Hard Lighting vs Soft Lighting, what’s the difference?

Looking to incorporate a bit of diversity into your scenes, switch up the lighting setup a little? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Hard lighting and soft lighting are essential lighting techniques within filmmaking and enable you to shoot dynamic, enthralling scenes. 

But what are these types of lighting? And, how do I create soft and hard lighting? 

Fear not; your questions will be resolved in a matter of minutes down below. We delve into the setups of hard and soft lighting and how you create these setups. 

Let’s get into it below!

What is hard lighting?

hard lighting

Hard lighting is a lighting setup where the shadows are harsh and deep, which makes the subject stand out within the scene. It draws attention to your actor, and the transition between dark and light is a lot more defined. 

When the hard lights shot directly at your subject, it appears more focused on them. There’s a much more complex feel to the shot, in comparison to a softly lit subject. 

Some of the most captivating, awe-inspiring scenes have been shot using hard lighting. Hard lighting captures an intense feeling within the scene. It allows you to bring out an atmosphere and a feeling that can be felt by the audience – captivating them, keeping them hooked on every movement.

Hard light has similarities to the low key lighting setup, another lighting setup you must check out. It will help you create tension within your scene, perfect for thrillers.

You may also be interested in reading about: Low Key Lighting: How you can create a dramatic atmosphere immediately

What is soft lighting?

Soft lighting is a balanced lighting setup but bright with no shadows (well, the occasional, soft shadow). Soft lighting is more flattering and can be dispersed to balance out the light. 

The light can be dispersed using various objects, including bounce boards and materials, to spread the light and take the harshness off of it. The transition between the shadow and light is less obvious and a lot softer, allowing a much lighter contrast to the shot. 

It’s the perfect light setup if you’re looking to create a “coming of age” indie film and want to add a feel-good factor to the shot composition; soft lighting is the way to go. 

Light, balanced and intriguing. The soft lighting setup looks professional and will add that Hollywood sparkle to your film. This, combined with a well-written script, and some captivating dialogue, you’ll be onto a winner. 

Soft lighting has similarities to the high key lighting setup, there are intricacies between the two, but they provide a bright setup, perfect for comedies and light-hearted scenes. 

You may also be interested in reading: High Key Lighting: What is it? And How to Master it!

What’s the difference between hard and soft light?

hard vs soft lighting

There’s a monumental difference between the two light sources. One, as described above, is a dark, shadowy setup, with a harsh contrast to evoke tension, mystery and provoke fear. 

And the other is a softer, lighter more balanced set-up that evokes happiness, kindness and – enables you to create thought-provoking scenes. 

The ultimate difference between the two lighting types is the contrast of the light. Hard lighting is of high contrast between light and shadow within the shot setup. 

Whereas soft lighting gives a much more balanced approach where the shadows and difference are nowhere near noticeable. It’s subtle, whereas hard light is in your face and harsh.

How to create hard lighting? 

To create hard light, you use a single point of light that provides a high contrast light setup. It creates a direct light and a distinct shadowy effect. 

When creating the hard light, you need to restrict the spread of the light, unlike the setup for soft and high key lighting. It’s also helpful to use flags or other similar lighting adjustments to ensure you don’t have additional light creeping in; you want to keep it as direct as possible. 

There are a couple of methods to achieve this look; one is the on-axis method. This means you use the light in front of the camera and above to light the scene. Or you can use a Rembrandt set-up to achieve the hard light. 

This will create good shadowing and create a hard light that brings out distinct shadows and not competing shadows, taking away the definition.

These shadows will make your scene prominent and allow it to stand out, creating fear and tension; it’s a great setup!

As we know by now, hard light can create powerful shadows, and you can use these to your advantage. Especially if you pair them with powerful colours – this can make your scene pop and stand out.

The hard lighting setup is perfect for creating tension and using it in key, tense scenes.

You may also be interested in reading: Three-Point Lighting Setup: Lighting in Film

How to create soft lighting? 

Creating soft light is about using vast light sources and softening them to create a balanced lighting setup.

Ideally, you’ll have your light positioned close to your subject and use diffusers to soften the light and spread it evenly. 

Use reflectors as well to help bounce the light off; using a bounce lighting setup combined with the soft lighting can create picturesque diffused setups. Make sure to consider the equidistance of the subject and light source to help balance the light levels. 

Soft lighting is used often for fun-loving, comedic scenes and another coming of age films. This creates a fun, happy atmosphere, and the soft lighting allows a warm approach.

You may also be interested in reading more on: Bounce Lighting – Key Tips and Techniques

When should you use hard or soft light?

soft lighting

Here’s a quick breakdown of when you should consider either using hard or soft light. Think about what your scenes trying to achieve and the overarching theme of the film. The individual intricacies will also help point you towards the best-suited lighting for the setup. 

When you should use hard lighting

When using hard light, you must consider a few things. You will want to use this form of light setup when looking to create a strong, serious scene with a lot of tension or mystery. It’s used to create drama and give the shot an edge. 

The hard light adds depth and dimension to your subject. It oozes seriousness and will give any character you look to build a menacing figure and edge. Use it wisely, and it can add another dimension to your story.

When you should use soft lighting 

Using soft light allows a more flattering image than when using hard light. It will enable your shot to look natural, warm and friendly. 

If you’re looking to film a heart-warming scene, a soft light setup is crucial. It’s perfect for bringing out warmth in your subject, and especially if you’re looking to deliver good news within the scene – this is the light setup for you!

Learn to diffuse your light sources, spread them evenly and make sure you use them in the right scenes, develop the atmosphere, and create another dimension. 

It will take your film to the next level; it really will. Soft light paired with the right shot composition will take you far. Experiment a little, but most importantly, get the right composition and light setup to bring the story to life. 

You may also be interested in reading: Film lighting techniques EVERY filmmaker must know

Hard and soft light, the final cut!

Whether you’re starting out on your filmmaking journey or already midway through it, learning new lighting setups is crucial.

Hard and soft light are great ways to light a scene, and you must get the right setup to match the mood of the scene. Hard lights perfect for building tension, and a softer lighting setup is ideal for those warm, loving moments. 

When setting up the lighting arrangement for the scene, ensure you pre-plan and understand exactly what you want to achieve from the scene. 

An ideal place to begin mapping out the lighting structure is within the storyboarding. This starts to build out your story and lets you explore what lighting setup will work best for you and what you must consider before filming the scene. 

Lighting is such a powerful tool; you must make it count!

We hope the article on “Hard Lighting vs Soft Lighting, what’s the difference?” was useful to you. Let us know your thoughts down below in the comments, as we’d love to hear from you. 

Scroll a little further to read some more exciting filmmaking articles to help you grow, develop and thrive as a filmmaker. Happy Filmmaking!

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