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Hard lighting vs soft lighting in filmmaking


Written by Ed G

Published Oct 18, 2022

Lighting is everything in filmmaking. From black-and-white, low-light horror movies that produce a sense of dread to comical and lighthearted romcoms that are well-lit and bright, how you utilize lighting makes a world of difference in the tone of your movie. While you may be familiar with certain terms like low-key lighting vs. high-key lighting, you may be interested in discovering other strategies that will play a major role throughout the filmmaking process. A Great example of this is something like hard and soft lighting in film. 

But what are some examples of soft lighting in film? How does hard lighting in film affect the final product? Making sure you know all this and more can go a long way in improving your overall filmmaking skills, especially if you're working independently without the support of a video production company. In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at the following to help you better understand hard and soft lighting in film. 

  1. What Is Hard Lighting in Film?
  2. When You Should Use Hard Lighting
  3. How to Use Hard Lighting in Film
  4. What Is Soft Lighting in Film?
  5. When You Should Use Soft Lighting
  6. How to Use Soft Lighting in Film
  7. Hard Lighting Vs. Soft Lighting: An Overview

1. What is hard lighting in film?

Hard lighting image to show how harsh shadows can create cool effects in filmmaking
Photo by Svitlana

Aptly named, hard lighting is a form of bright, focused lighting that’s utilised to cast hard, defined shadows across the surface of the subject. A great way to envision this is if you’re taking a picture of someone standing directly in the sunlight. If you’re taking a picture where the sun is hitting them from an angle, you’ll notice that there are hard shadows being cast across their face. This is an excellent example that will help you better understand what hard lighting is and when you might see it in some of your favourite films. 

Of course, hard lighting might be used in other ways too. In our recent blog on horror movie lighting, we talked about some lighting effects that utilize hard lighting. If you’ve ever watched old black-and-white movies, you may be familiar with how they position lighting under the actor’s face so as to warp it and make it look more grotesque and unrecognizable. This is just one example as the horror genre is ripe with hard lighting that really makes an impact. 

Just a few other types of lighting worth mentioning include spotlighting (where the villain is suddenly brightly illuminated for a shocking reveal), harsh lighting (generally used in alien movies where the use of light is excellent for revealing the threat while leaving what it actually is to the imagination), and even using lighting as a means to create shadows that loom over main characters and cast themselves onto the backgrounds of the setting. No matter what your favourite genre of film might be, there’s no doubt that you’ve seen hard lighting in action before. 

2. When you should use hard lighting

Hard lighting shown by photographer Rafay Ansari
Photo by Rafay Ansari

It’s not just enough to know what hard lighting is or where you might have seen it before. You need to know when it’s appropriate to use it so that you’re able to evoke the right emotions from your audience. So, when might you use hard lighting in film? 

Hard lighting is a form of lighting that works exceptionally well to add depth, complexity, and dimension to your subjects. Why is this? The contrast offered by hard lighting tends to give your scenes a more serious tone. This is why it’s so excellent for genres ranging from horror to action. If you’re working with a film noir look, you’ll also find that hard lighting offers an edgier look than other forms of lighting you might utilise. 

Much like you might use low-key lighting to evoke more complex emotions or add a sense of mystery, drama, or beyond, hard lighting is a great way to achieve this as well. As you continue your filmmaking journey, you’ll likely become more familiar with hard lighting, how it’s employed, and how to navigate its use in film while encountering fewer issues along the way. 

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3. How to use hard lighting in film

Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy

Now that we’ve covered what hard lighting is and how hard lighting is leveraged in film to create the desired effect or set the right tone, we have to understand how exactly you go about creating the hard lighting look. Here are some helpful tips that will make it easier to use this lighting strategy in your films.

  • Use a Dark Background: It’s important to have a dark background so as to have full control over your use of lighting to create the desired shadows. In situations where you’re filming outside or you’re in an environment where you may not be able to control as much of the lighting as you would like, take time to evaluate your surroundings and determine the best time to film and how it will affect the shadows being cast by the lighting. It's important to consider how this will fit into the background ideas for your videos.

