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Foundations of Lighting: Understanding Soft Light
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Soft Light Explained:

A soft light source would be one that appears larger in relative size than the subject being lit. Being larger than the subject, the light source is covering it from a greater angle and, as a result, filling in more of the potential shadow areas.

 

This effect is called wrap around lighting, because the coverage of the light source appears to wrap itself around the subject. A light source that is smaller than the subject cannot wrap light around it and fill the shadows.



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Hard Light vs Soft Light, in Nature & the Studio
learn soft light
learn soft light
Outdoors, our subject is being lit by the sun, which, in reality, is much larger than the subject. But, since its so far away, it appears smaller and therefore is light quality will be "harder". Note the sharp shadows.
 
learn soft light
learn soft light
Indoors, our subject is being lit by a 250W Pro-light, which is much smaller than the sun, but also much closer. It still appears much smaller than the subject, and therefore is light quality will be "harder". These shadows are also sharp.


learn soft light
learn soft light
Outdoors, our subject is now being lit by the overcast sky. Unlike the "point source" effect of the sun, the entire white cloudy sky is now the light source. In relation to our subject, the source is much larger. It lights our subject from a very large angle, so its effect is ultra soft. Note how subtle the shadows are.
 
learn soft light
learn soft light
Indoors, our subject is now being lit by a 750W Rifa eX 66. While its not as large a source as the overcast sky, it is a much larger source than the Pro-light, especially when used this close. So the effect will be much softer than the Pro-light. Compare the shadows between Pro & Rifa.


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While shadowless, or flat, lighting can be a legitimate lighting style, light that is too soft can rob an image of its sense of dimension and depth. The shot lit by the overcast sky is an example of this.

Don't forget that your image is 2 dimensional, and you are giving the illusion of depth thru the creative use of shadows and contrast. These details are also what give the viewer clues about the form and textures in fabrics and food; or surfaces like weathered wood and rough stone.

Lighting is not always either hard or soft. There is a whole range of creative possibilities in between these 2 extremes. Note the visible differences in the shadows behind the 2 statue images above. Moving the soft light back created a smaller source, making the effect of the output harder and the shadows stronger.

Part of the process is developing a creative instinct for what level of softness you desire in a shot, the second half is achieving it. As you will see, there are some possibilities for that.

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