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Hard light

Unveiling the drama of hard light in photography...


What is hard light in photography?

Hard light is essentially a bright, directed light that will create harsh shadows. Unlike soft light, 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 not diffused by their outer layer, shining directly on your subject/object. Although the sun is actually huge, since it’s so far away from us, it has become 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.

Mannequin head on chair with hard light on its face.
Hard light example
Mannequin head on chair with soft light on its face.
Soft light example

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. The minimal transition also brings out the subject’s imperfections, such as blemishes, acne, scars, and more. This means you’ll need a near-perfect subject using hard light 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.

Black and white photo of man in flower shirt during hard light.
Portrait using hard light

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.

Tip:

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 serious, mysterious, and sometimes gloomy scenes.


How do you make a hard light?

Well, you don’t always have to make hard light. The sun is already the largest source of hard light. But, the tricky part of using the sun as your light source is placement (again). If you shoot during midday where the sun is directly overhead producing harsh sunlight, then that is hard light.

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 narrow the light source.

Mannequin on wooden stool with no diffusion on the softbox.
No diffusion for hard light
Mannequin on wooden stool with diffusion on the softbox.
Diffusion for soft light

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 on 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.


How can hard light be altered?

To transform hard light to soft light, you will need a lot of modifiers and 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 as seen above. 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 light source, eventually creating a soft light.

Flash turned sideways.
Turning flash with no diffuser sideways to bounce off wall
Mannequin lit from soft light from flash.
Mannequin lit with soft light from flash because it bounced off the wall

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.

Man standing with Gymshark tanktop in a park.
Portrait taken on cloudy day for soft light

In conclusion, here's the recap:

  • Hard light is basically a very bright light, hence creating visible shadows with sharp edges.
  • 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.
  • 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 your hand to bounce the flash off. The light will be spread out, 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.

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