Hard, Medium, or Soft Light?

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As photographers, the choice is up to us to determine what kind of light to use in our work. Light is the essence of photography; without it, we can’t get an exposure to register on our film or digital sensor. But we have choices when it comes to the kind of light we want to either suit our need, like in a family portrait, or for creative effect, like fashion, editorial, or something completely creative. Light is our muse, our mistress, our all-consuming friend and foe alike, for light—in all of its forms—must be handled with care so our end result reflects our creative vision. 

Editor's Note: This is a guest blogpost from Robert Harrington

Hard Light   

Hard light is just that: hard and unforgiving.

We can use the harsh nature of light to get creative, and use it to our advantage. Why not go out and shoot at 2:00 in the afternoon? Why avoid the harsh shadows of broad daylight? Why wait until the golden hour (around sundown or sunup) for that perfect light? Does the sun wait for us? No. What we need to do as photographers is to learn how to use this light to our advantage, and add supplementary or fill light to get the shot.

In the studio, why not use a grid or snoot as a main light? Create, experiment with, and look for light that you don’t normally see—don’t just go for the softbox and that beautiful and flattering soft light. Go for a look you are not used to. Try something new!

In this image, the model is sitting on a granite couch near Belvedere Castle in Central Park, NYC. Shot at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, the model was positioned so that the harsh overhead daylight streamed through the trees and just hit the top of her right leg and head. I used the hard light coming through the trees to my advantage. Then I used off-camera flash as back and separation light, and then as a main light. 

Hair light: Sun through the trees

Main light: Nikon SB910 into a Large Rogue Flashbender, diffusion panel

Backlight: Nikon SB800, Large Rogue Flashbender, Full Cut CTO Gel, diffusion panel

In the studio, while going for the classic 40’s Hollywood Glamour look of George Hurrell, the model was lit using a series of snoots and grids. This type of look is one that was perfected by the glamour portrait artists of the late 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. So, by choosing a specific look, I was able to light my subject with modern tools to get that hard lighting, a look common to hot-lighting of the era. This is a departure for a great many photographers who always seem to be looking for that perfect light. Well, forget about the perfect light, and go for something different. Try something new. Get out of that soft light rut, and get into hard, contrasty, and unforgiving light. 

Notice the hard loop light under the model’s nose and chin. Notice how the light is unforgiving and hard and just brutal on her skin. This is the creativity of light. Why not experiment with a style, with a look, or with a concept outside of your comfort zone. You may be surprised at the results!

Main light: Nikon SB910, Small Rogue Flashbender rolled into a snoot

Hair light: Nikon SB800, Large Rogue Flashbender rolled into a snoot

Gobo light: Nikon SB800, Rogue 45º Grid

Medium Light

Medium light is just what the term suggests—it falls somewhere between hard and soft light. This type of light suits many photographic styles that want to capture that in-between look: not too hard, yet not too soft. The lighting here is very much like the light coming from a beauty dish, so you are able to capture great detail with light falloff, but you also capture the smoothness of skin and tone. The characteristics of this light fall in the realm of a one-light portrait, or editorial shot with a medium light modifier, or even a scrim to diffuse the hard light of the sun, speedlight or strobe. The light falloff is soft but hard at the same time, giving us that in-between look of medium light, which is characterized by soft yet deep shadows.   

The model was lit with just one light and small softbox. You can see the soft, subtle changes of light on her face, which is characteristic of Rembrandt lighting—soft and full on detail on the highlight side, yet dark, with smooth shadow falloff on the shadow side. 

Main Light: Nikon SB910, Lastolite 24x24 Ezybox

Medium light can also be direct, forward light that gives us some soft shadow detail under the nose and chin, also exemplified by the short drop shadow on the wall. Lit by one light source, the model was placed as close to the wall as possible, and posed simply as if sitting on a porch deck or chatting with friends. The lighting is frontal and flat, but not overdone. The approach here is to get medium-depth shadows with front light, but not overwhelm the skin or clothing. Medium light is a favorite of many photographers, as it is easy to execute, and the results are fantastic. 

Gear Used: Nikon SB910, Large Rogue Flashbender, diffusion panel

Soft Light

Now on to the lighting most of us strive to attain—that beautiful soft light that is just so flattering to all subjects, young and old. This is the kind of light photographers chase during the golden hour of daylight, when many portrait, high-school senior, or family sittings on the beach are booked. This is the light we photographers spend oodles of money on, buying softboxes, beauty dishes, umbrellas, etc., to attain that look—that beautiful soft pleasing look—that not only flatters our subjects, but keeps us out of Photoshop. 

In this image, the model was photographed in much the same way as the model for Medium Light. She was lit with direct frontal flat light. This is a common soft lighting style that maintains skin texture and tone, and illuminates the highlights and shadows in one shot, and with one light source. This is a personal favorite lighting style of mine. I love the soft flat light that makes my subjects almost glow, and look their best. With this style, any irregularity in the skin is washed out, but tone remains. 

Gear Used: Nikon SB910, Westcott 7’ Parabolic Reflector as main light, bare head SB800 as edge light

In this next image, the model was lit by aiming the softbox directly toward her for another take on full frontal light. This light is also soft and pleasing, but you retain a bit more shadow detail on the skin by moving the light just slightly to one side or another.  In the setup shot, look at main light placement. It is just off to the side of the camera. Indeed, when the shot was taken, I stood right next to the softbox. There is a touch of loop light under the left side of her nose. This type of lighting is simple and fun to execute, because it is main and fill in one source. 

Gear Used: Nikon SB910, Creative Light 24 x 36 softbox with Creative Light Speedring, backlight bare head SB800 with Tough Plus Green gel attached

“The best light is soft light,” someone once said to me. I fully disagree. The best light is the light that is available to you, the light you choose to use, and the light that best suits your purpose.

I prefer the following quote, which I read somewhere online. I don’t know who said it, but I love it, as it encompasses everything, every nuance, and every choice concerning light: “Is that the best you could do with the light that you had?” With that in mind, go out at two in the afternoon in the blazing sun, look for medium light, create soft light to flatter your subjects, but whatever you do—get out and shoot in any light!!

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With hard and medium light your doing with color what photographers in the last century did with 'black and white' and your results are stunning.  You've added the drama to a portrait and made it memorable.  I'm a fan of 'Yousuf Karsh' and your technique is refreshing in color.  There is a place for softlight, it sells soap or nostalgia.