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Photography Glossary

What is Hard Light in Photography?

October 23, 2022 by

This is a guide covering everything you need to know about using hard light in photography.

We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):

Table of Contents

What is Hard Light in Photography?

Hard light is essentially a bright directed light that will create harsh shadows. It creates little to no transition between the highlights and shadows, creating high contrast in the images. It is created by direct, undiffused/bounced light that originates from a relatively small single light source.

This can either be your artificial light lighting or the infamous sun.

Imagine the focused beams of sunlight, light bulbs that aren’t diffused by their outer layer that shines directly on your subject/object.

Although the sun is actually huge, since it’s so far away from us it becomes relatively small in size.

A few hard light examples are (but are not limited to):

  • An overhead fluorescent light
  • A direct flash
  • A sunny day (from 9 am to 4 am)
  • A spotlight you see in theatres

This type of light is highly situational and can only work with a handful of models. This is mainly caused by the fact that it tends to highlight the model’s imperfections. I’ll explain more about it below.

hard light example

What Does Hard Lighting Mean?

Hard light can easily be interpreted as a bright light that casts very sharp and dark shadows.

Since it uses a very bright directional light, it will often expose your subject’s features and flaws with it. The source of light is often intense and undiffused too.

One of the main characteristics of hard light is its sharp shadows.

Because hard light is often focused on your subject and casts harsh shadows on them. These shadows draw the viewer’s attention to that specific part of the photo.

See it as how you would usually get bathed by sunlight on a sunny day. Where people who stood under the sun are followed by sharp silhouettes with visible edges.

It adds a strong sense of drama while giving that “roughed-up” look to your image. Aside from that, using lights like these will make your subject appear strong and serious.

Your on-camera flash will also create hard light on your subjects. Your hard lighting emanating from your (unmodified) flash will create the famous “paparazzi” look.

What is Hard Light Used For?

Hard light is barely used (compared to soft light) in portrait photography because of its edgy and dramatic feel.

You will often use this to your advantage to take portrait photographs, even if it’s quite problematic.

Remember that hard light has hard contrasts? Well, the minimal transition also brings out the subject’s imperfections such as blemishes, acne, scars, and the list goes on.

Meaning that you’ll need a near-perfect subject to produce a flattering image without exposing their flaws (or you will have to retouch in post-production).

You can also not use a near-perfect subject if you intentionally want to show the imperfections of your subjects. Interestingly, most portraits that use hard lights use male and athletic subjects.

Don’t get me wrong, portraits of women are just as powerful and leave a more dramatic atmosphere on the image. Street and landscape photographers will also utilize this type of light.

The hard light creates an interesting contrast between the structures and the background. For more “Oomph” turn the image into black & white, which I might say works perfectly with hard light. Edgy, dramatic, yet beautiful at the same time.

Unfortunately, it gets even more difficult to incorporate into your image because it’s hard to control its placement. Especially if you rely on the sun as your source of hard light.

You’ll need to have good weather, little to no clouds (because clouds will soften the light), and arrive at the location on time.

Filmmakers will often use hard light in the serious, mysterious, and sometimes gloomy scenes too.

hard light portrait

How do You Make a Hard Light?

Well, you don’t always have to make hard light. The sun is the largest source of hard light already.

But, the tricky part of using the sun as your source of light is placement (again). Avoid shooting at noon, bring some reflectors and place your subject carefully to create the artistic type of hard light.

Window light is also a potential candidate for hard lighting, sadly it relies on the sun positioning outside the window. You can’t solely rely on nature and its elements for the perfect shooting conditions.

Sometimes you need to shed some light on the subject yourself, by using artificial light of course.

To artificially create hard light, you can use pretty much anything that isn’t diffused. Let’s take your on-camera flash for example, as long as you don’t modify it you’ll get all the hard light you need.

You could also use a grid in this situation to make the light source narrower.

Using your flash is an easy method to recreate that “Avant-Garde” high-end fashion look.

Shining bright light using your equipment at various angles will also produce unique patterns and shadows.

The easiest pattern is the “half-face” which shines one side of the subject’s face and leaves the other half dark. Place your light source at a 90-degree angle on the preferred side and voila.

Hard light will often need little modifiers when compared to soft light.

half face light

What Does Hard Light Look Like?

Direct, hard light will cast harsh shadows on your subjects, which are just perfect for street photography, photojournalism, and even portrait photography as long it’s used accordingly.

Direct light exposes every inch of your models’ faces, eventually highlighting their flaws. You shouldn’t fret about this if you intend to expose their weakness, have a perfect model, or have photos that aren’t razor-sharp.

