s a good bit larger than the subject. I also moved the light back so the distance to the front of the softbox to subject is similar to what it was when the bulb was bare.

Shadows tell the story.

We often hear photographers bemoan taking pictures in harsh sunlight. They talk about the harshness as if it’s something to overcome. So, is harsh or hard light the bane of a photographer’s existence?

Of course not. All lighting conditions are useful and appropriate for photography. The trick is to create the light that meets your artistic intent. As visual story tellers it’s important we control the light to tell our story.

Hard light is great for accentuating texture, adding drama.

The top image above demonstrates how the hard light enables the viewer to almost feel the texture. It’s immediately obvious the subject has a deep texture. The bottom image of Hollywood actor Sam Umoh gets its sense of drama from the hard light. A soft “flattering” light would tell an entirely different story.

Soft Light

Imagine you are walking down the street carrying your camera and a young couple approach you to pay you large sums of money to take their portraits for their LinkedIn page. Do you think they want hard edgy light? Probably not, but now that I think of it, maybe I should change my LinkedIn photo to something dramatic . . . But I digress. Most likely they are going to want something a little more flattering. Soft light diminishes texture because the light source is larger than subject and the light rays can reach into places that would be in shadow using hard light. A key characteristic of soft light is the shadows it creates have a gradual flow from highlight to shadow instead of a hard line.

Because soft frontal light diminishes texture and skin defects, it is a go to lighting style for portrait photography.

Light leaves clues

A very useful exercise is to study photographs and try to imagine how you would light the subject to get the same effect.

Light is neither good or bad, it’s just light. Landscape photographers are much more at the mercy of the ambient light and actively pick their locations, atmospheric conditions, weather, and time of day to achieve their vision. Sometimes a passing cloud, fog or sunset can completely transform landscape image.

Both hard and soft light are easy to create and work with. For hard light you can use bright sun, a lamp, small flashlight, naked flash or Speedlight. If it is not hard enough, move the light farther away from the subject.

For soft light use light sources as large as or much larger than your subject. You can use diffusers to make hard light soft. For example, take your hard light and bounce it off a large white wall, poster board or even a white cloth. Just be aware as we discussed before, the color of your reflector will influence the color of your pictures.

You can make a large scrim by stretching a white cloth shower curtain over a wooden or PVC frame. Then by shining light through the scrim you get a nice soft light. If you use two scrims, one in front of the other and shine your hard light through them you will get even softer light so long as it is sufficiently large. Of course, you can also buy 5 in 1 reflectors, soft boxes, shoot through and bounce umbrellas, and so on to make your light source bigger.

Just as you can make hard light harder by moving it farther away from the subject, you can soften light by moving it closer. But this has side effects. As the distance from the subject to the light source changes so does the depth of the shadow. This is because of the way light falls off over a distance. But that will be the topic of the next article in this series.

Coming next Sunday:

The fourth article in this series will be about how the depth shadows and the amount of light for exposure are affected by the distance between the light and the subject.

May the images in your mind become your inspired creations!

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