The foundational knowledge about light qualities starts with an understanding of hard light, soft light, diffused light and specular light. You might have heard these terms before. Often soft light and diffused light are used interchangeably as well as hard light and specular light. This is mostly acceptable, but not always. To understand the differences of each light quality we are going to look at them separately in the video.
LIGHT QUALITIES: HARD LIGHT
A light that qualifies as soft or hard is quite simple, it is the transition from light to shadow on a subject. This is also called the graduation of the “falloff”. If the transition is sharp and quick like in the picture below, then it is a hard light. This sharpness can be clearly distinguished from the shadow under the chin. Another example of a hard light source would be the noonday Sun. The shadow to light edge is so stark that many pictures taken without modification will be extremely hard lit.
LIGHT QUALITIES: SOFT LIGHT
On the other side, a soft light has a gentle transition from light to shadow. In the picture below, the change from light to dark is much more gradual and can be seen on the face and neck. A cloudy overcast day will also create a soft light all around the environment. So what specifically causes a light quality to be hard or soft?
The larger the light source, the softer the light; the smaller the light source, the harder the light. Also, keep in mind that distance also plays a big role in the size of your light. If you were to fire a flash into a huge reflector just a few feet away from your subject, your subject will have a soft and wrapping light. The reflector is a huge light source in comparison with the subject. Now take that same setup and move it 40 feet away from your subject. The light source now becomes small in relation to our subject and we have hard light. This is how the Sun, which is much bigger than us, can create such hard light. It is because it is so far away and so small in the sky. The distance from light to subject will affect the size and therefore quality of your light.
LIGHT QUALITIES: DIFFUSED LIGHT
A light that has its reflective qualities removed is called diffused light. When this light hits a subject, the reflective light does not bounce back into the camera. Showcasing a soft and diffused light quality, the image below was created using a diffused (matte) reflector. Because this type of light is not as reflective, it has less contrast. Out of the two, diffused light is a more flattering light for portraits as it does not direct attention to any one part of the subject. Typically, fashion photography use diffused light for it’s flattering and soft qualities.
LIGHT QUALITIES: SPECULAR LIGHT
A light that retains its reflective qualities. When this light hits a subject, the reflective light bounces back into the camera. This light has stronger highlights and stronger contrasts. Showcasing a hard and specular light quality, the image below was created using a silver reflector. This reflects light especially on oily and moist areas of the face to invoke a certain emotion that would be lacking if diffused light was used. Typically, action and sport photographers use specular light for its high contrast and reflective qualities.
Now remember, there is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to the artistic world of photography, however there are looks that do tend to go better for specific situations. We here at SLR Lounge never tell you that you NEED to only light a certain subject a certain way. We simply teach the techniques that enable the photographer to achieve the look they desire.