Hard and Soft Light

// January 23rd, 2010 // Photography

Ages back I had a plan to create a new site which explained photography using primarily diagrams with illustrative photos, and minimal text – built up as I learnt new techniques. One day I’m sure I’ll get round to creating it, but until then I thought I’d post up some of the diagrams and notes here!

Light Hardness

The hardness of lighting has a huge impact on a photo – soft light means subtle wide edges to shadows on the subject, wheras hard light would give a very defined sharp border between lit and shaded areas.
As a basic rule of thumb, soft light is flattering in a portrait, hard light is dramatic:

Portrait with softer lighting
Portrait with softer, flattering lighting

Portrait with harder lighting
Portrait with harder, dramatic lighting

The Strobist 101 course explains the basic concept of hard vs. soft light in some detail, with some nice setup photos. I tried to boil the lessons down to their essence:

Hard vs. Soft light - subject vs. light size (click to see full size)

In a nutshell – the bigger the light relative to the subject, the softer the light.

Hard vs. Soft light - impact of distance (click to see full size)

In a nutshell – the further away a light gets from the subject, the smaller it becomes relative to the subject and the harder the light is.

Certainly not rocket science, but I like to reduce things to simple rules and present them visually!

DIY Soft Box

While we’re on the subject, I may as well present my quick instructions for making a very portable soft box from a shoe box – a flash modifier for producing softer light.  It’s small, so only suitable for a limited range of uses, but it slips nicely into a camera/laptop bag next to the laptop and weighs next to nothing so there’s no real harm in carrying it around!

Materials: one shoe box, some sticky backed velcro strips, a few sheets of shiny white printer paper and about an A4 sheet of tracing paper – plus duct tape, if you want to make it look nicer and be more durable.
Tools: glue (something like Pritt Stick), and either good scissors or a Stanley knife.

DIY softbox step 1 - open up the shoe box

Step 1 – Open up the shoe box flat.

DIY softbox step 2 - mark where to cut

Step 2 – Mark out where to cut, which is driven by the size of your flash head – on the side flaps, put the head side on in the centre of the flap, and mark out diagonals to the top and bottom (it may be helpful to look at photo 5 to visualise how it will assemble in the end).

DIY softbox step 3 - cut with a Stanley knife

Step 3 – Cut out these diagonals, and most of the bottom of the box, with a Stanley knife. Fold the side flaps together, put the flash between them, and then fold the top and bottom flaps together; mark out diagonals on these top and bottom flaps so that you will be able to make a pyramid. Remember to leave tabs for the velcro (see next picture).

DIY softbox step 4 - stick white reflective paper inside, and tracing paper over the main hole

Step 4 – Cut the top and bottom flaps into shape, and then stick on the paper – white paper on all of the solid surfaces, and tracing paper across the big hole in the middle. If you have some duct tape, stick duct tape all across the back/outside of the box for strength. Add velcro to the tabs so that you can fold the box into a pyramid.

DIY softbox step 5 - use sticky velcro on the 'tab' cutouts and the back so it can assemble into a pyramid

This photo shows the softbox assembled, with the flash firing and at rest. Note that the flash head also has velcro around it, for quickly attaching modifiers – see Strobist for thoughts on that.

DIY softbox step 6 - undo velcro to pack it flat

Softbox flattened down for transport – it folds to about 1cm thick when it’s not under compression.


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One Response to “Hard and Soft Light”

  1. dood says:

    dude this is awesome

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