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Hey you fab FStoppians! Last time around we went over some fun & creative ideas for playing with flash. This time we’ll have a bit of fun talking about hard vs soft light, with some examples of both. Like a kid on his birthday sitting down with his cake, let’s get stuck into it!
That lighting is moodier than my mother-in-law.
So what’s hard light? When using flash, hard light is the “default” light, since it doesn’t require any lighting modifiers to get started. The light that comes out of your flash will typically be hard light by default. A hard light is very bright on the well-lit areas, and the shadows are relatively dark (in comparison to the highlights). Midday sun counts as a very hard light.
What makes a light “hard”? Resisting the urge to drop the obvious innuendo, light is hard when the light source is small relative to the subject. So compared to a person, a flash is relatively small, and therefore quite a hard light source. The sun also counts as a hard light, because although it is extremely large, the fact it’s incredibly far away means it is relatively small in comparison to whatever we’re photographing. (Check out this page on Strobist.com for a more detailed explanation of how distance and size of the light affects the softness of the light.)
But enough theory, you didn’t come here for that! Let’s get into the good stuff; how can we use hard light and have some fun with it? Hard light is amazing for carving out a face, for really showing the depth of an object and making it look more 3D. It can be very moody light and looks fantastic when going for an “edgy” or masculine look. Here’s some examples (of hard light, not of the masculine look… You’ll need to find someone else for examples of masculinity):
The thing that stands out in these examples is they all have dark or even totally black shadows with very crisp and well-defined edges. They’re edgier than black mascara on a goth kid. It’s a very dramatic look which is a heck of a lot of fun to play with! I usually have more fun with hard light than soft light (which, in my not-so-humble opinion, offers less creative freedom and looks a little more plain).
Now that I’ve painted soft light in a negative light (GET IT?), let’s talk soft light!
Soft light is characterised by softer shadows (or even no shadows at all) and gradual transitions between highlights and shadows (the edges of the shadows aren’t crisp and well-defined). If you’ve taken a photo on an overcast day, you’ve shot in very soft light. Soft light makes flowers look pretty, people’s faces look softer and generally nicer; it’s a much more flattering look for portraits. It’s ironic that I don’t like soft light as much, because it’s the only light that makes me look purdy.
So how do we turn an ordinary flash into a soft light source?
1) By using lighting modifiers such as umbrellas or softboxes
2) You can also be a ninja and fire the flash into a white wall or aim it up into the ceiling, turning it into a much softer light
3) You can stick something in between your flash and your subject to diffuse (soften) the light, such as a diffusion panel or even a bedsheet.
4) You can even use multiple flashes (or a reflector) with one acting as a “fill flash” to fill in the shadows, giving an overall softer light.
If you don’t have a flash (you’re missing out!), you can seek out soft light by shooting on a cloudy day, finding some shade to shoot in or shooting next to a big window (windows are fantastic at softening the harsh sunlight). You could also grab a big 5-in-1 reflector kit which acts like a diffusion panel if you stick it in between the sunlight and your subject, softening the light nicely.
Notice how much softer the shadows are in the above examples; their edges are less well-defined and the shadows aren’t that much darker than the highlights. Look at that first picture with the bowling pins, the light is very soft and gives a much more flattering look, making that face so soft and dainty you just want to squeeze its little cheeks. Nobody wants to squeeze the cheeks of a face shot in hard light.
So, the takeaway? It’s worth playing around with hard and soft light and experimenting! Especially if you traditionally only shoot in soft light, it’s worth stepping out of your comfort zone and having a crack and some more dramatic hard light – you’ll often be surprised at the results!
Hopefully Looney Tunes doesn’t sue me for this, but That’s all folks! Speaking of tunes, tune in next time around for the dramatic conclusion to this lighting series. We’ll be diving straight into some harder stuff; namely how to match a subject to a background photo when compositing multiple photos together!
And of course, if you have any questions or want me to go into more details on how I made a particular photo, feel free to ask! And if you’ve got some examples of your own creative flash photography, I’d love to see ‘em – drop a link in the comments below!
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