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Film Lighting Basics: Soft Lighting and Hard Lighting in Film

This is Part 2 of a Film Lighting Basics series from Robert Machado and Jeremy Le. The series will cover Intensity, Quality, Color, Shape, and Direction.

A light’s quality describes the softness of its shadows and how it behaves. There are various ways to control light to manipulate how it interacts with your subject.

In the most basic sense, it boils down to two things: hard light and soft light.

Softness (quality) can be controlled by adjusting the light’s size relative to the subject. In essence, a larger source is a softer source.

Follow the Shadows

Light travels in waves and softness determines how they are dispersed. You can generally tell how soft/hard a light is based on the shadows it creates.

Hard lighting in film is very directional and casts definitive shadows on the subject.

hard lighting in film example from zacutohard lighting in film example from zacutohard lighting in film example from zacuto

As a light source becomes larger, it begins to wrap around the subject. Since the light is being dispersed over a broader area, the shadows become softer since more points of contact are lighting them.

In general, soft light is flattering light.

soft lighting in film example from zacutosoft lighting in film example from zacutosoft lighting in film example from zacuto

Soft Lighting for Interviews

I usually shoot interviews with soft light to present the talent in the most flattering light. Lighting with softer sources can help lift the ambiance of a scene. Soft lighting is generally more forgiving and leaves you with more wiggle room when dialing in your fill.

Using soft light during interviews helps blend the light into the scene itself, almost appearing as if there is no artificial light at all. This helps “sell” the scene to the audience.

soft lighting in film example from zacutosoft lighting in film example from zacuto

Distance Makes the ‘Harsh’ Grow Stronger

Consider the sun. It is the most powerful light we have available to us and, best of all, it’s free. But, if you look up, you’ll notice that it’s relative size to us is about the same as your own fingernail. Although the sun is a massive star at the center of our solar system, it’s about 93 million miles away from Earth. Distance from a subject is an extremely important factor to consider when regarding the size of the source. It’s entirely possible to have a beautiful, large source that casts harsh shadows if it’s too far away.

Pictured below is the Lowel Rifa eX88 – a large 32″ x 32″ softbox. It is rendering hard shadows because its distance relative to the subject is too far away.

distance and harsh shadows in hard lighting for film distance and harsh shadows in hard lighting for film

In these next two shots you can see we brought the source closer and were able to gradually fill in the shadows. This results in a softer, more flattering light.

distance and harsh shadows in hard lighting for filmdistance and harsh shadows in hard lighting for film

Make the Sun Work for You

There are many ways to harness the power of the sun and its quality. A popular method is bounce lighting, which uses a large white source and bounces light into the direction of a subject.

Devices that bounce light come in many different forms including foldable reflectors, cost-effective foam core, or even a simple t-shirt. There are also many devices that can be used when your talent is facing towards the sun: diffusion rolls, bed sheets, shower curtains, and silks all do fine.

I’ve made several of my own DIY solutions to light day exteriors. One I use most often is a simple 5 x 5 frame that utilizes a white bed sheet to diffuse light. Just cut a few pieces of lightweight PVC pipe to your desired length and cut out a bed sheet to overlap the entire frame. Fasten the ends using elbow fittings and you have yourself a simple, cost-effective frame that casts beautiful soft light in day exteriors.

Processed with VSCO with c3 presetfilm lighting outdoors

So, when are we supposed to utilize hard lighting in film?

Sometimes a scene calls for the use of harsh shadows which we can shape (a topic we will later discuss) in several ways to fit a story. Volumetric lighting requires smaller sources that cast hard shadows to be used effectively – as in the shot below.

using hard lighting in film

A great use of hard light is in The Night of the Hunter. In this frame below, the shadow cast on the wall presents a menacing character and gives the audience the impression that he is capable of something very evil. The large shadow might also insinuate a sense of strength and power relative to the smaller character on the left.

example of hard lighting in film from The Night of the Hunter

In the art world, a painting technique called “chiaroscuro” emphasizes shadows and harsh lighting to create a sense of depth and volume within paintings. Film noir cinema embraced these techniques to overcome the limitations of black and white film.

In summary, the difference between hard and soft light is how it renders shadows and its relative distance to a subject; hard lights have definitive shadows while soft lights have smooth and gradual shadows.

It is important to understand the differences in quality of light between hard and soft, and how to control them respectively. Shadows are incredibly important in visual storytelling and the absence of light is just as important as the prevalence of light; the selective use of hard and soft lighting in film plays a vital role in visual storytelling.

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This is the 2nd in a 5 part film lighting basics series from Robert Machado and Jeremy Le. Come back each week to read the whole series.

Read Part 1 – Film Lighting Basics: The Tools you Need to Become a Master of Intensity
Read Part 3 – Film Lighting Basics: What’s the Color of Your Movie?
Read Part 4 – Film Lighting Basics: 6 Ways to Shape Your Light
Read Part 5 – Film Lighting Basics: Motivate Your Scene and Your Audience Through Direction

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One Response to “Film Lighting Basics: Soft Lighting and Hard Lighting in Film”

  1. emmaunel james.C. on September 22nd, 2017 10:21 am

    I love this but I need more

About the Author


Robert Machado is a Las Vegas-based cinematographer and found his passion for visual storytelling in 2009 through photography. After several years as a photojournalist, he has since been drawn to the art of cinematography and storytelling through motion. As an alumnus of University of Nevada: Las Vegas, Robert has an extensive background in documentary/commercial work, where he focuses on creating unique visuals that is specific to his own style. He is also particularly addicted to creating short-form Instagram videos of recent shoots.

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