  • Pay Attention to Angles: The point of using hard lighting is to cast shadows and make your film look more dramatic. The problem? Not all angles used in hard lighting will produce the desired results. Especially in films where dramatically changing the face is not the main goal, using the wrong angle can leave your subjects looking strange to the audience. See which angles are the best for producing the right look so that you know what you’re going for long before the camera starts rolling. 

  • Don’t Assume All Hard Lighting Is Good: Too much hard lighting or inappropriate use of hard lighting in scenes that don’t call for it can impact your work negatively. Take some time to assess the scenes you’re shooting and ask yourself, do I need hard lighting? More importantly, are you using too much? Is the setting not working for hard lighting? If you feel as though you might be overthinking it, you can always ask for a second opinion. 

  • Plan Ahead for Common Obstacles: Hard lighting seems relatively straightforward, but it can come with its fair share of challenges. One of the biggest challenges is that hard lighting will often accentuate blemishes, wrinkles, and other imperfections on the surface of the skin that subjects may have. You also have to be extremely precise in order to create the right effect, especially while the camera is moving around. Plan ahead for these obstacles so you don’t find yourself constantly adjusting and reshooting once you begin. 

  • Brightness Is Key!: Unless you’re working in an environment with little light, you’re going to need the right lighting equipment to deliver the perfect amount of brightness. Whether you’re working with natural light or lighting equipment, don’t be afraid to turn up the light or shoot during the brightest parts of the day to create the shadows you need for this strategy. 

Hard lighting may take some time to perfect. However, with practice and mistakes made, you will be able to better understand all the different factors that affect hard lighting and how to prepare ahead of time so that you can get the perfect shot every time. 

4. What is soft lighting in film?

Soft lighting photo of a dog.
Photo by Oliver Engel

With a better idea of what hard light is, you might be able to guess what soft lighting is in film. Soft lighting is the antithesis of hard lighting, providing even lighting on a subject that illuminates everything in a warm and charming way. If you’re a consumer of any form of media, you’re familiar with soft lighting as it’s devoid of heavy contrast and hard shadows. 

But to give you a clear idea as to what soft lighting refers to, consider a situation in which you’re taking picture of someone during an overcast day. Unlike taking a picture of someone under the bright sun, you won’t find your subject having hard shadows cast across the surface of their face. Rather, everything is bathed in an even glow that doesn’t reveal imperfections in the way that hard lighting will. 

Given soft lighting’s versatility as well as how important lighting is in film that flatters the subject and keeps a neutral or positive tone, you might expect to employ soft lighting more than you employ hard lighting. But both serve their purpose and might both be used throughout your career. 

5. When you should use soft lighting

Soft lighting in filmmaking - an image by Sonnie Hiles
Photo by Sonnie Hiles

While soft lighting is a bit easier to understand than hard lighting, you still might want to have some guidance on when it’s most appropriate to use it. In contrast to hard lighting, soft lighting is a much better choice when you’re looking to avoid tension, edginess, drama, or similar themes in your movie. Because soft lighting is much warmer and illuminating, soft lighting might be a better choice for lighthearted films or those that simply do not require those elements in order to connect with the audience (like an action film or a horror film might). And if you're looking for costume rentals for your film project, we've got you covered.

It might also be a response that you have to use harder lighting. For example, if someone’s face doesn’t look quite right in harsher lighting because there are imperfections that appear as a result of the lighting and angles, using soft lighting can help you improve the appearance of their complexion and even make their eyes brighter. It may have some drawbacks, like losing the texture of certain items or lightening the themes of a scene, but it’s an effective lighting strategy that you’re sure to become quite accustomed to as you continue to make films across a wide range of genres. 

