By ProGrade Digital | December 7, 2022

In photography, there’s a lot of talk about light. And, you’ve likely heard about two styles of lighting — hard and soft. Each style of light has its own unique characteristics that can be used to create different effects in your photos. In this post, we’ll take a look at the differences between hard and soft light, and discuss when each type of light is best used in photography. We’ll also show you some examples of photos taken with hard and soft light to help you better understand the difference.


Photo by Harrison Haines

The Importance of Lighting in Photography

Light is arguably the most important factor when it comes to taking great photos. It’s what separates good photos from bad, and it can be used to create beautiful, dramatic effects. And, depending on the quality, or style, of light you choose to use, you’ll be able to achieve different results — even without changing any other aspect of your image.

The Difference Between Hard Light and Soft Light

As the names imply, hard light is harsh and creates strong shadows, while soft light is more diffused and creates softer shadows. Hard light has more contrast and is usually brighter than soft light, while soft light is usually more even. Neither hard light nor soft light is better than the other, it’s just a matter of choosing the lighting style that works best for your photo.

Let’s discuss each type of light in greater detail.

What is Hard Light?

Photo by Brian Lawson

Hard light is a direct source of light that’s focused on the subject. It could be light from the sun, a continuous light, or a flash. Because hard light is so strong and directional, it creates strong shadows that are crisp and well-defined. Hard light is great for creating dramatic images with lots of contrast.

Photo by Brandon Nickerson

Photo by Ready Made

The Pros and Cons of Hard Light:

Pros: Hard light can intensify the emotion or mood of an image; it looks great in black and white or greyscale; it can be used to create interesting textures and patterns.

Cons: It can be unflattering for portrait photography; it intensifies textures — including skin imperfections; requires a higher level of precision than shooting with soft light, which is more forgiving.

How to Create Hard Light

When creating hard light, the most important thing is to position your light source so that it’s focused directly on the subject. This could be done by angling a continuous light or positioning a reflector in front of your subject. You can also use a flash with a modifier such as a barn door or a snoot to create directional light. If you were photographing at noon on a bright, sunny day with no shade, you would also be shooting in hard light.

The important thing to remember when trying to achieve hard light is that you want high contrast, distinct shadows, and sharp gradations between light and dark.

What is Soft Light?

Photo by Speckfechta

Soft light is much less directional than hard light and is usually created from a larger, diffused source such as an overhead scrim or a softbox. It’s usually not harsh on the subject and creates softer shadows that are more diffused. Soft light works well for portraits and still-life photography, as it’s more flattering on the subject.

Photo by Dids

Photo by Roman Odintsov

The Pros and Cons of Soft Light:

Pros: It is more flattering on the subject; it can be used to create a dreamy, romantic look in photos; it creates softer shadows that are less distracting.

Cons: It doesn’t have the same intensity as hard light; not suitable for creating dramatic images with lots of contrast.

How to Create Soft Light

The most important thing to remember when creating soft light is that you want the light source to be diffused. This means using a larger and more spread-out light source — such as a large softbox or overhead scrim. You can also use a reflector, a beauty dish, a sheer curtain, or bounce your flash off the ceiling to soften the light further. If you’re shooting outdoors, avoid the harsh noon sun and try to shoot when it’s overcast or during the golden hour.

When to Use Hard Light vs. Soft Light

The type of lighting you choose will depend on the look you’re trying to achieve with your photo.

Choose hard light when:

Photo by James Barr

  • You want to create a dramatic, high-contrast image;
  • You want photos with an edgy, gritty, serious look;
  • You’re looking to emphasize texture and patterns;
  • You want to create a raw, hard-edged vibe
  • You’re shooting black and white, film noir, and action/sports

Choose soft light when:

Photo by Jurica Koletić

  • You’re photographing people or other subjects that require a more flattering light;
  • You want to create an ethereal, romantic look in your photos;
  • You want to hide imperfections
  • You’re shooting portraits, fashion, food, and travel
  • You want your subject to look friendly, warm, approachable, and natural

The key is to experiment with both types of light and see which one works best for your image. With practice, you’ll soon be able to create beautiful images in any lighting conditions.

Final Thoughts on Hard Light vs. Soft Light in Photography

Photography is an art form that relies heavily on light, and understanding the differences between hard light and soft light can help you create beautiful images that stand out from the crowd. By experimenting with both types of light, you will be able to find which one works best for your image. Be creative and take advantage of modifiers and reflectors to create the perfect lighting for any scenario. With practice, you will be a master at working with both hard light and soft light.