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What is soft light in photography?
Here are two photos that demonstrate the difference between hard light and soft light. I made the first in direct sunlight. It isn’t a good photo – the contrast is too high and it isn’t possible to get good detail in both shadows and highlights.
I solved the problem by holding a reflector, still in its cover, between the flower and the sun. That created shade and meant the flower was lit by soft light. You can see the difference below.
The difference is striking. Aesthetically speaking the second photo is completely different and a big improvement. There are no shadows (a characteristic of soft light). The light wraps around the subject.
In a practical sense the camera’s sensor can handle the brightness range of the subject, which means there are no clipped shadows or highlights. The soft light also gives strong color. In short, the quality of light has gone from hard and ugly to soft and beautiful.
That’s the power of soft light.
Finding the right subject for soft light in photography
Don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not saying all hard light is bad, and all soft light is good. The photographer’s job is to find the best match between subject and light.
The flower in the example above needed to be photographed in soft light to bring out its color beauty. On the other hand, some subjects suit hard light better – I will explore this idea in another article.
What creates soft light?
You’ll find soft light in the shade on a sunny day, during twilight after the sun has set, or all around you on a cloudy day. You’ll also find it indoors in the shade, and when the sun is setting in hazy conditions.
Geography is a factor as well. The closer you get to the equator the more likely it is that the strong sun makes soft lighting less common. At the same time you’ll find the light is usually softer in more distant latitudes.
Here’s an example of a photo taken when the sun was out, but the air was hazy. The result is that the light has a soft luminous quality. It’s hard enough to cast shadows, but they are not very deep. The houses are backlit, but the light has a soft, dreamy quality.
Here’s another example, this time taken in India. The sun was quite strong during the day, but towards sunset dipped behind the building. That meant the front of the building was in shade, creating a beautiful soft light that enabled me to make this photo.
Close-up and macro photography in soft light
If you’re shooting close-ups, soft light lets you capture color and detail and avoids bright, distracting highlights or high contrast. As we saw in the earlier example a smart use of shade provides high quality light that suits the subject.
The key is to make sure that the background is in shade as well as the subject. That way you avoid spoiling the composition with bright highlights.
As soft light is often low light you may have to use a high ISO or a wide aperture to give you a fast enough shutter speed to hand-hold the camera. You can use that to creative effect by using a wide aperture to blur the background and create a soft dreamy effect. I used an aperture of f2 to do that with this photo.
Detail photos are another subject that suit soft light. I like photographing interesting details that tell you something about the place that I found them. I made the following photo in an open air antiques market in Shanghai. The soft light let me capture all the detail in the scene.
Soft light and landscape photography
There are times when soft light is perfect for landscape photography. One example I can think of is the kind of soft light you get after the sun has set on a sunny day. This gives you amazing results when photographing seascapes as the water reflects the colors in the sky. At this time of the evening, when light levels are low, you will need to use a tripod a long shutter speed to get a good exposure. The long exposure blurs the movement of the water creating a beautiful effect.
You can see that in this photo, made with a shutter speed of 60 seconds.
It can also be fun to shoot in mist and fog. Autumn is a great time of year to do this as mist combined with autumn colors creates very moody images. Some places also get sea fog, which can be interesting to work in. I made the photo below at the same location as the previous one, but during the day in thick fog. The result is that you can’t see the island in the distance or the horizon. The photo is more abstract and the textures on the concrete jetty have become the main point of interest.
You also get soft light during overcast days. While some photographers would consider this poor light for landscape photography, others use neutral density filters to obtain long exposures that, just like the photo above, blur the movement of water and clouds. They often work in black and white, creating landscape photos like this, which I made with a shutter speed of 119 seconds.
Portrait photography in soft light
Finally, soft light is absolutely beautiful for portraits, especially of women. I’m a little surprised by how many people, photographers and models included, think that sunny conditions are ideal for taking photos of people. This is not true! It may work sometimes, for example I’ve seen some great portraits made of beautiful female models and rugged men in hard sunlight. But it takes a lot of skill and the right model.
If you are taking photos in natural light only (in other words, you are not using flash) then look for the shade. In the late afternoon or early evening there will be plenty of it around. I made the following portrait in the evening with the sun hidden behind a hill. The soft light helped bring out the model’s natural beauty.
This technique also comes in handy for creating portraits of interesting people you meet while traveling. The man in the portrait below came up to us in Delhi and asked if we would like to make his portrait for a few rupees. We said yes, and looked for an interesting background (the green door) and good quality light (shade). This is the result.
On a sunny day, the light bounces off any surfaces lit by the sun and into the shadows. It’s like shooting with an enormous, and completely free, reflector. The light is soft and beautiful and creates amazing catchlights in the model’s eyes. The portrait below has these qualities in abundance.
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