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Dramatic Storytelling | When to Use Hard Lighting

Understanding how different types of light affects your subject can be essential in creating a look that can help improve your skills as a cinematographer. Today, we will be discussing the characteristics of hard light, the differences between hard and soft light and best situations to utilize hard light in a scene.

The Basics of Hard Light

Hard light is a quality of light that produces hard shadows with crisp edges, revealing depth and texture on the illuminated subject. Contrary to soft light, which conceals depth and texture with soft edge shadows. Soft light is much better than hard light at wrapping around a talent’s face, but hard light is better at showing definition in your talents’ face or body. This characteristic is perfect for showcasing edgy features like a sharp jawline or muscular definition. More often than not, hard light is more commonly associated with male talent, but hard light can also be used with female talent to express feelings of mystery or intense facial features.

 Hard light

 female talent hard light

There aren’t specific hard and fast rules for using hard or soft light, feel free to be creative but keep in mind, hard light can be pretty unforgiving when it comes to illuminating your talent. So, keep in mind how your talent will look under your chosen lighting conditions with respect to wrinkles and blemishes. Hard light produces brighter highlights and darker shadows and will add contrast to your subject and scene. Because our eyes are drawn towards the brightest part of the frame, hard light is a great way to draw the viewers attention. With hard light creating more contrast and brighter highlights, making for more eye catching potential with crushed shadows making everything else less noticeable.

low key shadow work

Hard light is essential for more creative lighting scenarios like using shadows, like in film noir with shadows of window blinds. The adaptation of this technique can be used for numerous different looks like the shadow of prison cell bars, trees branches, introducing mysterious or scary protagonist, like the example pictured above. For more volumetric lighting, like the example pictured below, hard lighting is the best way to achieve that look.

film noir with shadows of window blinds

Lighting isn’t limited to 2D space, the same shadows you project on a wall with hard light can extend through the entire space you’re filming. In essence the shadows can be captured throughout the space you’re filming through atmosphere or haze.

How to Create Hard Light

Hard light is created by manipulating the size and distance of a light source. If you’re familiar with the conditions of creating soft light- the bigger the source of light to a subject or closer the distance to a subject, the softer the light. Hard light is achieved with smaller sources of light or from further distances from a subject. The further a light source is from the subject, the harsher the shadows. The sun is a great source of hard light, although it is enormous in size, it’s also millions of miles away, thus making it a smaller source. Keep in mind the sun is natively a hard source when not covered, add in cloud cover and you’ll get a much softer and diffused source of light. For more info on using the sun as a light source, we’ll cover it in another episode.

How to Harden Soft Light

When it comes to softening hard light, it’s a very easy and simple process, add diffusion, silks, soft boxes and such in front of a hard light source. For hardening soft light it’s a much more difficult process and depending on your shooting location, it might be extremely difficult. There are only two options, one is to move your light source further away from your subject and the other is to bounce your soft light off a smaller object like a reflector or mirror to act as your new source of light. For example, the Aputure 120d with Light Dome together makes for a beautiful soft source of light, but if one were to bounce that light off a smaller 17” silver reflector it will produce a much harder source of light compared to shining the 120d and Light Dome directly at a subject.

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