Here’s three basic concepts which explain how light behaves in the context of photography:

• light quality.
• wrap.
• direction.

I. light quality: hard vs. soft light

Hard vs. soft light is an often-discussed subject among beginning photographers, and certainly, each has its place. But, what’s the difference between “hard” and “soft” light? The short answer is, small sources produce “hard” light, and large sources produce “soft” light.

By understanding what makes “good” light, your approach to lighting will become more intuitive, not based on following lighting diagrams by rote, but by following your creative instincts.

Take a few minutes to read through these sections on the basics of light, and you’ll better understand the principles behind different light qualities. Then, you’ll be far better prepared to more quickly master pro-level lighting techniques which you can apply using any type of lighting equipment, in virtually any situation.

a.) hard light:

“Hard” light can be characterized as light which comes from a single direction (or, a single “point”), and alone, can create deep shadow and high contrast due to its singular direction, and its more parallel light rays

The primary characteristic of hard light is that its rays are more parallel, and therefore doesn’t fill-in any shadow area. Hard light is best suited for when clearly defined shadows or textures are desired.

Hard light is useful for revealing texture in rustic materials, accentuating form in fashion and beauty photography, or as in the example below, if you wish to create clearly defined shadows. These foam forms were lit by direct sun:

hard vs soft light

But what makes light rays more parallel? The short answer is either moving the source further away from the subject (distance), or by using curved mirrors (reflectors), and/or optical lenses to “bend” or “focus” light rays into alignment. For example, light from strobes or continuous sources can be made more parallel, and therefore, “harder” by using:

• Parabolic reflectors (e.g., similar to those used in flashlights).
• Spot, projection or Fresnel-lens attachments.


Most focused-beamed lights use a combination of a parabolic reflectors and special lenses to achieve parallel rays [to find out more about these types of specialized lighting instruments, click here].

Another way to produce hard light is distance: The further the source is from your subject, the “harder” the light becomes, as its rays become more parallel, and the source size, relative to your subject, becomes smaller. In the case of the sun, it’s so far away, its rays are nearly 100% parallel to each other, and on a clear day, direct-sun produces a very contrasty light due to its extreme distance from Earth.


Now, “hard” light isn’t necessarily bad light. As mentioned earlier, hard light is often used in fashion and beauty work, where a model will typically face directly into the sun or a small beauty dish.

If you want to try this technique yourself in direct sunlight, just make sure your subject faces directly toward the sun’s position for the most appealing photo.

So, hard light can be beautiful, but usually requires perfectly applied make-up by a professional make-up artist. Remember, hard light reveals texture, or small variations or imperfections in any surface photographed. So if your model doesn’t have perfect skin, or have perfectly applied make-up to hide any flaws, hard light is typically very unforgiving.

That’s why most beginning photographers strive to shoot portraits using soft lighting, typically employing softboxes, umbrellas, or bounced light. Soft light tends to be more flattering to almost everyone, because light from a source larger than your on-camera flash is able to “fill-in” much more shadow area, creating a smoother, more youthful-looking appearance.

b.) soft light:

Producing “soft” light has two requirements: 1.) A diffuse source; 2.) A source at least the same size as your subject (more about source size when we discuss “wrap” on the next page). In other words, to make soft light, you need a large, “diffuse” source.

What is diffused light? It’s light whose rays have been scattered in as many directions as possible. Any translucent, “milky” material (e.g., a shower curtain) will aid in scattering light rays, making them not so parallel. Light can be diffused directly, by placing either a scrim, silk, or other type of diffusion material between the source and your subject (see figure below), and also indirectly by bouncing your source off of a large reflective surface such as an umbrella or white wall.


In the case of daylight exteriors, the sun’s light may also be diffused by atmospheric haze or cloud cover. Again, to say light is “diffuse” simply means that its rays are scattered in many different directions, and that’s exactly what happens under cloud cover, where the clouds act like a giant diffusion panel on an incredibly large softbox. Below, is a very large, 20′ x 20′ inflatable scrim used to diffuse the direct sun for a daylight exterior:

diffusing the sun overhead butterfly silk

When light rays are scattered, light appears “soft” because more shadow area tends to be filled-in.

Here’s an example of the foam geometric forms shown previously lit by the sun, but now scrimmed with three-stops of diffusion material on a 4′ x 4′ frame placed about three feet just to the right of the tabletop set-up:

hard vs soft light 2

Compare the “soft” lighting, to the “hard” lighting shown previously:

hard vs soft light

The result is a very softly lit image with minimal shadows, and what shadows remain aren’t very dark. This is because the light is scattered, and also because the source is larger than the items, which enables the light to fill the shadows around the objects.

Now that you’ve learned some basic differences between hard vs. soft light, let’s look at “soft” light quality in a slightly different way, using the concept of “wrap:”