The idea that light is hard is not immediately clear from the term. Hard light is not the very brightest light. Actually the reference ‘hard’ points to the transition from dark to light where shadows fall. Where there are sudden and clear lines which make out well defined shadows the light is said to be hard. In the picture above, the men in the rugby scrum are under direct sunlight. There were no clouds and the sky was bright blue. The light is coming from one single direct source of light, the sun. Hence the shadow-lines are strong and the transition from the dark of the shadow to the lighter areas is abrupt and well defined.
How Hard Light is Formed
Hard light comes from a direct single-point source of light. It is not intercepted, reflected or diffused in any way and falls on the subject in a direct beam. This direct source of light causes the hard shadow-line. In a blackened room, one light bulb will cause this hard-light effect. The hardness of the shadow-lines is unaffected by the brightness of the light.
Creating Hard Light
Hard light is best produced using one point source. In a studio one, very direct, light will form the strongest shadow/light division. However, if your studio is white walled it is more difficult. Light bouncing from the walls comes back at the subject and causes the shadow-lines to be less well defined. Try to make sure there is as little reflectance as possible. More than one light will create softness too. Keep your light sources minimal and the shadow sharpness will be increased.
The radiance of the light coming out from all sides of a large source close to the subject can cause softness. The rays of light are not parallel and can cross each other creating an ill-defined line in the shadow. To make such a source create hard shadow-lines move it away from the subject. As it moves further away the rays of light tend to become parallel. It is this attribute of light, the parallel nature of its travel, which causes the sharp shadow-lines. Or, you could use a grid over your light source. Light grids force the light to go only in the direction of the grid. This will be very strongly directional, creating the hard light.
Out of doors there is less control over hard light. In direct sunlight, with no clouds, shadows are sharp. In general, the more cloud cover there is the softer the light becomes. So to get hard light you will need to wait for the sky to clear. Remember, that even a few clouds in the sky can diffuse the light. Clouds reflect light from wherever they are, acting as multiple light sources through their reflectance. You may be in direct sunlight but the reflectance from clouds in other parts of the sky can still soften the light.
Using Hard Light
Hard light on a face is not flattering. The lines and forms that we know of the human face are best seen softened and gentle. So using hard light to bring out the lines and features of a face is harsh and unforgiving. The eyes feel deeply set, the nose is strongly defined by shadow and the nose shadow-line is very harsh on one side of the face when hard light is used. Nevertheless, there are times when the use of hard light can be effective on the face. Villains, monsters, Dracula and countless other threats have been photographed or filmed in such light. It is sinister and heavy to have such strong lines. And, they appear in moonlight as well as in strong sunlight… as long as the light is direct and undiffused.
Strong shadow-lines are often useful when you are trying to define a texture in something. Bark on a tree trunk often looks flat and uninteresting in soft light. However, a hard light from an angle will create a myriad of light and dark areas which gives the bark its texture. The strong variation of light in a small area gives the bark contrasts that make it look three dimensional.
Often man-made objects, especially those with a hard and angular appearance, are well presented in hard light. The sharpness of the lines and geometry is accentuated by the harsh shadow-lines. Steel bridges, railway lines, pylons, concrete structures and buildings – all these and more can excite the eye in hard light.
Of course, because hard light is so harsh and unforgiving, you often want to soften it. So, you can introduce more light sources, wait for the clouds to come over, move into shadow, put up a diffuser… in short find any way to reflect, diffuse or widen the source of light. Then you will make the light on your subject softer.
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