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Soft light

Embrace the gentle glow and subtle beauty of soft light...


What is soft light in photography?

Soft light in photography is a type of lighting that produces soft, diffused light and avoids harsh shadows.

For example, soft light is often found outdoors on an overcast day when the clouds act as a natural light diffuser.

Soft light portrait of girl leaning on van during overcast day.
Soft light portrait during overcast day

You can also find soft light during Golden Hour or Blue Hour when the sun is rising or about to set.

Soft light portrait of girl leaning on gate during golden hour.
Soft light portrait during golden hour

You can also find soft light when using a diffuser on a studio light.

Soft light portrait of guy in studio using softbox and studio light.
Soft light portrait using softbox and studio light

I’ll be touching on how to get soft light later in this guide, but those are just a few examples.

When it comes to lighting in photography, we mostly have to pay attention to the quality of light, the intensity of light, and the direction of light.

Graphic showing the types of lighting that affects soft light.
Type of lighting influences contrast

Soft light, along with its counterpart, hard light, falls under the “quality of light” category.

Graphic showing the quality of soft and hard light.
Quality of light

Soft light vs. hard light

Soft light and hard light are the two types of light quality that we must know as photographers. As mentioned, soft light is characterized by a diffused light that avoids harsh shadows. An easy way to think of this is a gradient of black and white, with black representing the shadows and white representing the highlights.

Graphic showing how the whites represents highlights and the blacks represent shadows.
Blacks and white

If the gradient is more gradual with colors such as black, dark gray, gray, light gray, and then white, then that can be seen as similar to soft light, with a more gradual, spread-out diffusion of light.

Graphic showing a gradient of black to white for soft light.
Black and white gradient - soft light

If the gradient is more abrupt with a distinct line of black and white with no gray in between, then this can be seen as similar to hard light where there is no diffusion, and the contrast is sharper.

Graphic showing a gradient of black to white for hard light.
Black and white gradient - hard light

Now, the question remains: when should you use soft light?


When should photographers use soft light?

As photographers, we should use soft light when we want to avoid harsh shadows on our subjects and instead have gentle, diffused characteristics. As a portrait photographer, soft light is my go-to lighting for clients, as it minimizes any wrinkles, lines, or blemishes they may have.

Soft light portrait minimizing any facial lines.
Soft light portrait minimizing any facial lines

You may be wondering, should portrait photographers always use soft light? The answer is no! Many fashion photographers shoot at midday, when the light is very hard and harsh, creating strong contrast on their subjects' faces.

But because fashion photography is often about creating a statement and having a look that pops out, it works in some cases like that! For example, here's an image I took during the midday sun to create a harsh, bold look:

Soft light portrait minimizing any facial lines.
Portrait using hard midday light

So, in summary, whether you take portraits, product photography, landscape photography, macro photography, etc. -- you use soft light when you want a diffused light where the gradient from light to shadow is gradual and not abrupt.


How to get soft light in photography?

In order to create soft light in photography, we have various techniques and tools at our disposal to diffuse or scatter our light source to create soft light. Just remember, it’s all about having a light source, then making the light rays less direct and reducing their intensity of shadows.

Graphic showing different light sources for soft light.
Different light sources

If you simplify it and just boil it down to that root concept, then you can come up with some very creative ways to create soft light as you’ll see later. So, let’s look at 7 of my favorite ways to create soft light in photography!

1. Use natural diffusers

The first way to create soft light in photography is to use natural diffusers. If you photograph during the day outdoors, then your main light source will most likely be the sun.

As mentioned earlier, to create soft light, we need to diffuse our light source. Well, how do we diffuse the sun? The answer – is to use natural diffusers.

The two natural diffusers we can use include clouds and shooting in the shade. Clouds act as natural diffusers by spreading the sunlight evenly and creating soft light. While overcast days can be gloomy to some, to photographers, they present an opportunity to go out mid-day and take flattering photos with soft light.

Soft light portrait of girl near a van during overcast day.
Soft light portrait during an overcast day

The other natural diffuser uses other objects and shoots in the shade. For example, shooting in the shade of a tree, a building, etc.

Shade under a treet for soft light.
Shade under tree

If you have to photograph mid-day when the sun is harshest, finding a shaded area and then shooting in the shade can provide a softer light than direct sunlight.

Portrait taken in shade during sunny day of guy.
Portrait taken in shade during sunny day

When you photograph in the shade, the direct rays of the sun will be blocked, and the light will be more diffused.

2. Time of day

The second way to create soft light in photography is by shooting during a specific time of day. That time of day is either during Golden Hour or Blue Hour.

