Hard Light

Dark Photography - Starry Night and Aurora Photography - Landscape

What is hard light?

We define a hard light as one that is small in relation to the subject, generally un-diffused and it creates hard-edged, dark shadows. What we are looking at here with hard light is the light quality and finding a suitable balance that provides the light quality we are after.

Our key light is the light that we are using as our main light source. It is the brightest light hitting your subject. Now let’s spend a minute or two discussing the light quality being emitted by our key light.

Is it “hard” light? Or is it “soft” light?

The sun is a hard light. It is unfiltered and un-diffused (unless it’s a cloudy day). Plus, it’s relatively intense and small in relation to our subject.

When a hard light hits a subject, intense highlights and sharp black shadows are created.  The gradation, or fall-off, of light from highlight to shadow, is sharp and very abrupt.

When you see an actor on stage being lit by a spotlight, it is emulating the sun in that it is a very hard, directional light. When you think of hard light, think of it like a spotlight hitting your subject.

This creates strong modeling of shapes and dramatically emphasizes outlines and forms. It is also useful to create mood. Imagine an athlete after a big game where he or she lost. Now imagine him, or her, sitting in the locker room. They are dejected – beaten. In your imaginary image was the locker room brightly lit? Or was it dark and brooding? You can convey a great deal of emotion with your lighting choices.

Classic Hard Light Use Cases

hard lightHow about those old film noir movies where they show a “has been – but never really was” boxer – it’s after the fight and they are in the locker room tending to their injuries. The scene almost always shows them alone or with their one and only supporter.

Imagine that scene. You can see every drop of sweat, the ragged edges of the cut above the grossly swollen eye. It’s all in stark relief. The room is dark or very dimly lit. It’s all done by using a hard light source and few if any fill lights. They are attempting to show you the fighter’s “bottom of the barrel” type existence. In fact, the whole film noir industry was built on hard light and shadows.

hard light

By the way, there are BIG BUCKS available to photographers who can duplicate the film noir (hard light) look in portraits!

This involves hairstyle and make-up too. Not just the light and shadows. The portrait of Gene Tierney, the 1940’s Hollywood Starlet, shows a butterfly lighting pattern.

Can you see why it is called that? Butterfly lighting is called butterfly lighting as a result of the shadow cast under the nose. Can you see the butterfly-shaped shadow now? You get this by putting the primary light source directly behind, and above the camera.

To make this a little easier to understand, you, as the photographer will be positioned below the light source in order to achieve this pattern. You will have seen this used extensively in glamour shots as it is a great way to create a shadow under the chin and cheeks. A  little sneaky tip, this is a more flattering type of light to use for subjects who have a few more years on the clock as it places less emphasis on wrinkles when compared to side lighting.

Light Angles Matter

Dark Photography - Starry Night and Aurora Photography - Light Angles Matter

Light angles can make a big difference to your photography. Using a side-glancing light to accent an item with shadows can soften and balance out your image. Hard light is great for that.

Dark Photography - Starry Night and Aurora Photography - Light Angles MatterWhat about the face of a young girl wanting to be a model? How would you light her face? A glancing, hard light is going to show every blemish and line in her face. Do you think that she would want that type of photograph in her portfolio? Probably not!

By the way, she doesn’t have to be a model. Any woman is not going to like a photo that shows all her acne scars, and other bumps and bulges in her face. Boys and men generally care less than women, but they won’t like seeing every mark and blemish either.

Many model photographers use a hard light source – an on-camera flash – but they use a “ring flash” to fill in all the wrinkles and shadows from blemishes.

When considering light angles and the effects, there are several drawbacks to using a ring flash. First, there are problems with red-eyes. Second, it creates really odd looking round catch lights in the eyes. And third, since it eliminates shadows, you end up with a flat, 2D image. I recommend against using a ring flash for portrait work. If you need or want a hard light source, use one but put it at an angle to your subject. Then fill in the shadows as needed.

Want to see a masterful usage of angles with a hard light source? Pick up any bodybuilding magazine. They use a hard light source glancing across the body to define and visually enhance the muscles.

Consider the angle of your light. A hard light that is off to the side and glancing across the face (or body) will show every muscle, scar, pit, and bulge. But move that same light so that it is shining directly into the model, from the camera viewpoint, and you fill in all those facial anomalies, totally erase all their muscles and give your model smoother skin.

Sometimes when you are working with light angles, with a pretty girl, for example, shining the light directly into the face is a good thing, but try to avoid using a ring light.

The tradeoff is that you flatten the face and body, and lose most of the 3D effect you get from shadows. The shadow that defines shape is called “modeling”. Sometimes like with a bodybuilder – shining the light directly into the subject will ruin the portrait.

Every photographic situation has trade-offs, and the difference you will get with your light angles will be more than contrasting, trust me. It’s how you deal with them that will define your photographic vision or eye. Stepping away from taking photos of people for a second, here’s another example of how the angle of the light can change everything. Suppose you want to shoot a photo of a spider’s web.

