Light: Hard, Soft and In-Between


The Starter Portrait Studio: One Light, One Reflector


Lesson Info

Light: Hard, Soft and In-Between

Now we get into qualities of light. So beyond just being able to say, okay this is where and how we see, let's actually talk about how we're using light to create these different qualities and these different visual characteristics. Now we can describe light as either hard or soft, and this is determined by the relative size of the light, also modification alright? But modification is usually making the light bigger. So if we think about the sun, the sun is very, very large, but it's also very far away, so it is relatively small to us. And so, when that finally hits us, it creates a very hard light. When the clouds come in, the actual source hasn't changed, but we think of the sun in conjunction with the clouds as a big singular source, and the clouds are very, very large, and it diffuses the light and softens it up, and creates a larger light source. If I have a light source very close to the subject, it's relatively big. If I back it up, it's relatively harder, and so that's gonna ch...

ange the characteristics, changing that softness of light. The closer it is, the softer it's gonna be. Hard light, right? Comes from a relatively small light source, creates light with hard-edged, well-defined shadows and specular highlights. Specular highlights are those bright shiny spots on things like skin and metal objects, and they provide a little bit of visual context for light, and help illustrate the shape of the object and how it's lit and kind of where it's coming from in terms of the source. Not all kinds of light is going to be particularly specular, nor all surfaces gonna be specular, but hard light is usually the most susceptible to this and we do get it quite a bit with hard light on skin. It makes everything look shiny, which may or may not be your goal. A lot of times it's not. Sometimes it is, but a lot of times it's not. We also call hard light direct light, and that basically means is you have the source, and nothing stops it before it hits the subject. That's hard light. Things that produce hard light, a bare head, no modifier, a reflector on the light is still gonna be hard, it is gonna be a little bit softer, like if you were to put the reflector dish around the head, because it's bigger, but it's still pretty hard, grids as long as they are on a bare head are still gonna be pretty hard, snoots are hard, something called a hard box is hard, right? So there's a few different modifiers, but generally the less you modify it, the harder it's going to be. Hard light looks like this, okay? Notice the crisp edges of the shadows, and the quick transition from highlight to shadow on the face. The shadows go dark almost instantly. This is the big visual characteristic of hard light. You'll see how the skin has a little bit of specularity to it. Okay? Then we get into soft light, and this is usually modified in some capacity. That's because it comes from a relatively larger light source, and this creates light with soft-edged, less-defined shadows and usually fewer specular highlights. Can also call this diffused light, or diffused reflected light. And diffused light's gonna be clouds, or it's going to be a soft box diffusion on the end, that's diffuse right? It's coming in that one direction, and something is blocking it, which spreads the light out and makes it bigger. Now diffused reflected light is you taking and bouncing light off of a wall, or off an umbrella, or off the ground, or off of a reflector. This is all diffused reflected. So direct reflected is basically bouncing it off a mirror, it's kind of like a pool ball of the edge of the table, right? Bounces in one straight line. But diffused reflected hits the source and it scatters, and it creates softer light. So diffused reflected is about as soft as light as you can possibly get. Diffused is a little bit harder compared, and it's a little bit more contrasty, but diffused reflected is always very, very soft. Going in the shade is diffused reflected light. Okay. Examples of soft light are gonna be things like a soft box or octabox or strip box or anything that's pretty much a box, except for the hard box. Beauty dishes are usually pretty soft, especially when they're closed. They can be a little bit harder, but we're gonna talk about that in a second. Things like scrims, umbrellas, bouncing light, all of these can create soft light. If you actually take several different modifiers and you go side by side with them, and they're very, very close, and you don't actually have to use them in a way that shapes the scene, like you're just photographing a face, you will be very hard pressed to be able to tell the difference in a blind taste test between a bunch of different modifiers when they're very close, because they're all producing a relatively similar effect, which means they're all soft. Now the difference is really noticeable when you're actually paying attention to the catch lights. Some people like a square shaped catch light because it reminds them of a window, some people like a rounder catch light because it looks more like a concentric circle and it's a little bit more aesthetically pleasing to certain people. And when you start bringing in a beauty dish, the characteristics are a little bit changed, but when we're just comparing the shape of soft boxes, the shape actually matters a lot less than people think. It does start to affect sometimes the way you can control the fall off or the edge of light when you start turning it, but like I said, if you're just putting it direct on the subject, there's not a huge amount of difference. And so here we've got an example of soft light, and you'll notice now compared to the hard light, that you have this gradual transition from highlight to shadow, those shadows get dark much more slowly, the change is a lot less abrupt. And here they are side by side, hard light on the left, versus soft light on the right. The exposure is the same, the absolute darkness of both of them is relatively the same, the left image is a little but more specular, but there's still a little bit on the right, and that's just because it's his skin, and you can't necessarily always