Hard Light

I am not the first to write about the distinction between hard and soft light. However, I recently prepared (and gave) a talk for the 2011 National Speleological Society (NSS) convention, and I learned a bit in doing the preparation for the talk. The results for this will be spread across a few blog entries to keep each one tight and on a specific topic. As I finish them, I will link them all together.

First, definitions. Hard light is light that has sharp edges to the shadows. It comes from a small light source or a large one far from the subject. Most speedlite/speedlight flash units are relatively small light sources. The sun is large, but it is far away, so it also is a hard light source, especially near noon.

Hard light is good for showing textures and fine details. This is great for photos like geological features, but few people want every last blemish and wrinkle highlighted in the photo unless it is to show character as in this example.

high-contrast image of cave pearls lit by a single hard light source
Note the texture, sharp shadow lines , and deep shadows in this high-contrast image.

Young people, such as this lovely young woman, can also take hard light because they have great skin.

Her skin is good enough that the hard light is not a problem; she has no blemishes or wrinkles.

Shadows in hard light tend to be dark with few details. The high contrast can create a moody image that can be dramatic. Film noir movies are classic examples of this type of lighting.

You can also soften hard light by using a second (and possibly more) light source. If you have no modification devices that soften the light, this approach alone might be sufficient. Position the extra light(s) so they fill the deep shadows. I normally set the second light to be about a stop darker than the primary light, but the exact ratio depends on the situation.

Cave formations lit by two light sources, the second filling in the shadows of the first
The primary light is a hard light to the upper left. A second light to the right fills in most of the shadows with a lower light level.

To summarize this blog entry, hard light comes from a small light source and produces high-contrast images with dark, well-defined shadows. Sometimes, it is exactly what you need to set the mood of an image.

The Dolphin (ice formation)

Woman looking at an ice formation in a cave

Lest you think I only talk about weddings, here’s a recent cave shot. I wanted a unique way to look at the ice formation.  I put a medium grid on my flash, a Canon 580 EX II fired by a Pocket Wizard radio slave.  An assistant is aiming it right down the formation, and the light on her face is the little spill from the fact that the grid is a medium one and light is also exiting the formation at various places.  This was only the second place I had used a grid on the flash; I’ve not had it more than a few months.  I have been experimenting with various light-modification devices, and, so far, they seem to be worth the weight and volume to carry them.  They allow me to light the subject(s) with more control than just a flash by itself.

Caves are challenging places to take photos.  On the hard side, you (and your helpers!) have to carry all of the light.  On the other hand, you never have to wait for the “golden hours” of the day (just after sunrise and before sunset), because all of the light is completely under your control.  Add in that they are beautiful (and, in this case, really cold!), and they are one of my favorite places to take photos.

Note added 2011-07-25: This photo received “Best in Show” at the 2011 national Speleological Society print salon and a blue ribbon (Merit Award) in the photo salon.