6. How to use soft lighting in film

Soft lighting in filmmaking shown by illuminated reeds
Photo by Alex Bertha

With a better understanding of soft lighting and what it achieves, you might be curious as to how you can actually get softer light into your shots. There’s a vast difference between getting a hard lighting look and a soft lighting look. Here are some tips that will help you soften your lighting when the scene requires it. 

  • Diffuse the Light: Hard lighting is concentrated and bright. This means that, to achieve a softer look, you need to diffuse your light so that spreads out more evenly. A few materials that you can use to do this include gauze, diffusion gel, and or even silk. Just make sure that you’re not blocking the light so much that you end up with a darker shot as this will achieve the opposite tone of what you’re looking to shoot!

  • Monitor the Weather: What happens if you’re looking to film outside? Don’t worry! It’s all about paying attention to the sun and how it impacts the subject. While you can get a soft light look while the sun is high in the sky, the best way to achieve this look is by waiting to shoot until you manage to have an overcast day. The clouds in the sky will naturally diffuse the sunlight so that you’re not dealing with hard shadows when you start shooting the film. It won’t always be overcast, however, so it’s crucial that you find other strategies to work with that help you get the soft lighting look even when weather conditions aren’t entirely in your favour. 

  • Use Specific Photography Equipment: There’s a wide range of film equipment that can help you improve the soft lighting look in your film. If you’re operating on set, one of your best items is an umbrella. You can also use reflectors and any other items that reduce the concentration of the light and help it spread over your subject. It may take some figuring out (much like you need to figure out the angles of your hard lighting shots), but you will master it with time and practice. If you're looking for more advice on buying a video camera setup or microphones for your film, we've got some pointers!

  • Bounce Light Off of Surrounding Surfaces: If certain photography equipment isn’t working for you or you’re working on a very small budget where you might not have a ton to invest in additional equipment, don’t fret. There are ways to work around this. One of the best ways is to bounce light off of surrounding surfaces. If you’re shooting in a bright room, you can always bounce the light off of light-coloured walls to bath the room in a warm glow. If there are windows, make sure to take advantage of soft lighting coming in through windows or through other means. And don't forget to consider these physical requirements when location scouting for your film project.

  • Get a Bigger Light Source or Bring It Closer to the Subject: As we stated above, hard lighting is very concentrated and is often directed in such a way that it shines brightly at a certain angle. For softer lighting, you need to make sure that you essentially do the opposite of what you would do to get a hard lighting look in your film. This means using a bigger light source that spreads light more effectively and making sure to bring your light source closer to your subject (without casting shadows on their face of course). This is often done by using ring lights. You should also look for lighting that is much warmer and softer on its own so that you struggle less with bright lights that negatively affect your subject and the shot. 

Soft lighting is much easier to work with. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come without its challenges! Use the tips above to help you get that perfect soft lighting look once you begin shooting your film. 

7. Hard lighting vs. soft lighting: an overview

Photo by Clay Banks

Understanding hard and soft lighting in film is quite simple. But we’ve covered a lot over the course of this guide. Here’s a brief summary of what we’ve tackled so far. 

  • Hard lighting is lighting that casts shadows and uses heavy contrast. Soft lighting bathes the face in a warm glow that eliminates this contrast. 

  • Hard lighting in film is used to create suspense, fear, drama, and other complex emotions and themes. Soft lighting is used for less serious situations and ones where you want to see the actor look bright and positive. 

  • Hard lighting relies on concentrated lighting, angles, and strategy. Soft lighting requires closer placement, larger lighting, and the use of diffusers. 

Start your filmmaking journey here with Tutti

It can be hard to leverage these lighting strategies if you don’t have the places that you need to bring your ideas to life. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend time scouring the internet for your next location. We here at Tutti make it easy to connect with space owners in your area, directly contact them and arrange bookies, and get the space you need to shoot specific scenes. 

Ready to start your film without all the hassle that traditionally comes with booking a location? Find your next film studios or video studios at Tutti today!

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