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How to Create and Use Hard and Soft Light in a Studio Setting

Hard light vs soft light craig wagner studio 3

When setting up your lights for studio photography, you first need to consider what lighting setup will create the look you are going for. Is your light going to fall into the category of hard light – or will it be soft? What’s the difference?

Let’s first look at the basic characteristics of hard and soft light sources, and the different feel each creates when shooting the same subject.


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In general, a single-point light source, aimed from a distance is referred to as hard light, much like our sun on a clear day or a streetlight at night.

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This hard light source creates a high contrast look, where the transition between highlights and shadows is sharp and well-defined.

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In some cases, this contrast can look harsh (and unwanted).


Imac soft light example craig wagner

On the other hand, a soft light source is a larger, broader, light placed relatively close to the subject. A cloud-covered or overcast day, where diffused sunlight reflects off a large concrete wall would be one example of a soft light source.

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The light tends to be flatter in contrast, and the highlights hold more detail, with the shadow’s edges being soft and open.

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Generally this is a more pleasing light, but not necessarily the only light-source.

Many factors go into choosing light quality and the type of light source on set. One may be the direction given from an art director or client where you may be asked to match images from an existing campaign. They may want you to recreate a natural lighting condition (such as hot harsh desert sun on a pair of boots, or cool early morning light falling on a table setting).

The subject matter itself can also have a strong influence on your choice of light source. A highly reflective (like glass or chrome), or high-contrast product can be quite the challenge if you try lighting it with a hard light source. Fighting spectral highlights, or holding detail in the shadows and highlights, can be a pain if you have to use hard lighting alone.

If you’re lucky enough to be given creative freedom by the client, or working on a personal project, you might be illustrating a mood or an emotion and will use appropriate lighting needed to create it. Careful choice of lighting, and mixing your hard and soft light sources, will allow you to achieve that.

How to set up for a hard light shoot

Hard lighting setup diagram craig wagner

Imac hard light example craig wagnerFor the studio hard-light set, place the key (main) light (a strobe head with a 12” modifier) to the left and slightly behind the subject. The initial beam may be too broad, so to concentrate the light you can add a 35-degree grid to the modifier.

For this setup, final adjustments to the height and position of the key light were made, in order to modify the angle and length of the shadows on the table and floor, as well as to illuminate the edges of the computer screen in a pleasing manner. A 4’x8′ sheet of black foamcore was placed to the right of the set to deepen the shadows and remove unwanted reflections. Two smaller sheets of white foamcore were set low, in front and to either side, to control the amount of detail in the front edge of the table and legs.

A second strobe head with a 7” grid modifier was set high, and to the back of the set. Its angle was adjusted to illuminate the upper right corner of the background, which you can see in the photo (right).

How to set up for a soft light shoot

Soft lighting setup diagram craig wagnerImac soft light example craig wagnerTo create the soft-light look, the key light is set in the same place, but a 4’x4′ full diffusion panel is placed between the light and the subject, just out of the frame. Remove the grid from the key light to broaden the light. The black foamcore is replaced by a sheet of white to fill or open the shadows (but the two sheets out front remain). The background light is pulled back, the grid removed, and a diffusion disk added to soften the beam and cover the entire background. In this way the whole set appears bright and soft and with a lot of ambient light filling the image (left).

How to change a hard light source into a soft one

You may get into a situation where you’ve set up your light source and find you actually want to go the other direction with it. In this case, it is quite easy to change one type of light source into the other. You can diffuse a hard source into being soft, by placing diffusion material between the lighting and the subject, which allows you to control the angle and light gradient. You can also just attach a softbox to the light to soften the light and make it into a broader, even source. You can also take a soft source that you’ve set up and change its distance from the subject in order to make it a harder, more focused light. You can also bounce the light around more using reflectors, umbrellas, or a handy wall in order to soften it and make it less directional.

Combining hard and soft light

The ultimate tip for studio photography is to be flexible with your lighting setup regardless of your years of know-how. You may have an idea in mind for the final look you want for the photograph, but you may find that on set the product looks quite different under various lighting conditions. Be prepared to play around and try things – because often a mixture of both hard and soft light can show the product to its full advantage.

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Soft light example with a hard light rim (kicker or accent) light from behind. Notice the hard shadow on the table in front of the cups – that is created by the hard rim light.

Once you have a full understanding of hard and soft light sources, you can combine the two lighting techniques. For example, the set might have a general, overall softness to its light, but you might use a rim (or accent) light to give the shot more mood or dimension, or to accent certain elements of items in frame. Mastering both types of light allows you to have the ultimate control over your lighting, and the final image that comes out of the camera.

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Craig Wagner
Craig Wagner

has been a working commercial photographer for more than 35 years with Studio 3, Inc., the largest independently-owned photography studio in the Pacific Northwest. He specializes in interior/exterior photography and large product photography (such as trucks and spas). You can see more of his work on the Studio 3 website and follow Studio 3 on Facebook and Instagram.

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