Lighting 101: Hard Light

So, we have spent a decent amount of time on soft light modifiers. Soft light generally comes from physically large sources or modifiers—think umbrellas, walls, overhead clouds, etc. But hard lights—which come from small sources—can look really cool, too. It's just that hard flash gets a bad rap because of how mad it looks when mounted right on top of your camera.

Take the quickie portrait I did of the basketball player, above, done for my newspaper. I have the flash off of the camera, way over to the right. This creates a shadow that I then used as a graphic element in the photo. Still just the one flash, just in a different location.

Mind you, this photo would have looked pretty bad if my flash were mounted on the camera. But it would not have been the hardness of the light, but rather the location that did the damage.

After 25+ years as a lighting photographer, hard light is to me far more interesting than soft light. Especially when you are able to use multiple hard light sources. Take this product shot for instance:

(Photo by Strobist reader Danny Bird)

This product shot looks completely different (and, to my eye, more interesting) for having been shot with hard light sources. They sculpt the jacket and reveal form and texture. Let's look at another:

(Photo by Strobist reader Christopher Tan)

And just as in the photo up top, this photo uses a subject and a wall, but more than one hard light. (For details, click the photo.) The hard lights combine to partially reveal and sculpt the subject. And they are far more appropriate than would be a soft, portrait-looking umbrella or the like.

Often the key to success with your hard light images is to control the lighting ratio (i.e., relative levels of brightness) between the lights and shadows. Think of that hard shadow created by the hard light in the photo up top. It is harsh and abrupt, but not completely black. I can still see detail in the shadows, such as in the wall and on the shadow side of his face.

I like to think of a hard shadow as the equivalent of the light abruptly falling off of a ledge. To briefly press the ledge analogy: The depth of that ledge you just fell off of is the difference an interesting experience and, well, a fatal one. It's not about the ledge. It's about the depth.

If you want to dip your toe in the hard light water, try balancing your flash close to the ambient (i.e., normal continuous) light level. The fact that the hard shadows will have good detail in them will lessen the chances of getting a bad result with hard light. But the edgy effect will still be there.

Okay, so we have looked at soft light (umbrellas, wall-bouncing, etc.) and hard light. But there are all kinds of ways you can modify and shape the light. Up next, two of my very favorite ways to do that...

Next: Two Cool Light Mods


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger Robert Duren said...

I use a Canon 20D. In practical terms, how do I accomplish the below suggestions; i.e., how do I "bring the room up to f/4"? And how do I "dial it down until it [the face] gives you an exposure of about f/5.6."? What is "it"? The flash uniy?

"Say you had an environmental portrait in an office. You might bounce one small strobe off of the ceiling, softly bringing the room up to, say, f/4. Then you put your other strobe on a stand, point it directly at your subject's face, and dial it down until it gives you an exposure of about f/5.6."

August 03, 2006 7:18 PM  
Blogger SoniaK said...

Hi Robert, you would put your 20D on manual exposure (M) and using a flashmeter take a reading of the ambient light coming from the bounce strobe (adjust output to dial down or up the amount of juice from the strobe). Do same for the light coming from the direct strobe. Be very sure your flashmeter is pointing directly at camera position, NOT toward ligiht source. A very common mistake.

Alternatively, if you cannot afford to buy even a used flashmeter, you can play around cchimping with the 20D's LCD till you get a ratio of the two lights of about 2:1 by eyeballing it.

(I wouldn't try that if it was a paying job, btw!! But if you're just getting started, chimping goes a long way)

January 06, 2007 11:31 PM  
Blogger junior said...

Robert, a simpler, faster but not so persistent way of doing this is to use wireless ETTL metering:
assign different groups for the strobes:
A for direct
B for bounced
then set their ratio to 2:1 as this is the light ratio f/5.6 to f/4. Then set camera on manual, f/5.6, 1/200 to kill the ambient and shoot. You can use FEL (flash exposure lock) over your subject to check if there's enough power, otherwise raise the ISO.

May 07, 2007 8:02 AM  
Blogger legrady said...

Anonymous ... if you don't know the basics, check your community classes ... maybe run through the high school or college, or through a community centre. There's probably someone who will teach a basic course.

You'll be astounded and delighted by what you learn for a simple 10-week course.

Tom Legrady

June 27, 2007 4:02 PM  
Anonymous Martin Smith - South Gloucestershire, UK said...

I found this site a couple of months ago and had no idea of how to go about off-camera lighting. Heck, I only just got my first SLR in May. I'm a complete beginner.

Well my first flash has arrived (Canona 580 ex ii) as have my sync cords. I've yet to use the auto settings on the flash or the camera. I've got a few really good results. Being a noob, I've had to go over the info several times to make it sink in and tryout many test shots, but if I can follow the info, then surely any other beginner can.

Many thanks to you for this great resource!!

Now to get some SB 28s and PWs!