As mentioned in the previous step, if you have to photograph midday and want soft light, photographing on an overcast day or in the shade is the way to go. But what if you’re photographing during sunrise or sunset?

Well, these are actually the best times to photograph for soft light, and this is why the “Golden Hour” has become such a popular time for photo-taking. For example, here's a portrait I took during Golden Hour. You can notice the golden hue in the scene and the soft light:

Soft light portrait of a girl holding a fence during golden hour.
Soft light portrait during golden hour

The Golden Hour occurs just after sunrise and right before sunset. During this time, the sunlight is softer and warmer, producing softer shadows and less contrast.

Graphic of golden hour time.
Golden hour - after sunrise and before sunset

The Blue Hour occurs just before sunrise and just after sunset.

Graphic of blue hour time.
Blue hour - before sunrise and after sunset

During this time, the light is still diffused and much more moody and atmospheric.

Photo of girl with hair in her face during blue hour soft light.
Portrait taken during blue hour

Personally, I always like to schedule all my client shoots around 4:00 p.m. so we can take most of our photos during Golden Hour for that soft light.

3. Diffusers and reflectors

The third way to create soft light in photography is by using diffusers and reflectors.

A diffuser is anything placed between your light source and your subject that will soften your light.

Graphic of a light source with an umbrella diffuser.
Light source and diffuser

For example, as mentioned in step one, clouds are a diffuser to the light source of the sun.

Graphic showing clouds acting as natural diffusers to the sun.
Clouds are diffuser to sun

Some DIY diffusers can include white bed sheets, a thin shirt, or translucent shower curtains.

Professional diffusers include softboxes and umbrellas. Softboxes and umbrellas come in various sizes and shapes, with larger ones generally producing softer light. While I won’t get into the intricacies of using these in this video, the main thing you need to know is that their main purpose is to create soft light.

Personally, when I’m using my studio light for in-studio portraits, the softbox is my go-to diffuser.

In a photography studio photographer using softbox as a diffuser for soft light.
Using softbox in the studio

When I’m outdoors taking natural light portraits, an umbrella with my speedlight is my go-to diffuser.

Using diffuser umbrella on photoshoot for soft light.
Using umbrella outside

While I don’t use it much personally at the moment, reflectors are another popular way to create soft light. Reflectors don’t soften the light directly like diffusers, but they fill in shadows by bouncing the light, creating an overall softening of the lighting on your subject.

Photography reflector against a black background.
My photography reflector

And that leads me to my next tip.

4. Bounce the light

The fourth way to create soft light in photography is to bounce your light.

If you’re photographing with an artificial light source like a flash, strobe, or speedlight, and you don’t have a diffuser, then a clever way to get soft light is to bounce your flash. This technique is very popular for photographers who photograph events such as in nightclubs or other venues.

To do this, you can place your flash light source facing towards a ceiling or a wall at an angle that will hit the wall and then bounce back onto your subject, softening the light in the process.

Graphic showing how to bounce the flash in photography to light a subject.
Bouncing the flash in photography

For example, here's an image of my practice mannequin head before bouncing the flash:

Dark mannequin head on a stool with minimal light on it.
Mannequin head before bouncing the flash

Now, I'm going to bounce the flash against the wall by turning my flash to the left so it bounces on the wall and then back onto the side of my subject:

Mannequin head lit on side from bouncing flash sideways on wall.
Bouncing flash sideways on wall

Here's what the image looks like:

Mannequin head lit on side from bouncing flash sideways on wall.
Bouncing flash sideways on wall
Turning a flash speedlight to bounce on wall.
Turning flash sideways to bounce on wall

If you don't have a wall near you, you can also bounce it against the ceiling by turning your flash up towards the ceiling:

Turning flash speedlight up towards the ceiling.
Turning flash up to bounce on ceiling

Here's what the image looks like when bouncing it against the ceiling:

Mannequin head on a stool with light from above the head.
Bouncing flash upwards on ceiling

While I don’t recommend this technique for professional portraits, and recommend either shooting in the shade if outdoors or using a diffuser like a softbox or an umbrella, this is a quick and dirty way to try to get some soft light.

5. Semi-transparent material

The fifth way to create soft light in photography is to use semi-transparent material. I hinted at this technique when I mentioned that some photographers have used a white bed sheet to act as a DIY diffuser.

Using semi-transparent material and placing it between your light source and the subject is a DIY way to soften the light and get a creative look. Some popular semi-transparent materials include frosted glass, fabric, a thin shirt, or other types of sheets.

