Soft vs. Hard Light: How One Change Results in a Totally Different Photo

One important setting that can literally make or break the quality of a photo is lighting, and it’s one setting that is also very much under your control. The following video from Profoto provides great insight into the difference between soft light and hard light when shooting a portrait:

The comparison is done using the same model, the same background and pose, and only the light is different between the two shots. Even at a glance, the difference between the two shots is immediately obvious. Let’s see how the two differ.

Soft Light

First, the photo made using a soft light.

soft light portrait

The portrait here was created using a soft light source.

The main source of light was the Profoto 2′ x 3′ Off Camera Flash Softbox positioned above the model, while the B1 OCF Zoom Reflector was positioned behind her for a touch of rim light. Just below the scene the photographer placed a reflective surface to fill out any shadows that might have been left over in front of the chair.

The soft light results in a very uniformly lit image, filling in all the shadows and adding a pleasant ambient light around the subject.

Hard Light

Next, the photo taken using hard light.

hard light source portrait

The same settings this time using modifiers to create hard light.

The main source of light is no longer a softbox, but a light with a snoot and a 30 degree grid. This light source is much more directional than in the previous example. All the other settings remaining the same, the shots are totally different.

soft light vs hard light portraits

Hard vs Soft Portrait Lighting

When you see the two photos side by side, you can see how the second shot gives off a more dramatic look and enhances the focus on all the textures.

Depending on the effect you want to achieve with a particular picture, you can orient yourself toward one type of light source or another. Which is your favorite?

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3 responses to “Soft vs. Hard Light: How One Change Results in a Totally Different Photo”

  1. Agnes says:

    Really love the effect of the second photo. I am trying to find a more portable method of having this kind of light, to use in hospital rooms etc where I can’t lug much gear around and where I can use anything too obstrusive.
    Any ideas on what might work?
    Thanks so much!

  2. Debbie says:

    Was the snoot the only source used? No reflector or hair light? Love the dramatic shot.

  3. Dan Richards says:

    Agnes, I use a lot of different gear for this, and because of what I do, a studio is just not practical. You can get things like soft-boxes, bounce reflectors, and defusers for your external flash, in any camera store, and do a lot of this. Gary Fong, is high dollar, but there are many cheaper in cost, that are just as good, and I can vouch for that.

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