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Understanding Different Types Of Light

Matt Thompson shares his advice on lighting, explaining the difference between hard and soft light.

|  General Photography
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When you photograph indoors or out, the scene is illuminated by light that ranges from hard to soft.

Higher Shelf Stones

Photo by Peter Bargh.

Hard Light

Hard light coming from a source that’s small compared to the subject, casts hard shadows and has high contrast. Outdoors you see this light on a bright sunny day. The sun may be very large, but it’s also far away and small in the sky so it casts hard light on subjects.

Soft Light

Soft light falling on the subject from a source that’s large compared to the subject, wraps light around the subject, filling shadows and lowering contrast. Outdoors you see this light on a cloudy day when the sun is behind a huge layer of clouds acts as the light source.

How It Changes

Whether light falling on a subject is hard or soft depends on one thing, the relative sizes of the light source and subject. A large source will wrap light around a small subject filling shadows and lowering contrast. A small source will direct light onto a large subject creating hard shadows and high contrast.
To imagine this, think of the light falling on a landscape on a bright sunny day. The sun is small compared to the landscape, so the light is hard. Images have black shadows and/or burned out highlights.

Now imagine a layer of clouds covering the sky from horizon to horizon. The sun hits the cloud layer from above, and it retransmits the light from all parts of the sky in effect making it a much larger light source, diffusing the light, softening shadows and lowering contrast.

Matt Thompson is a London-based photographer and his areas of of specialism are portraits (editorial, documentary, fashion), plus interiors and architectural photography. Matt runs workshops (places are limited to 3 participants) and his next workshop on studio lighting takes place on Saturday 19 May 2012. Visit Matt Thompson's website for more details.

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