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One can never go wrong in photography/filmmaking with the right kind of light. There are two essential lighting- hard light and soft light which every photographer/filmmaker should know. Although, how hard or soft a light source is influenced by the quality and the mood the professional wishes to express.  However, there’s always an argument on which type of lighting is best for photography and filmmaking. This article will compare and contrast hard light vs. soft light, how they differ, and the significant role each plays in photography and filmmaking.

Hard light

Hard light is a kind of light (1) that is focused and produces crisp and sharply – defined shadows on the subject it is concentrated on. 

Picture a hard light as a car parked outside on a sunny day. A spectacular shadow of the vehicle will be produced around the vehicle. And that’s because the sun is overhead in the sky as a point light source, so the rays from the sun can focus entirely on the car without any diffusion. Hence, a more serious and clear shadow is cast from the car.

Does this mean that hard light is a bad light? No, it is no. Rather, hard light has its unique uses in photography and filmmaking. Therefore, hard light is as vital as soft light, depending on the choice of the photographer.

Uses of hard light

As a photographer or filmmaker, if in the mood for a result with a dramatic and serious look, then hard light is your go-to light. Also, the hard edge effect in action movies that keeps you on edge and at the same time ready for action is made possible by exploring the usefulness of hard light in videos. 

Hard light is also used for creating a glow around the subject. The light can be adjusted depending on the different glow effects the photographer aims to achieve. 

Additionally, hard light is used for detailed photography. A photographer who does not want to lose out on even the smallest detail of his subject can do so using hard light.

Soft light

On the other hand, soft light is entirely different from hard light in the sense that the change from illumination and shadow in soft light is more than that of hard light. When a portrait is taken with soft lighting, the shadow is faintly seen with smooth edges, if not invisible. 

Soft light is a type of light (2) that produces diffused shadow around an object, and the shadow is not sharply defined as that of hard light. Think about when a person takes a walk on a cloudy day; one barely notices a cast shadow which would have been super evident if the clouds were suddenly gone and there’s sunshine up ahead. 

Why soft lighting?

Soft light gives a better-looking result and makes the subject being worked on be nothing but their best. Also, skin blemishes and bagginess are usually filled in with soft lighting. Hence, instead of a concise feature of a person, it gives a soft sawder look and makes the skin pop. 

Soft light is the best lighting option for a friendly TV show that communicates peace and keeps the viewers thrilled.

Factors that determine the softness or hardness of light

The hardness or softness of a particular light ray is dependent on;

  • How big or small is the surface of the light source – A larger light source will produce softer light compared to a light source with smaller sizes.
  • How thick is the diffusion material – A thick diffusion material will produce softer lighting than a material with a thinner diffusion.
  • Distance of travel of light rays – In the production of soft light, the length of travel of light rays is of paramount importance. The longer the rays of light travel, the more likely to produce soft lighting when they converge at the subject.

Hard light vs. Soft light: How they differ

The significant difference in the hard light vs. soft light comparison is in the resultant effect of both lights on the receiving target and their production. Here is how hard light differs from soft light; 

  • Application

Working with soft light is an easy peasy process because soft lighting is less technical to set up. Soft light requires tactics that are easy to pull off in its production. 

Hard light, however, is more demanding; to achieve the crystal clear shadow from hard lighting, the setup must be exact to produce the precise effect. So it is safe to say, hard light requires more skill to apply than soft light.

  • Effects on the subject

Both soft light and hard light produce different effects. Where soft light smoothens and hides the blemishes on a person’s skin, hard light will capture even minute details such as an acne point or a stray hair strand. 

Therefore, soft light is best for fashion and travel photography to create a soothing and welcoming atmosphere for the viewers. But, in an action or horror scene, hard light will create a harsh atmosphere that keeps one on edge.

  • Type of Shadow

Here’s a unique character that clearly distinguishes hard light from soft light. The shadow produced with hard lighting is clearly defined and harsher, while soft light wraps around the subject and creates a calm and diffused shadow.

  • Focus point

How hard or soft the focal point of the light also influences a light. Hard light has 100% concentration like it can only pay attention to a particular spot at a time. And this is the reason why only a part of the subject is illuminated per time. 

On the other hand, soft light is not a focused light; rather, it is scattered and spread all around the subject.

When to use hard light or soft light

Lighting in photography and filmmaking is crucial in portraying the intent of the artist. However, the fact that a light may be hard or soft doesn’t imply one light is superior to the other, but rather both are unique in their ways and give desirable results differently.

The soft light gives more positive and welcoming results, whereas hard light produces a sense of uneasiness and harshness. For interviews, TV shows, and sitcoms, soft lighting is often used. However, hard lighting is used to create suspicion, tension, and threat, such as in horror movies.

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What conveys the message in a photograph or video is not dependent on the lighting alone but also how creative the photographer/filmmaker is in exploring both soft and hard light.

How to create soft light and hard light for photography and filmmaking

Merely looking at a light source, one can’t always tell if it is soft or hard. But how the light is explored will determine the softness or hardness of such a light source. 

Depending on the photographer’s mind, a particular lighting can produce images with calming effects on the viewer or be seen as an unsettling piece. For example, soft lighting creates a friendly atmosphere like love and happiness in filmmaking, whereas hard lighting is used in scary movies to instill fear and threats.

How to produce soft light

One fundamental trick employed by photographers and filmmakers is using reflective materials to soften the light in a technique known as bounce lighting. So how is bounce lighting done?

Materials such as softboxes have reflective make on the inside; when light is made to pass through the box, a reflection of light occurs, and the rays bounce around the box. 

However, when the rays are let out, they come out in multiple directions, which results in the production of soft shadows on the target subject.

How to produce hard light

The primary trick to producing hard light is based solely on the focus of light rays. What does this imply? This means to make distinct shadows of the subject, the rays from the light source must be wholly focused on the subject without encouraging the spread and scattering of the light beams. 

Materials that modify light intensity, such as snoots or barn doors, can also direct the rays to designated areas where they are needed. Using light modifiers further ensures the hardness of the light is achieved.

F. A. Q

Softening a light source is called diffusion, and this method is achieved using a diffuser.  A diffuser is used to scatter light rays so that it produces shadows that are without distinct edges. On a cloudy day, the clouds also act as diffusers and soften the sunlight.

Explicit knowledge of the comparison of hard light vs. soft light is necessary for photography and filmmaking. The difference in these types of lighting is how a person can tell different stories in a subject when the transition from hard light to soft light. Not only that, the viewers feel the impact of the work done.  

Which of these lights do you prefer to portray your visual moods? Share your opinions with us in the comment box.


The monopod vs. tripod comparison is one worth considering by all photography professionals and enthusiasts. Both types of device work to provide support for cameras and allow for adequate camera control. However, monopods thrive better in mobility while tripods take the edge with stability. For a taste of both worlds, a combo tripod that converts into a monopod works.

What has been your experience with tripods and monopods? Which of the stabilization gear types do you prefer shooting with? Let’s get talking in the comments below.


  1. Rubidium Wu. (2019, June 21). The Advantages of Hard Light and the Benefits of Using It on Set. Premium Beat by Shutterstock. Retrieved from
  2. Andrew S. Gibson. (2018). The creative photographer; How to produce soft light in photography. Retrieved from