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Photography Lighting Tutorial

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Category: Studio Lighting and Flash

Understanding Soft Light - Tips on controlling and understanding your light source.

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This tutorial is an extraction from page 44 of the Speedliter's Handbook by Syl Arena. You can find more information about this title on the Pearson website.


Speedliter's handbookSoft light proves that size is relative

When it comes to controlling the look of light you create, the size of your light source should be your first consideration. It’s more than possible to make large sources seem small and small sources appear large. Remember that size is relative; it changes as the distance between the source and the subject changes.

Consider your shadow's edge

The sun is the largest object in our solar system, yet Earth’s distance from it makes it appear relatively small in our sky. On a sunny day, your shadow has a hard edge. That defined edge to your shadow is created because the sunlight hitting you is coming from a single direction.  Another way to say it is that you have a hard shadow because the sun’s rays are parallel when they hit you.

Direct sunlight creates harsh shadows
Above: Direct sunlight creates a dark shadow with sharply defined (hard) edges. Notice also that the contrast between the black shoes and the glare off the concrete is beyond the dynamic range of the camera. The subtle tones of the stockings and black leather are compressed into a sillhouette.
Same shot with softer shadows
Above: The placement of a Lastolite Skylite panel creates very soft shadows because the light is now coming at the shoes from many angles. Notice also that the subtle difference in dark tones between the stockings and shoes has been captured.

Set-up for creating soft shadows
The set after the diffusion panel was placed. The lone Speedlite (at left) was positioned extra high to provide a bit of fill light that fell off sharply.

What happens to your shadow on a cloudy day? It gets fuzzy or disappears completely. Why? When a layer of clouds moves across the sun, the sunlight hits the clouds and they effectively become your light source. Since they are much bigger—relative to your size—the light hits you from many angles. A shadow created by light coming from one angle is filled by light coming from another angle. The more angles of approach, the softer the shadows become.

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