Martin Smith
South Gloucestershire, UK

September 01, 2007 2:11 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

First, note that a "stop" is a factor of 2 change in the total light on the sensor (during the exposure). For a given focal length and exposure time, this is determined by the area of the aperture, which is determined by the square of the radius. So an increase (decrease) of Sqrt(2), or roughly 1.4, will increase (decrease) the amount of light in the exposure. This is why f-stops go like 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, etc. They are powers of sqrt(2). Since 5.6 = 4 * 1.4, you get twice the light with f/4 as with f/5.6. Technically, f-stop is the ratio of lens focal length (f) to aperture diameter. So at an f-stop of, say, 2.8, the ratio f/d = 2.8. So the aperture d=f/2.8. This is why apertures are commonly written as f/something.

Second, since the strobe duration is almost instantaneous, relative to the shutter speed, the exposure is determined completely by the stobe power and the aperture---the shutter speed has more or less no effect. I say more-or-less for two reasons. First, the shutter consists of two curtains moving in the same direction; the first shutter opens, then the second closes. At or below a particular speed (commonly 1/250), the curtains can move fast enough that the first curtain opens completely before the second shutter closes, so a strobe flash will illuminate the entire scene to the sensor. Above this speed, the second curtain starts closing before the first is fully open, so the sensor will only see a slit of illumination when the stobe fires (faster shutter speed = narrower slit). Second, if the exposure is long enough that the ambient light becomes significant, it will affect the exposure (camera motion also becomes a concern). Set your camera at the maximum sync speed (usually 1/250) and you can mostly ignore it as far as exposure in typical indoor situations.

Now, one way to "bring the room up to f/4" and "dial it down until it [the face] gives you an exposure of about f/5.6." is as follows:

- Set your camera to manual f/4 (and max sync speed) and adjust the flash power and/or ISO until you get a satisfactory exposure of the background (by pointing the camera at the background and looking at the histogram from test exposures).

-then turn off flash 1, set camera to f/5.6, point it at the subject and adjust flash 2 power (now leaving ISO fixed) until you get a nice exposure of the foreground subject (again, chimping with the histogram).

-now turn flash 1 back on and fire away. Since flash 1 was set at f/4 and you are now at f/5.6, the camera will record only half the background light, i.e. the background will be exposed 1 stop lower than the foreground subject.

December 20, 2007 12:45 AM  
Anonymous just visiting said...

"Be very sure your flashmeter is pointing directly at camera position, NOT toward ligiht source. A very common mistake."

ok so this confused me. if you point your flashmeter towards camera you'll be pickig up extraneous light from other sources, this means your f-stop is NOT correlative to the light you are measuring - if trying to work out your lighting ratios then you need to know what each individual light is doing, not all combined.

its what your basically doing if you are trying to calulate your lighting ratios using a spot meter - you would take readings from say the side of someones face recieving key light and the other side which is getting a bit of fill - in fact this is the most straight forward example to give since you'd be measuring from identical skin tones - and you'd have your f-stops/ratio.

if you point a flash meter straight at camera you just create a mean value for all light coming from the direction of the camera.

January 26, 2008 4:46 PM  
Blogger focusfinder said...

Thanks for introducing me to the idea of wireless, lightweight flash. Here's an example of hard light from two hand-held units. All low budget items. All manual outputs, colour balance & exposure settings. Backlight naked, front light with 1/2 CTO from a free gel filter sample book :) Camera @ K4500.

March 12, 2009 5:49 AM  
Anonymous Caroline said...


I too was in your shoes awhile back, and now that I've returned, I really get it.

I joined a Meet-up group that planned shoot assignments every week. We studied the basics then tried them out. There is nothing more valuable than hands-on trials.

Want instant gratification? Start shooting! Record your settings like a lab technician. Keep a book. Yes, your initial results will likely stink, but in the meantime, you'll be building a resource that you'll go back to time & time again, and you won't make the same mistakes twice! BOOK is invaluable to me.

April 02, 2009 12:28 PM  
Blogger Raja said...

Hi David,

I very much the idea of two flash portrait idea with one bounce to make soft light and other to make little hard light with little lower power.

I am just a user inspired by Joe Mcnally's (not an advsertiser) idea of using Lumiquest 80-20 Flash Diffuser, if you make the light off the camera from side with this diffuser, does it create the same affect? As I have only one SB-900 at the moment.

Appreciate your comments on this.


October 07, 2010 11:24 AM  
Blogger ethan.john said...

As someone who falls squarely into the "advanced amateur" camp, I felt like Anonymous until I read the practical explanation by @junior, written more than three years ago now. So thanks!

March 07, 2011 5:07 PM  
Blogger Sarath Chandra Mekala said...

Thanks a lot @Steve for making it very clear. After reading Steve's explanation comments given by @Junior, @DanB become very clear and add to the understanding.

March 31, 2012 4:48 PM  
Blogger alwinvrm said...


Since there were so many questions. To put this in perspective; Your flash meter is exactly in the position of your subject. FROM THAT POSITION you AIM AT THE CAMERA.

In this way you measure the flash light that reaches your subject as seen by the camera.

In other words you measure the light illuminating your subject (and subsequently reflecting back to the camera). A flash meter is an incident meter not a reflected light meter. If you would aim it at the light source the meter would not "see" the light reflected to the camera but it would instead measure the light reflected back in the direction of the light source.

Hope this helps.

October 27, 2012 7:11 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home