Light Diffusion: The Battle Between Soft Light and Hard Light

1_two lightbulbs side by side

Light Diffusion: The Battle Between Soft Light and Hard Light

In photography, as in painting, light is everything. With the right lighting, you can reshape characters, add depth, tone, and mood to your work. Knowing how to use the different types of contrasts will greatly improve your work. As, you will see, any portrait or a close-up of a pet, will completely transform under the right setting.
In our article about light diffusion, we are going to talk about perhaps one of the most controversial subjects in photography, which is the difference or the battle between soft light and hard light.

If we were to make a comparison, we could easily say that hard light is like a sunny day, whereas soft light is like a day filled with clouds. You could argue that soft light is infinitely superior to hard light, since this type of lighting is gentler, produces very little difference between highlights and shadows, and, above everything else returns amazing results when used in portraits.
On the other hand, hard light is better used to emphasize deep shadows and textures. Let’s take a closer look at the two type of light.

Soft Light for Light Transitions

2_cup of coffee on table

As we’ve mentioned before, soft light has a greater applicability when it comes to emphasizing certain facial traits. For example, when shooting a portrait, a softer light will greatly reduce any wrinkles or facial imperfections, making the model look much younger.
Furthermore, soft light is also good for adding a sort of cheeriness to the whole picture. By default, pics shot with a soft light appear to be more vivid, giving off a warm glare. The transition between highlights and shadow is very soft, and, most times, indistinguishable.

All the pictures shot using a softer light will have richer details, and the picture itself will appear to be uniform, as all the shadows are filled up.
However, if you want to become a student of soft light, bear in mind that this kind of setting has little direction to it, meaning it can accentuate the picture as a whole, but not the finer details, or textures.

Softer light is the foundation of any great portrait photography, but it can also bring some freshness to a study of still elements, such as a basket of fruits.
It also has the tendency to produce distinct hard-edged shadows, which, sometimes, can be visually displeasing.
Hard Light – For a Touch of the Dramatic

3_dog on the beach

Hard light is often employed to add a little dramatic effect and touch of picturesque to the whole picture. By comparison, using soft light, an individual might have the tendency to blend in with the background, whereas a hard light has the capability of truly emphasizing the model.
A photo depicting the human body, which was photographed with a hard light, will have a more dramatic touch to it. Furthermore, thing kind of lighting can truly make the model stand out and not the background. With a hard light, you will be able to achieve deeper shadows and spectacular highlights.

Another good piece of advice to keep in mind when it comes to photography is that hard light is always helpful when you want to emphasize textures.
Also, if you want to add a certain mood to the picture like making the model appear pensive or nostalgic, hard light, with its barely visible shadows, will aid you greatly.
So, who will win in the battle between soft light and hard light? The truth is that neither one of them. Hard light and soft light are both equal in the eyes of a professional photographer since they serve various roles.

As we’ve mentioned above, soft light is a good choice if you want to create gentle transitions and soft shadows, while the hard light is mainly used to add a certain degree of depth. Furthermore, when creating a portrait, it’s advisable to use a soft light, as opposed to hard light, since this type of light is capable of hiding wrinkles or other types of facial imperfections.
However, the hard light goes better with hair or other parts of the body, in order to create that something special. So, when choosing the type of lighting for your next photo, bear in mind these tips.

Photo credits: 1, 2, 3

Mike Jones is a Boston University graduate, with an MS in Mass Communication. He is a full-time writer, passionate about photography and technology. He is one of the editors of VirtualPhotographyStudio.

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