Production Lighting: Hard Light vs. Soft Light

Production lighting depends greatly on the difference between hard light and soft light. Most scenes will employ both types of illumination, and understanding the theory will help your decisions.

Hard Light

Hard light is referred to as such because it creates crisp and harsh shadows. As far as fixtures go, any conventional film lamp is going to produce hard light. Though there is a difference between a Fresnel light and an open face light, if you point either directly at a person, the shadows on his face will be distinct. The reason is that light is being projected along a narrow path. The stream of light goes strictly in one direction until it hits the person's face. Therefore, no light reaches around the nose to fill in the shadow.

Soft Light

Soft light wraps three-dimensional objects, thus creating gentler shadows. There are soft sources that find a lot of use on film sets today. Kino Flos and LED panels create light coming from a wide spread of source. Rather than projecting light in a direct, narrow beam, these lights send light in all directions. So when the light reaches the person's face, some of it is coming in at a different angle and can wrap into the shadows behind the person's nose.

Fresnel vs Open Face

As mentioned earlier, though open faced units are commonly referred to as soft sources, they generally create hard light. Nonetheless, there are soft light theories involved in their construction. A fresnel light is constructed with a light bulb that has a fresnel lens in front of it. This lens harnesses the power of the light and focuses it into a beam. The spot/flood function moves the light bulb closer or farther from the lens to change the width of the beam. An open faced light has no lens. It merely has a light bulb that is surrounded by a silver backing. This backing reflects all the light coming from the back of the light bulb. You now have light shooting in several directions as it would from a soft light source, but at this degree it retains its hard quality.

Softening Sources

Though you do have access to soft sources such as Kino Flos and LED panels, there are ways to soften your hard sources. These methods generally yield a more natural effect than soft light units. The first method is to bounce the light. Point the unit away from the subject, then put a white card in front of it. This card reflects the light into a large span of very gentle light. You can also simply add diffusion to the front of your unit. A white gel will scatter the stream of light as it passes through. These theories can be applied any number of ways to soften your sources.

Hard and soft light have different qualities to offer. Each will be useful in your lighting designs.

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