I'm going to be using my speedlight for this example:

Speedlight on stand.
Speedlight before adding shirt as a diffuser

For example, I'm going to place a thin white shirt over my Speedlight to act as a diffuser:

Shirt over a speedlight on a stand.
Placing shirt as a diffuser over speedlight

Here's what the image looks like before adding the diffuser; as you can see, the light is very hard and not soft:

Mannequin head on stool lit up with a speedlight without a diffuser.
Image before adding shirt as diffuser

Here's what the image looks like when I add the shirt as the diffuser; as you can see, the light is a lot softer:

Mannequin head on stool lit up with a speedlight with a diffuser.
Image after adding shirt as diffuser

6. Window light

The sixth way to create soft light in photography is to use window light. This tip is if you’re photographing indoors. Using indirect natural, ambient light such as light coming through a window is an easy way to create beautifully soft and even light.

To leverage it, you can place your subject near a window, preferably using some popular angles like 45, 30, or even 90 degrees from your subject. This is a natural way to simulate artificial lighting with a diffuser. For this example, I will be using a window in my room. Here is what the image looks like when the blinds are closed:

Mannequin head on stool dark because there is no window light.
Image no window light

Now, here is the light created from the window:

Mannequin head on stool lit up with window light.
Image window light

If you focus on portrait photography, you might have heard about balancing the ambient light with your flash. Oftentimes, when you’re indoors such as a studio setting or even in a house, knowing how to balance the ambient light coming from windows with your artificial light is crucial.

It might sound complicated, but it’s actually pretty easy to do if you have a strong grasp of exposure and the three elements of the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, ISO).

Exposure triangle elements.
Exposure triangle

I made a separate guide on that, so if you’re not familiar with those terms, be sure to check them out.

Personally, the way I like to balance ambient light with flash is to first get my exposure settings a tiny bit underexposed about -1 on the exposure meter.

Pay attention to where the light is coming from, then either place your artificial light on the same side where the ambient light is coming from or on the other side of the face, depending on if you want a more contrasty, moody image or not. For example I'm going to place my studio light and softbox on the same side where the closest natural light source is coming from:

Softbox and a mannequin on a stool.
Studio light same side as window light

By doing this, I can add on to the light caused by the window, making it look natural, and add a Rembrandt light effect as well for a bit more contrast:

Mannequin on stool with window light.
Studio light same side as window light photo

Now, I'm going to place my studio light and softbox on the opposite side:

Studio light opposite side as window light.
Studio light opposite side as window light

By doing this, the image is a bit more flat all around:

Mannequin head being lit up by window light and studio softbox.
Studio light opposite side as window light photo

7. Distance

The seventh way to create soft light in photography is to experiment with the distance between your light source and your subject.

If you’re using diffused light like a softbox, moving your light closer to your subject will generally produce a softer light due to the principles of light fall-off. This is because the distance affects the fall-off rate of the light (which is how quickly the light intensity decreases away from the light source.)

A closer light source will have a more pronounced fall-off, further contributing to the soft appearance by gently grading shadows into the highlights. For example, I'm going to place my softbox very close to my subject:

Mannequin head being lit up by a close softbox.
Softbox close to subject

Here's what it looks like when the light source is close; notice the soft gradient from blacks to whites:

Mannequin head being lit up by a close softbox for soft light.
Softbox close to subject for soft light

If you place the softbox further from the subject, then you will have more of a flat-looking light, and it's still soft, but there really isn't any contrast for soft light to appear.

For example, I'm going to place my softbox further back from my subject:

Softbox light away further away from a mannequin head.
Softbox further away from subject

Here's what it looks like when the light source is further away; notice how the light is a lot more flat without soft light being able to present itself:

Mannequin head with a softbox further away creating a flat image.
Softbox further away from subject creating flat image

If you’re using a light source without a diffuser, then the opposite is true, and placing it closer to your subject will create more intensity and harsher shadows on your subject. For example, I'm going to remove the diffusion material on my softbox and place the light source close to my subject:

Strobe light with no diffusion close to mannequin head.
Strobe light no diffusion close to subject

Notice how the light is a lot more hard and harsh:

Strobe light with no diffusion close to mannequin head creating hard light.
Strobe light no diffusion close to subject creating hard light

If I move it further back without the diffusion material, then this will help soften the light a bit:

Strobe light with no diffusion further from mannequin head.
Strobe light no diffusion further from subject

Here's what the image now looks like moving the light source back:

Strobe light with no diffusion further from mannequin head creating soft light.
Strobe light no diffusion further from subject softens light a bit

In conclusion, that’s everything you need to know about soft light and my seven favorite ways to create soft light in photography. Soft light is an essential lighting quality type that photographers should know, especially if they shoot portraits.

To fully understand soft light, try out the tips and techniques I mentioned in this guide, experiment with different angles and setups, and observe the effects on your subject.

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