Shooting spider webs can be done with hard light or soft light, but in my experience, hard light makes a more dramatic shot. With the hard light of the sun, it is easy to see the thin filaments of the web as well as the glistening dewdrops in the early morning; assuming of course that the angle is right.

If the sun is behind the web (shining towards you), the spider webs seem to pop up everywhere. But if you are looking for them with the sun at your back, you could spend all day searching and never find one!

Light angles can make some things completely disappear, take the next two photos for instance. There is a spider web in the below photo on the left. The below photo on the right is much less obvious as the light is at our back.

Light Qualities

Dark Photography - Starry Night and Aurora Photography - Light Qualities

Previously we learned a bit about photography lighting and light qualities that have to be considered when you are planning your creative vision. Some of the questions to consider include; it hard light? Is it soft light? Does the light give off a white or yellow tone?

Dark Photography - Starry Night and Aurora Photography - Light Qualities Hard LightThis is a sample of how hard light can present on a subject. Notice how the distinction between light and shadow is very obvious. The lighter areas between the nose and lips, and on the chin are a stark contrast to the shadow cast by the nose running over onto the cheek.

Controlling hard light to achieve the desired effect is something that you should practice. When you can work with hard light confidently you can create some very appealing effects and draw on viewer emotion to get your audience to connect with your work in a way that they might otherwise not be able to.

Dark Photography - Starry Night and Aurora Photography - Light Qualities Soft LightThis is a sample of how soft light can appear on a subject. Notice how there are no strong distinctions between light and shadow, even the shadow cast between the right cheek and jawline under the layers of hair are quite subtle.

Look at how the balance of light and shadow moves down the neck, gently emphasizing the shape of the neck, rather than being bold and obvious, which would draw the viewers attention away from the eyes. Again, controlling the light to communicate what it is that you want to share with your audience is an art that needs to be mastered in the initial shoot; and not so much in post-production.

We’ve defined and discussed the key light in posts here, which is the main, or most powerful light, but we also need to consider the source of the light, the intensity, direction, and color. We’ve learned that shadow defines form. With no shadows, your subject will appear flat and two dimensional.  So to make our photos more realistic and more 3D, we need to give a lot of attention to the shadows.

Notice how the shadows make this photo of a mannequin look three dimensional as a result of the photography lighting? And, here is a sample of a photo with fewer shadows. Notice how it makes this real person looks more two dimensional (or flatter) than the mannequin photo?

Comparatively this photo of the young girl also looks faded and washed out when compared to the mannequin. There are so many things wrong with this photo, and through your Dark Photography journey, you will learn how to avoid taking photos that do not convey the message that you want.

We’ve also learned to study shadows. They are more important than most beginners to photography realize. In fact, in portrait photography, all six of the most popular lighting setups are named for the shadows they create! Broad light, narrow light, split light, loop light, butterfly light and Rembrandt light. Always ask yourself:

  • Are there any shadows?
  • What is their direction?
  • What about the shadow’s depth?

Remember: if the shadow is too dark, we lose all the facial details. If it is too light, we lose our roundness and 3D effect.

We’ve also learned that we can manipulate our shadows with photography lighting by adding in a secondary light called a fill light. The fill light is generally set opposite to the main, or key light, and adjusted so that its intensity is less than that of the key light. In this way, it fills in the shadow areas but doesn’t completely eliminate them. Your on-camera flash can be used as a fill light, so can white reflectors, walls, or even a van!

There are many different photography hacks that can provide you with the different results you are looking for, and many we will teach you that will cost you almost nothing to use compared to the commercial alternative. To get access to these you will need to subscribe to Dark Photography.

A key thing to remember is that a light source doesn’t have to actually generate the light; it can merely reflect light from another source. Are your shadows not dark enough? Try using a black reflector. Yes, that’s right, a black reflector!

We learned about raccoon eyes and several ways to fix them. We did several exercises to help sharpen our “creative eye” and learn to predict the effect of various light and shadows affecting our subject.

Here are a couple samples of raccoon eyes. Can you see why they are called raccoon eyes?

We learned how to take a lot of weight off our subjects by controlling the depth of shadows and the color of their clothing. We learned how to make our subjects look younger by filling in the shadows created by the wrinkles on their skin.

We’ve learned about the causes of the glare in our subject’s spectacles or sunglasses, and several easy ways to remove it. We’ve learned why studio photographers use umbrellas and softboxes in their photography lighting aresenal to soften and diffuse the light in order to control the shadows.

In this review of ambient light, we’ve briefly touched on and covered a lot of ground. It wouldn’t hurt you to go back and re-read about light shaping and snoots, and cookies and gobos. Re-do the photo exercises. Light and shadow is an important area to master.

Moving on – Let’s get more into hard light and how to shape and control it.