Understanding Hard and Soft Light

Hard vs Soft - Lighting Like a Pro
It might seem like a minor factor in how you light, but understanding this distinction could change everything for your next video.

“Lighting is to film what music is to Opera” -  Cecil B. DeMille.

As the legendary director was implying, light is the foundation of our craft. Big budget feature films spend small fortunes lighting each scene, and with good reason. Light itself can set a story: From the harsh noon sun of a wild west showdown, to a dreamy sunset on a beach paradise, it’s one of the ways we can convey meaning and feeling to our audiences. To create quality video, understanding light is essential.

Hard or soft are two of the most important characteristics in describing light. Hard lighting is direct, creating lots of contrast with hard shadows; it feels very dramatic and accentuates textures and detail. Hard light is specular, collimated and highly directional.  

Soft lighting is diffused and seems to wrap around a subject. It leaves shadows with gradual, soft edges between light and dark. Soft lighting is often thought to be more flattering to subjects by making people appear more youthful and reducing wrinkles.  Soft lighting adds a sense of depth to a subject.

Hard and soft light each create specific feeling in viewers. Knowing how lighting will affect an audience allows video producers to create a specific tone, and ultimately, tell stories more effectively.

Knowing how lighting will affect an audience allows video producers to create a specific tone, and ultimately, tell stories more effectively.

If you wanted to shoot a tense horror scene, hard light could create a sense of tension as shadows allow places for monsters to hide and imaginations to wander. The hard light can be harsh on subjects — even unsettling.

On the other hand, shooting a holiday meal could call for softer light, to create a warm, idyllic family scene. Here, soft light will make subjects look better, and the scene feel open and inviting.

Shape and Control

Understanding two basic principles will allow you to begin shaping and controlling light: 

The larger the source compared to the subject, the softer the light will be.
The closer a light is to its subject, the softer the light will be.

These fundamentals are key to creating the look you want for your video. The magic begins when you apply the principles to modify existing lights.  

Lighting modifiers are the bread and butter of gaffers and cinematographers. Modifiers exist to suit countless needs, but among the most useful are those that can soften a light or make it harder.

For Softer Light

Diffusing a light is often accomplished by putting a translucent layer between the light source and the subject. These can be nylon screen, silk, grid cloth, scrims and more, and can range from affordable to quite expensive depending on size and material.

Small reflector/diffuser combo kits are affordable and easily found online. They should be one of the first tools for any content creator who is ready to step up their lighting.  
China Balls are a type of inexpensive paper globes which surround a bulb. They produce a beautiful diffuse glow and are fantastic to have as part of your kit.    

Another way to diffuse a light is to bounce it off of a surface instead of pointing it directly at the subject. Purpose built bounce-boards are available for lighting, but a spare piece of white foam core or even cardboard can even do the trick in a pinch. It’s even possible to turn a light around, face it towards a nearby wall, and use the light that bounces back. 

For Harder Light

While the purpose of soft lighting is to get it to spread evenly, hard lighting is meant to be shaped and molded. Snoots, flags, barn doors, and even foil are common ways to shape light. 

Snoots are tubes that direct the flow of light and tightly restrict falloff. They narrow the source down, creating a harder light. 

Flags are opaque screens that block all light going through. Barn Doors are similar to flags, but are attached to a light, while flags are normally set between the source and the subject. Both are placed to block edges of a beam, narrowing it, and reducing falloff. 

CineFoil is a black, heat resistant type of foil great for make shift snoots, flags, and other ways of shaping light. Having a roll in your kit can come in handy in all sorts of situations. 

Fresnel lenses are built into some light units. The Fresnel lens is specially cut to collect stray light and focuses it into a highly directional beam. They were originally created for lighthouses, in order for their lamps to get maximum reach out to sea. For video lighting, it is common to find fresnels as sources of hard light.

Try It Yourself

Experimenting with light is an endless passion and core to the art of cinematography.  Hardness is only one of light’s many qualities, but it’s one of the most powerful to understand and utilize for content. This is what creators are looking for to make better quality video. 

Erik Fritts is an award-winning writer and photographer.  He has a degree in film production and experience in television, film, and corporate video production

Issue: 

Erik
Fritts
Wed, 01/11/2017 - 11:06am

Comments

I don't mean to be a buzz killer...

But neither of the photos in this story are soft light. They're both hard. It's obvious by the harsh highlights on her skin. All the photographer did was move the light around to the front to evenly illuminate her face.
Soft light by definition doesn't create specular highlights like that.