Hard Light

Hard Light Defined

We define a hard light as one that is small in relation to the subject, generally undiffused and it creates hard edged, dark shadows.

Light Quality

Our key light is the light that we are using as our main light source. It is the brightest light hitting your subject. Now let’s spend a minute or two discussing the light quality being emitted by our key light.

Is it “hard” light? Or is it “soft” light?

The sun is a hard light. It is unfiltered and undiffused (unless it’s a cloudy day). Plus, it’s relatively intense and small in relation to our subject.



When a hard light hits a subject, intense highlights and sharp black shadows are created.  The gradation or fall-off of light from highlight to shadow is sharp and very abrupt.


When you see an actor on stage being lit by a spotlight, it is emulating the sun in that it is a very hard, directional light. When you think of hard light, think of it like a spotlight hitting your subject.

This creates strong modeling of shapes and dramatically emphasizes outlines and forms. It is also useful to create mood.

Imagine an athlete after a big game where he or she lost. Now imagine him, or her sitting in the locker room. They are dejected – beaten. In your imaginary image was the locker room brightly lit? Or was it dark and brooding. You can convey a great deal of emotion with your lighting choices.

How about those old film noir movies where they show a “has been – but never really was” boxer – it’s after the fight and they are in the locker room tending to their injuries. The scene almost always shows them alone or with their one and only supporter.

Imagine that scene. You can see every drop of sweat, the ragged edges of the cut above the grossly swollen eye. It’s all in stark relief. The room is dark or very dimly lit. It’s all done by using a hard light source and few if any fill lights.

They are attempting to show you the fighter’s “bottom of the barrel” type existence.

In fact, the whole film noir industry was built on hard light and shadows.


By the way, there are BIG BUCKS available to photographers who can duplicate the film noir (hard light) look in portraits! This involves hairstyle and make-up too. Not just the light and shadows. The above portrait shows a butterfly lighting pattern. Can you see why it is called that? If not, you need my “Building A Portrait”