Hard/contrast, semi-soft and soft lighting

Hard/contrast lighting

By hard/contrast lighting under natural conditions we mean situations when the sunlight falls directly on the object we are shooting.

Contrasting and hard are not synonyms. There may be cases when we can have high contrast without strong sharply defined shadows and vice versa – strong sharply defined shadows without high contrast, but in the majority of cases where we have high contrast we also have sharply defined shadows.

This type of lighting tends to produce very dense and sharply defined shadows. High contrast – lights are very light, at places even burned to pure white, darks are very dark, at places – pure black. The contours of the shadows are very sharply defined, as if cut out. The borders between light and shadow are clearly defined lines: lights up to here, all darks from there. What is more, the stronger and the more concentrated the light, the brighter the colours.

These properties make contrasting lighting suitable for certain types of scenes and unsuitable for other type of scenes.

On the whole, because of its specifics, hard contrasting lighting is not recommended for portrait photography. Of course, it might be used for certain scenes if we want to lend a certain feel of ruggedness to the face; if we are shooting elderly people with many wrinkles, a hard contrast lighting would accentuate on the traces of time. If we want to hide half of the face in shadow, etc. You should treat such situations, however, as exceptions.

Hard contrasting lighting is more suited to coarse male faces and it would be almost unthinkable to use it for baby or child photography where faces must be soft and tender.

On the other hand, hard contrast lighting is a must for scenes where we want to include the shadows as part of the story. Sharply defined dense shadows are not possible on a cloudy day or under dim lighting.

Hard contrast lighting is also a good option for landscape photography. This is not to say that you cannot take beautiful landscapes on a cloudy day, in bad weather, fog, rain or storm. However, the typical landscapes you are used to seeing on calendars, postcards and advertising brochures require sunlight, because sunlight evokes more colour in the photograph.

Semi-soft lighting

If a light cloud crosses the path of the sun rays, then the entire cloud and not only the disc of the Sun becomes a source of light. The general level of illumination goes down, and light is more diffused. We call the light in such situations semi-soft lighting. A similar effect can be seen when the sun is low over the horizon, because its rays have to pass through a larger layer of the atmosphere filled with fumes and dust which diffuse the light.

Semi-soft lighting is characterised by weaker contrast. Lights are not as light, darks are not as dark. Transitions are smoother and there is no clear border between illuminated areas and shadows. Colours are not so bright and have a softer pastel-like appearance.

Semi-soft lighting is particularly suitable for portrait photography. Because of its properties, this is the most commonly used type of lighting for the largest number of scenes.

Our main goal as photographers is to transfer a three-dimensional reality onto a two-dimensional medium. We must make this transit in a way which makes the viewer feel as if what he is looking at was real and life-like.

This spatial illusion is achieved mainly with the help of smooth transitions between light and shadow.

If contrast is too high, the borders between light and shadow are too sharp and the image looks flatter and very much like a poster. If the contrast is too weak, there will be no shadows and the image will again be flat. It is with medium contrast that we can achieve smooth transitions and a realistic three-dimensional image.

In black and white photography you can make no compromises with the light you use. In colour photography you can trick the viewer with the help of strong colour contrast. In black and white photography, however, things are more apparent.

Semi-soft lighting can be achieved when we shoot in the shade. At home by the window. In the evening next to a shop window. Generally, you need a light source with a large area which is not too powerful.

Soft lighting

If, however, it is a cloudy day and the entire sky is covered with clouds, your source of light is not the sun, but the entire sky. Uniform light is falling on the object from all directions. There are no shadows in this case. We call this soft lighting.

Objects illuminated in this way are uniformly lit and the lack of shadows makes the look flatter and two-dimensional.

Soft lighting is most commonly used in fashion and portrait photography, especially when shooting young girls and children. It is almost a must for baby sessions. Babies are supposed to exude softness and tenderness. It is also a good idea to use soft lighting in product photography in order for the products to be uniformly lit from all sides without any strong shadows.

We can easily model the different types of lighting in a studio..

We can achieve contrasting light by making the rays of the flash parallel with the help of a honeycomb grid.
Semi-soft lighting can be modelled with the help of a softbox, an umbrella or a parabolic reflector.
We can obtain soft light when we have equally strong light sources on opposite sides diffused with the help of umbrellas and softboxes.

If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.
Robert Capa