Soft Light and Hard Light - Learn Blog Photography

Soft Light and Hard Light

By Amy

Jun 21

soft light is flattering 

Soft light and hard light are terms photography gurus mention a lot.

Do you know what they mean?


Well, no worries! Keep reading!!

soft light hard light

Lighting types demystified

There was a time that I didn't understand these terms or where to find them either, but once you've read this, I think you'll be able to understand the difference and understand where to find both.

Hard Light

photography tips bloggers

Hard Light

I've mentioned before that light has qualities, and one of those qualities is harshness.

By harshness I mean, how hard or soft the light is.

You’ve probably heard this term tossed around quite a bit, but you may not totally understand it.

No worries, it’s super simple!

Imagine going outside at high noon...the shadows created are straight down, and the transition between bright and dark (aka...highlights to shadows) has a very defined line, right?

This quick transition of light from highlight to shadow is called hard light.

This slow transition from highlight to shadow is called soft light.  Find out more

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Soft light

Now, think about the last time you were outside at sunrise or sunset...the shadows created at this time of day are totally different from midday.

These shadows stretch out far away from you, and the transition between highlight to shadow is much more gradual.

Not only can you get soft light at sunrise and sunset, but you can find it in shaded locations at midday too!

photography tips bloggers

Soft Light

Soft light is typically preferred for portraits and photos...unless of course you are going for that edgy look and then, by all means take advantage of the hard light, but I caution you to be careful with this.


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Why is soft light important?

Soft light is basically just a gradual transition between highlights and shadows, which tends to be more flattering and will improve your photo from snapshot to portrait.

Using these highlights and shadows in your photos will create depth and give the photo the appearance of texture.

This will ROCK your photos...just FYI.

These shadows and highlights can also set the mood for you photo.

Want something dark and ominous?

Make that photo FULL of shadows in varying intensities.

Think back to when you were a kid….

How many times did you turn all the lights off and stick a flashlight under your chin to tell a ghost story to scare your younger sibling?

Or worse….you were the younger sibling in this scenario! Yikes!!

What makes light hard or soft?

Most important aspect is size.

The larger the light source, the softer the light.

Did I just blow your mind?

The sun is enormous, but earlier I told you it creates hard light....


Even though that big red fireball seems large, when you compare the sun’s size to the overall size of the sky…now, it's pretty small.

But remember? I said at sunrise and sunset it produces soft light.

No, it didn’t change size, but what it did do is get closer to the horizon line and now the sun’s rays have to travel further through the atmosphere to reach you which softens the light.

Why does the color of light change to?

Great question!!

The blue light gets spread out more than the other colors, leaving a more orangish color.


Better question...I don’t intend to get all nerdy here and go into physics, which I haven’t taken in a long time, so I’m going to leave it as...I don’t know.

Anywho… any small light source will cause hard light such as the sun, a flashlight and your camera’s flash.

How do we find soft light?

Natural Light: Soft light sources

Outside-Open Shade

Outside in open shade...this means you are in a shaded location near the light such as in the garage but near the door looking out, under a porch, under a full tree, etc.

Remember that photo above where the boy is under a roof, but light is spilling in on him?

Yep! That's what I'm talking about.

Can you think of any other outdoor locations that offer shade, but are still near a bright surrounding?

I’m sure you can think of several near you!

What about in a garage, shed, pavilion, etc...?​

(A note on being under careful of the speckled look you can get from light coming in between the leaves. This is not a desirable look typically.)

Outside Cloudy Day​

Outside on an overcast cover acts like an enormous lighting modifier and spreads the light rays out making the light fall much softer and more evenly.

Shooting on an overcast day can be a photographers dream!


soft light

soft light from window light

Inside on an overcast day… setup near a window for fantastic soft light!

Inside on a bright day without direct sunlight coming in.

You can be near the direct light, but just out of range of it hitting you.

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About the Author

Amy is the owner extraordinaire at Learn Blog Photography and Amy Paris Photography. She's a single mom to an amazing teenage son. She's passionate about photography and skiing (downhill), the faster the better! Sign up for a FREE 30-min call to light up your photos & biz!