What’s the Difference Between Soft Light and Hard Light?

18 May, 2017

Written by: Jared Platt

What’s the Difference? is a series of video lighting tutorials. Each episode responds to a single question. In this episode, Jared Platt compares soft light and hard light. The entire series, including all videos, articles and lighting diagrams, is available at our website. And feel free to leave a question in the comment section if you have one!

Working in the studio, the home or any controlled environment is a great time to slow down and do a lot of light shaping. We did this recently to compare soft light and hard light. In both cases, we used the Profoto B2 Off-Camera Flash and simply changed out the OCF Light Shaping Tools.

Unlike outside shots, where the ambient exposure is determined first and the flash is used to augment that light, in the studio, we assume complete darkness and begin building our lighting from scratch.

On this set, we used two lights and a Collapsible Reflector. The hair light (high above and behind our model) was a B1 Off-Camera Flash with a Zoom Reflector and a 5º Grid. This light helped to separate her and the chair from the background and provide some depth to the shot. The main light source was a B2, which was modified first by a softbox, and then by a grid and snoot combination. A large white Collapsible Reflector laid at an angle below and in front of the chair to capture and reflect stray light back toward the chair, to keep it from falling into too deep a shadow. Finally, a black piece of foam core acted as a flag on the right side of the frame, to help even out the shadows on the barn doors behind the chair.

Again, throughout the shoot, we only changed the OCF Light Shaping Tool on the main light.

Soft Light

We began the shoot with an OCF Softbox 2×3’ on the B2 Head. This light was slightly to the right and high above the model. From a distance of three feet, the 2×3’ softbox was large enough to create fairly soft light, but small enough to allow for some texture to exist in the fabrics. Moving the softbox closer would have increased the relative size of the light and thereby soften the light on the subject even more. Our distance gave me enough texture in the fabric and volume to the shapes in the image to create a hint of drama.

The light from the softbox also spread nicely around the room, on the chair, behind the chair, on the model and behind her on the chair. The transitions from highlight to shadow are soft and subtle. This soft light effect is the result of a relatively large light source with an infinite number of points of light traveling in multiple directions, from one edge of the light source to the other. Each point of light fills in shadows created by interruptions to the trajectory of other points of light. Hence, no shadow is too dark and no transition is too quick.

 

 

Hard Light

Changing the softbox out for an OCF Snoot took our light source from a large light source to a very small one. Adding an OCF Grid Kit underneath the OCF Snoot further insured that the points of light within that small space would be traveling in a straight path and, therefore, would be less likely to fill in neighboring shadows.

With no other changes, our image went from bright and full of light, to dark and dramatic. The softbox spread its light all over the floor, the chair, the model and the background. The OCF Snoot and OCF Grid Kit kept the light localized in one very specific place–the model’s face and body. Observe the transitions from highlight to shadow. Now they are hard. This is also what has intensified the textures in the fabrics throughout the image, and what has turned the lights out on the rest of the room.

I love both images for different reasons. There is no right answer in this debate. Soft light and hard light both have their perfect uses, and sometimes, the same image can look equally beautiful with soft light or hard light. In this case, I lean toward the hard light image created with the OCF Snoot and 30º Grid.

 

 

Conclusion

It is striking how drastically different your images can be when you change just one light modifier. This is why I urge everyone to get to know as many Light Shaping Tools as possible.

So, the next time you are working a shot and have it in the can, don’t stop there! Change out one modifier and try to get something completely different from the same shot. It’s like getting a two for one special on photos!

 

Watch more video lighting tutorials in this series 

Learn more about the Off-Camera Flash system

Thanks,

Jared Platt

Jared’s website

Jared on Facebook & Twitter

Written by: Jared Platt

Products used in this story

OCF Grid Kit

A kit of three portable grids for our off-camera flashes

OCF Snoot

A snoot for off-camera flashes

OCF Softbox Rectangular

A popular, versatile softbox for off-camera flashes