What is hard light?
We define a hard light as one that is small in relation to the subject, generally un-diffused and it creates hard-edged, dark shadows. What we are looking at here with hard light is the light quality and finding a suitable balance that provides the light quality we are after.
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 un-diffused (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.
Classic Hard Light Use Cases
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 portrait of Gene Tierney, the 1940’s Hollywood Starlet, shows a butterfly lighting pattern.
Can you see why it is called that? Butterfly lighting is called butterfly lighting as a result of the shadow cast under the nose. Can you see the butterfly-shaped shadow now? You get this by putting the primary light source directly behind, and above the camera.
To make this a little easier to understand, you, as the photographer will be positioned below the light source in order to achieve this pattern. You will have seen this used extensively in glamour shots as it is a great way to create a shadow under the chin and cheeks. A little sneaky tip, this is a more flattering type of light to use for subjects who have a few more years on the clock as it places less emphasis on wrinkles when compared to side lighting.