Hard vs soft light – 5 portrait lighting setups broken down to show you when to use each

Tips & Techniques

When shooting portraits, the difference between hard and soft light on your subject makes a massive difference to the final result. There are so many ways we can use both, and when it comes to photographing people, the challenges of hard light can be particularly tricky to work around. But knowing when to use each allows you to make better creative decisions.

In this video, John Gress walks us through five different lighting setups using both hard and soft light to see how they come together and how the different quality of the light affects your subject and how it makes the final image look. You may even want to mix the two from time to time.

There’s no absolute right or wrong way that’s universal to every setting when it comes to hard vs soft light, as illustrated in John’s video, but there are definitely times when a hard or soft light works better for a given scene on location or sets a particular mood you’re trying to convey when shooting in the studio.

When I look at my own work, I think I have a fairly healthy mix of both hard and soft light in my portrait subjects – the vast majority of which are on location. Either it’s a smaller strobe such as the Godox AD200Pro with a 7″ reflector for the hard light or it’s a more powerful strobe like the Godox AD600Pro in a 4ft round softbox for the soft light – which is always fun on location – especially when there’s a bit of a breeze.

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