Tips & Tricks: Single Flash Solutions, Part 1: Hard Light vs. Soft Light

Our Tips & Tricks series aims to give beginners, amateurs and professionals alike more ways to approach different aspects of photography and videography. For each installment, we’ve enlisted the expertise of our MPEX staff (or friends of the store) and have received their feedback on method and equipment.

Profoto evangelist John Williamson was in Columbus a few weeks ago for his excellent and comprehensive two-day hands-on Lighting for Portraiture workshop. As a photographer, I haven’t yet got to the point where I feel comfortable with studio lighting and OCF, so it was interesting  for me to sit in on John’s seminar the first day while he discussed basic lighting strategies. One thing I learned was the difference between hard light and soft light.

John defined hard light as light falling into shadow with a very defined border, whereas soft light has the opposite effect, a gradation of light into shadow. Let’s look at the difference between hard light and soft light in this image from the 1947 film noir classic Out of the Past, starring Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum:


As you can see in this image, soft light “wraps” around the subject, gradually fading into shadow, while hard light creates discrete spaces of shadow and light on the subject’s face. You can see distinct contrasts in the shadow under Mitchum’s nose, the hard line of his cigarette’s shadow, and the blade-like curve of the shadow on his neck. Even the soft light on his face could be mistaken for hard light, as the transition from light to shadow, while there, does not seem very gradual. Whereas Mitchum’s face is lit with distinct shadows, soft light wraps around Greer’s face, casting her in a more romantic light.

The differences in effects are dramatic. Where Greer seems to be emerging from the shadows into the light, Mitchum seems to be sinking into a darker psychic terrain, haunted by and retreating from his past in this specific instance. (This also probably has something to do with how exquisitely the two actors are posed in this image.)

Film noir is known for its strong contrasts between light and dark. Everyone knows the (possibly) cliché image of a private detective cast in hard lines of shadow from the sun coming in through his half-closed blinds, as though he were imprisoned by darkness. In film noir, hard light is often utilized to create physical ominousness, a doomed existential outlook, and dark, conflicted psychology. Soft light, on the other hand, would be used to portray the female lead, often a “femme fatale,” as beautiful, sensuous, and almost angelic, even if in an ironic manner.

So how does this apply to photography, and how can we achieve these effects?

Creating soft light and hard light is pretty simple. For soft light, move the light source closer to the subject or create a larger light source with a modifier, such as a softbox or diffuser. For hard light, move the light source further from the subject or “shrink”/funnel the light source with a snoot.

Fortunately for me, Kevin Deskins, product manager at LumoPro and an all-around lighting obsessive, was in the store to review some things with our purchasing manager vis-à-vis the super-secret LP180. I asked him if I could see what the LP180 could do, so we decided to shoot with one utilizing both hard light and soft light, showing how by using even just a single flash with the same subject in the same setting, you can get dramatically different effects with barely any setup.

We took the LP180, his Fuji X100S, and a few light modifiers to an undisclosed location and set up shop. Since Kevin is a much better photographer than me, I decided to let him be the one behind the camera, while I agreed to “model.” Check out the results here:


As you can see, the soft light and hard light both have dramatically different emotional effects. The soft light image makes me look like someone who is greeting you in a theater, as though I were going to help you find your seat. The hard light image makes me look like I’m jumping out of the bushes to scare you.

For the hard light image, the flash was positioned at a distance of 2.5’ with a Rogue 3-in-1 Grid. For the soft light image, the flash wasn’t moved, but Kevin used a Rogue Diffusion Panel to diffuse the light and create a larger light source. Sure, it was simple, but the difference in effect is pretty startling.

Just for fun, let’s see it in B&W:

comparison b_w

Here the differences become even starker. The shadow from my glasses in the hard light image gives my eyes a devious bent and forms a mask on my cheeks. The shadow on my neck separates and accentuates the high contrast on my face. It’s all fairly menacing, as it is in film noir. Meanwhile, the soft light image has pretty much the same effect in B&W as it does in color, though that’s not always the case. But here I still seem rather approachable, if not a little more serious.

It’s easy to get completely different effects with just one flash. And when the LP180 arrives at MPEX, tentatively scheduled for July, one flash is probably all you’ll need.

Midwest Photo

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