If the subject’s flaws are too apparent and disrupt the image’s message, don’t hesitate to use editing software.

Lightroom and Photoshop can help you decrease or get rid of imperfections. You can also use it to edit skin tones if you please, but don’t overdo it.

Imperfections and textures aren’t always the enemy of every photographer. Photojournalism is a discipline that captures the world in its most honest manner.

Every picture is taken purely in its originality without worrying about flaws. This discipline also has a close relation to atmospheric portraits.

In a nutshell, you can use direct light to create shadows, emphasize certain skin tones, or even create harsh contrasts.

harsh light ambient light

How Can Hard Light Be Altered?

To transform hard light to soft light, you will need a lot of modifiers and know various techniques.

You can also place your subject under a scrim or in the shade away from direct harsh light.

The larger your source of light is, the softer the light becomes. If you want to make your light source relatively larger, you can easily use a diffuser.

It increases the light’s surface area, making it an easy source of soft light. Another method would be using soft boxes or umbrellas over your off-camera flash/strobe light. It recreates the effects of a diffuser in a similar manner.

Small flash soft boxes are also a viable option that you can use as a budget-friendly alternative.

Not budget-friendly enough? Then learn how to bounce light off your environment.

When shooting using your flash, you can easily bounce the flash on the walls, your hand, or other equipment you have. If you bounce that light against a white wall, ceiling, or any other neutral-colored surface the surface area will become much larger.

And as you know, a larger surface area translates into a larger source of light, eventually creating a soft light.

If you decide to shoot using your flash, go for a lower power setting on it. If you want to make softer light by bouncing it off your surroundings, go for a higher power setting instead.

You can also use mother nature to aid you in shooting with soft light.

Cloudy days have many clouds that will act as your giant diffuser, technically allowing you to shoot using soft light everywhere.

Softer light will also appear when shooting a couple of hours early before sunset, or the first couple of hours after sunrise.

To further explore the subject of photographing in hard light, check out this in-depth video by Cammackey:

What is the Difference Between Hard and Soft Light?

Let’s start with the characteristics that are created by these types of light. Compared to the serious, mysterious, and edgy atmosphere that a hard light produces.

A soft light will create a more universally flattering image that will suit almost all of your needs. Photos created with soft light will then appear warmer, more friendly, and more welcoming.

Since it creates a relatively positive atmosphere for the perfect romance, comedy, and any “neutral” scenes.

You can even say that soft light is more forgiving in photography since it makes the subject’s imperfections less visible. It helps “smoothen” out wrinkles, hides acne, and makes your average model look like a supermodel!

Compared to hard light which isn’t versatile, soft light can be used in many types of photography other than portraits. Some of those fields are fashion photography, travel photography, and food photography.

Please note that all types of light can be used interchangeably, but some types of light are just preferred over others in certain situations.

To effectively make soft light you’ll need a lot of equipment as stated above.

Situations, where you can shoot inside a controlled environment, are highly favored, although clients would also like their pictures taken outside. Which forces you to bring additional sources of light and most likely a reflector.

There are many choices and options to take, so adjust accordingly based on your scene, theme, and client’s request.

Final Remarks

Today’s topic is about hard light and its basics, so let’s wrap it up:

  • What is hard light? The hard light definition is basically a very bright light, hence creating visible shadows with sharp edges.
  • What is the meaning of hard light? Well, hard light is commonly associated with feelings of seriousness, mystery, darkness, and gloom. Film scenes take advantage of the feelings that hard light is associated with, creating images that speak for themselves.
  • You can easily use the sun as your main source of hard light. Some other artificial sources of hard light are spotlights, fluorescent lights, and an unmodified direct flash.
  • If you want to transform your hard light into the universally flattering hard light into soft light, you will need some reflectors and more importantly a diffuser. A diffuser is like a see-through white cloth that light can pass through, this will make your light softer. The
    reflector will fill in some shadows to make the light even softer.
  • If you want to use your flash but don’t want it to become hard light, use a white surface to bounce the light. You can also use a white card or even your hand to bounce the flash off. The light will be spread out and resulting in a softer light.
  • You can easily distinguish both types of light if you remember the hard light characteristics. Hard light is edgy, serious, and full of tension. On the other hand, soft light is the complete opposite, soft light doesn’t even make shadows with defined edges (which makes the images less contrasted). With that, all of the basics are done! Now is the time to apply that knowledge you just learned and practice as much as possible. The more you practice, the more you get used to it, making future photoshoots faster and better.

Good luck!