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Photography Glossary

What is Soft Light in Photography?

October 23, 2022 by

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

Table of Contents

What is Soft Light?

The easiest way to understand soft light is by identifying it. Soft light creates shadows that gradually transition from light to dark. This soft gradation is the essence of soft light’s meaning.

Your subject/object will have no visible harsh shadow lines when presented with soft light. The effect is created when the source of light is diffused or scattered. The light will typically pass through a medium before hitting its subject.

To give you a better explanation of the concept, here are a few soft light examples:

  • A cloudy day
  • Sunlight enters the room through a curtain
  • Indirect light

All of these examples have the trait of being diffused. Diffusing the light source (in this case the sun) will make it larger and softer, giving it a creamier look.

Photographers can either use white fabrics, softboxes, scrims, or other mediums.

The medium can be either your big clouds or artificial diffusers that can help scatter the light. The diffused light can also be bounced around more than once before hitting its intended target.

Soft light setups will either use multiple large sources of light or place the light close to the subject. This prevents harsh shadows that are usually created by a source of hard light (like the sun).

In the context of well-lit photos, size is key. The larger and closer your source of light is, the softer it becomes. Large sources of light will bathe your subject all around with light, reducing contrast and filling shadows.

soft light portrait
using soft light

What is Soft Light Used For?

Soft light photography is commonly used for warm, welcoming images, all of this while making the subject’s imperfections less noticeable.

The lighting itself is flattering for most situations, transitions from high to low contrast are unnoticeable and perfectly smooth.

You can also think of it as the tamed version of hard light. It is balanced and smooth and covers up the subject in light, resulting in the famously soft light. Even shadows do not appear as dark as they normally would.

The nature of soft light is the way it wraps around the subject. Soft light fills in the layers of shadows, reducing the feeling of depth in the image.

This makes soft light perfect for ambient lighting and eliminates double shadow.

If your contrast ratio between the key and fill light is 1:1, you run the risk of making double shadows. Using soft light can fill in the shadows, making the image look much more natural since we are used to one shadow instead of two.

Soft light is generally used in shooting fashion items, traveling, food photography (check out best cameras for food photography), and also portraits.

Portraits get the best use out of soft light because they can help hide wrinkles and acne, you know the traditional signs of aging and overall skin imperfection.

Most photographers would choose a cloudy day over a sunny day. The clouds will help diffuse the light making it softer and flattering. Perfect weather for photographers would be a sunrise, a cloudy day, or a beautiful clear sunset.

Sadly, soft light does not give your image an “edgy” or dramatic effect. It does a bad job at making textures on the subject’s clothes or furniture more noticeable. It can even make your image appear flat and lose its appeal when misused.

How Do You Make a Soft Light?

The soft light definition implies that it can be derived from hard light.

In this case, you are given two choices, to either use a bigger source of light or fill in the shadows.

Generally, people would rather have other items make the light bigger and not buy a new, larger source of light. Here are several methods used to “cheat” it:

  • Bringing your source of light closer to the subject. This will make it seem bigger, although the size does not change at all. If needed, you can also turn down its intensity.
  • Using modifiers such as soft boxes, umbrellas, or even scrims.
  • Lastly, you can also bounce your flash off a surface and onto your subject. This is also known as a soft flash.

What annoys photographers the most in a poorly lit image are the shadows. If you wish to fill in the shadows to get a softer light, there are two easy methods:

  • Using a reflector. This item will bounce the light back to the subject, thus filling in the shadows. Equipment such as a gem ball or a space light will help you with a 360 fill.
  • You could also use another flash to fill in the shadows.

The more traditional way to create soft light is by using silks, frames, and things that you can shoot the light through to increase its size. You can also use natural “equipment” to help create soft light. The big fluffy clouds in the sky will function as your personal soft boxes.

To further explore this subject, check out this in-depth video by the Northrups:

What is a Soft Flash?

Soft flash is not a real team, but, I do know several methods to soften your flash.

Remember that I mentioned that you can soften the light using the equipment? Well, one of the pieces of equipment is a flash. Your flash will usually become a source of hard light, making your subject look more glamorous and intimidating.

