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The Magic of Soft Light

Soft light photo

Soft light is beautiful. It is a gift from nature that helps you create interesting images using high quality 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.

Soft light photo

Let’s take a look at these two photos to see the difference between hard light and soft light. I took the first in direct sunlight in the afternoon. The light is hard and it’s not a good a photo. The contrast is too high – it’s not possible to get good detail in both highlights and shadows.

I resolved the problem by holding a reflector, still in its cover, between the flower and the sun. Actually, it doesn’t matter what I used, the purpose is to cast a shadow over the flower and the background. That means the flower is now lit by soft light, not hard light. Aesthetically, the photo is completely different. The even lighting means that the brightness range of the subject falls is reduced to something that my camera’s sensor can handle comfortably. There are no shadows. The flower is evenly lit, and that gives me nice deep colours. The quality of light has gone from hard and ugly to soft and beautiful.

That’s the power of soft light.

I’m not saying all hard light is bad, and that all soft light is good. What’s important is the match of subject to light. This flower needed to be photographed in soft light to bring out its beauty. Some subjects suit hard light better – I will explore those in a future article.

So, where else does soft light come in useful?

Soft light photo

If you’re shooting close-ups, soft light lets you capture colour and detail and avoids bright, distracting highlights or high contrast. Again, the quality of the light is beautiful and suits the subject.

Soft light photo

Soft light doesn’t have to be completely shadowless. Sometimes the sun is out, but the air is hazy and the light has a soft luminous quality. The light is hard enough to cast shadows, but they are not very deep. The light in this photo has that quality. See how the light is coming from behind the houses, but isn’t strong enough to create strong shadows. This kind of light seems to work well when the subject is backlit.

Soft light photo

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. Not true! Especially if the sun is the only light source – admittedly the use of a reflector can help compensate for the hard light of direct sunlight. You can also get good results in direct sunlight by using flash to fill the shadows or even overpower the sun. But that’s another article.

If you are taking photos in natural light only, then head for the shade. 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 above has these qualities in abundance.

Mastering Photography

Soft light photo

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.

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Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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