Searching for soft light is a quest that makes photographers rise before the sun comes up, puts us to bed early and allows us to take great naps during the mid-day. However, shooting in the finest light conditions
is not always ideal for being creative and developing your skills. Maybe it’s time to consider saying goodbye to dawn and dusk, not forever, but for the time being. It might be harder, but you get to sleep in past sunrise.
There are advantages to putting yourself in a box and finding your way out. Each time a photographer shoots, no matter your genre, it is a maze of variables which needs to be navigated. Making your challenge
more difficult will force you to find new keys to open new doors and become more versatile.
That’s where hard light comes in. Hard light is light that results in shadows having a very hard edge and having high contrast from dark to light in a relatively short distance. Soft light on the other hand, is characterized by a gradual fade from dark to light where the lightest and darkest colors are separated by a gradient of shades.
“Shooting in hard light is like having a blank white paper with a chunk of charcoal that you pulled out of your fireplace.”
The difference between hard and soft lighting
Hard and soft light are created by the relative distance between two parameters. Those parameters are: the size of the light source and the distance of the light source to the subject. The larger the light source and the closer it is to the subject, the softer the shadows. The smaller the light source and the further the distance, the harder the shadows become. One example is the sun. It is a very large light source, but its distance is immensely far. Thus, on clear days the sun is a very small point of light in the sky and therefor the shadows are very hard (which is the challenge presented here). However, if it is a cloudy day, the clouds act as a diffuser for the sun making the light source effectively larger and closer and thus the shadows become soft.
In general, soft light has a lower dynamic range so you are not blowing out your highlights or having totally black areas in your photo and allowing you to capture more information and thus not losing detail. In soft light you basically have everything going for you and that gives you free reign. Shooting in hard light is like having a blank white paper with a chunk of charcoal that you pulled out of your fireplace. It forces you to compose and create with a different mindset
and that is what helps you to expand your photographic capabilities.