Fashion photographers that have perfect-looking models will take advantage of the harsh shadows and make their models look even better. This may be pleasing if it suits your theme (and model), but most of the time people want flattering, soft light that hides imperfections.

The easiest way to fix this problem and turn it into a soft flash is by reflecting it onto another surface. You can start by either using a white umbrella, softbox, or even white walls around you.

Since the size of light used for soft light can be modified by distance and actual light source size, this becomes possible.

For example, the sun is the biggest source of light in the solar system and unfortunately, it is so small because of its distance to earth, that it will appear tiny.

We are technically using science or physics in this technique, but we are simply just bouncing light.

You can use walls next to you to bounce light onto your subject. If you are in a run-and-gun situation, you can aim your flash up at the ceiling too.

bounce light soft light
using walls to bounce the light

Certain flashes will have a white card that you can pull up. Using the white card as a medium to bounce your flash will give off that soft wash from the front, while also giving your subject some catchlight. The catchlight effect in the subject’s eye will add more life to the image.

If the white card is not enough for the front soft light, you can try to put your hand over it. It may sound weird at first, but many photographers use this method. Since the hand is bigger than the white card, it makes the light softer and appears warmer.

Each piece of equipment will help you achieve the soft light that you wanted. The only difference may be the direction of the light and warmth.

What is the Difference between Hard Light and Soft Light

Lighting is an important aspect of every image that exists since an image without lighting would just be dark.

Lighting exists to “shed light” on your subject and make certain qualities stand out above the rest. The moods that an image gives its audience are affected by the type of light used.

So here is a brief explanation of hard light.

1. Hard Light

This type of lighting is more focused, it will cast a harsh shadow that is well defined and catches the viewer’s eye.

As an example, textured items such as blankets, clothes, and shoes are often shot using hard light. Using a hard light will drag the viewer’s eye to the textured quality that it has, making it pop out.

Hard light has this very defined and “hard” transition between light and shadows.

Subjects that are beamed by hard light will have a distinct hard shadow as their silhouette. It creates a high contrast look with sharp gradations.

Some natural examples of hard light are:

  • The sun on a sunny day without any clouds.
  • A bare bulb or a bulb without any shades.
hard light sun
hard light due to the sun

You can make hard light by either using a camera flash or taking photos when the sun is at its brightest. In general, you will only need a single light source that is aimed from a distance. Streetlights, a flashlight, as long as it fits the definition, the sky is the limit.

Hard light is also better suited to themes such as moody, edgy, or dramatic.

The hard light usually works best on guys for some reason. Maybe because it is reminiscent of the edge lords and moody rock bands that are still popular today.

2. Soft Light

The key differences lie in the effects and image “vibe.”

Soft light is better at flattering contrasts and highlighting more details.

soft light example
soft light photo example

Hard Light provides a distinct shadow that brings out the features and textures of the subject.

Images created with soft light are more heart-warming, flattering, and warm.

On the contrary, hard light will give an edgy, dramatic flair to the image.

Which is Better, Soft Light or Hard Light?

Each type of lighting has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Both of these lights will shine their best in their own field. Regular images will benefit more by using soft light, although the concept should come first before deciding the type of lighting to use.

Although soft light is commonly used in beauty photography to hide imperfections, there are also photographers with their models that purposefully use hard light.

They use hard light to either strengthen the subject’s already perfect looks or expose the flaws of their human subjects.

Proper knowledge of the application and practice of respective lighting will help you to choose the type of lighting.

Final Remarks

Let’s recap the article:

  • What is a soft light? It is basically a diffused light that engulfs the subject in light, giving a smooth transition from highlights to shadows. Generally warm, welcoming, and flattering.
  • Soft light photography applies to almost everything. Unfortunately, it does not deliver an intensely emotional, high-contrast image.
  • Soft light can be created simply by reflecting the light to a (usually white) surface. You can also use clouds as your personal softbox.
  • Use a flash to recreate the soft flash without equipment. Use your flash as an added source of light and direct it to another surface/object.
  • The main difference between soft and hard light is the shadows. It affects the mood of the image, hence making it give off different “vibes”

Understanding soft light and hard light will be your first step in mastering the concept of lighting. Learning the small little details and effects while using them to your advantage will lead you to a path of success.