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My last blog post described harsh light. This installment is about harsh light’s counterpart—soft light—what makes light soft, how to create it and when and how to use it.

Harsh Light

Let’s start with bright sun on a clear, cloudless day. It’s a very small light source casting distinct shadows. This is harsh light. In the studio a bare bulb around twenty feet from the subject does the same thing.


 Soft Light

One of the confusing concepts in lighting is that the closer a light moves to its subject the softer the light becomes. When asked “As the light gets closer to the subject does the light become harsher or softer?” Practically everyone answers “Harsh.” Why? Because as the light gets closer to the subject it gets brighter. Sun on a clear day is bright so bright must equal harsh. Yes the light gets brighter as it moves toward its subject. It also gets bigger. Size matters in softness of light.

Studio light becomes soft by putting a diffusion panel between the bare bulb and the subject.

Harsh light happens when the source of light is smaller than the subject. Soft light is made with a light much larger than the subject it illuminates. Here are close up examples from the two lighting set ups shown above.

Roll a cloud in front of the sun and poof! Soft light. Make the day completely overcast and the light is super soft.


Soft light is romantic, smooth and usually although not always lower in contrast than its harsh counterpart. Soft light wraps around its subject. Its large size creates very long transitions from highlight to shadow. If the light is large enough there are no shadows at all. In the eyes the light is large often filling half or even more of the irises. It is usually less saturated than harsh light.

3 comments so far

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  1. Great topic! I especially enjoyed how you broke down lighting techniques to a more simple everyday comparison. This is very helpful for someone like myself that’s not familiar with all the lighting technicallities, and still learning about photography in general. Great stuff, please add more of it, including this topic matter. Thank you!

  2. Hi Kevin! I have a question that I can’t find an aswer for yet. Lets say I had a group of three up to five people, and they were all standing (not in a direct line) but more a few up front and a few spread out back… how can I get them all properly focused? Thank you for your feedback, looking forward to it!