escape this 100%. So sometimes if you wanna dial that back, throw a little powder on it, and you can kill that shine a little bit more completely if you need to. Now there is a little bit of an in-between, and this is light that is neither hard nor soft, it has contrast, it has specularity, and the edge is not particularly well defined. The beauty dish can be this, especially when used very close. The silver beauty dish exaggerates this even more. I find the silver beauty dish to be a little bit awkward to use, because it usually puts a really bright spot on the forehead, which tends to create a lot of retouching that I don't wanna deal with. So I almost always gravitate toward the white beauty dish, but that is a matter of personal preference. You can also obviously of course modify a beauty dish, putting a diffuser over the front of it to make it even softer. So there's a lot of different ways you can control it, but basically depending upon how soft, how hard, close or far away it is from your subject, that's gonna change the harness or softness of the light, 'cause you're actually bouncing it off something metal on the inside. Can I actually grab that beauty dish? Oh it's over here, nevermind. So what we have right here is it's metal on the inside, but it's bouncing off the plate, so it's a little bit specular. It's also a little bit hard, because it's not as big as a big umbrella, but the light is bouncing off the plate, so you're getting that diffused reflected light. And so, it is very soft, and it is also pretty hard at the same time. Now the grid, when you put on it, actually just kind of focuses the edges of the light a little bit and doesn't actually change the quality of light. If you're putting the grid on a soft box, or you're putting the grid on a bare reflector, or you're putting it on a beauty dish, it's not actually changing the hardness or softness of the light as much. It's just kind of making the spread tighten up a little bit, and that's kinda what's happening. So you've got the beauty dish, you've also got the scrim, and the scrim I love because it's an amazingly versatile tool when it comes to throwing light everywhere across a whole scene. They're usually very big, but what's amazing about a scrim compared to a regular soft box is you can actually change the distance of the light behind the scrim. And so it's kind of like an adjustable soft box in terms of hardness or softness. So if you back it way, way, way up, it's gonna use more of the scrim, and it's gonna give you a softer light. Whereas if you put it much closer, you're gonna give yourself a harder light and it's kinda gonna give you the effect of maybe direct sun on a hazy day. And so you can actually modify that light a lot more successfully, it gives you a whole lot of flexibility. The downside of course of a scrim is they're incredibly cumbersome to set up and use, but they're really good. A lot of people tend to have a little bit of difficulty when it comes to this idea of lighting groups, it's like, oh I've got 10 people I've gotta light, I'm gonna put a light over here, and then I'm gonna put a light over here so that I can light them evenly. But that actually kind of changes the aesthetic of the light. So the trick when you're dealing with larger groups of people is to increase the size of your modifier, and umbrellas only get so big, and soft boxes only get so big. So when you really need to light a big crowd, or a big group of people, or a scene, and you wanna do it evenly, scrim works wonderfully. And then you also have parabolic shaped modifiers, and those are usually very, very expensive, but if you can actually get those modifiers that are able to bounce off the inside of let's say a silver soft box, but they don't face forward, you're gonna get that shiny, silvery effect from the soft box, but you're not gonna get the hardness of the direct light. And so you actually get somethin' that kinda rides in between. And you can actually find this in custom versions of soft boxes, so very few people kind of utilize this very much, but you can actually buy mounts, you can mix and match mounts for soft boxes, even though if they aren't necessarily made to do that. And so you'll get like a reverse mount, and you'll put it on a different soft box, and you can get those bounce effects into soft boxes that don't necessarily always have them. And so you can get a little bit creative with assembling your own soft boxes to kind of create some more unique effects. And so this right image was that, and it was basically I used a reverse mount on a deeper octabox, and so it gave me this really crunchy, really contrasty light. So the shadows become very, very dark, and the highlights become very, very bright, and it produces a really cool effect. You can also see it on the guy over on the left hand side, where that fall off is pretty abrupt, but it's not hard. And so there's a lot of contrast to the image and to the skin, and it gives a really beautiful, unique effect.

Class Description

Masterful light isn’t necessarily about being complicated or having huge setups…it’s about control. In this class, Chris Knight shares some of his favorite ways to shape one light to achieve stunning results from some classic techniques as well as some surprising new ones. Learn to make light work for you to create your vision in the simplest ways possible and make your images come to life.



You can never learn enough about light. I loved this class! I recently downsized from a huge studio with multiple strobes and every kind of modifier, to a small home space with one large window and a few reflectors. This class was very informative and helpful with that transition. Chris Knight is an interesting and very knowledgeable instructor, and he was a joy to watch. I highly recommend this course!

a Creativelive Student

Chris's style was excellent straight to the point, I picked up what he was putting down and at the end, I loved seeing all of the different looks I could get from one light. This is my kind of tuition. To the point, full of great info, rehashed at the end. More like this, please.

Sébastien Nunes

Very instructive and the teacher explains very well and very clearly his point. Short course and perfect to have the hands-on quickly.