Soft Light in Portrait Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

Soft Light in Portrait Photography

by David Peterson 2 comments

There are lots of things to think about when taking a portrait. You have your camera settings to worry about, the composition of the photo, and last but certainly not least the lighting. The lighting and how you position your subject with respect to the light dramatically changes the look and quality of your pictures. In some cases you may, for artistic reasons, choose hard light that casts dramatic shadows. However, if you are taking more of a standard portrait and want a beautiful result, soft light is key. Read on for tips and tricks to using soft light both outdoors and in.

Hard Light vs. Soft Light

What's the difference between hard and soft light? It is all about the size of the light. Think of shining a flashlight into a dark room. You will see the beam of the light surrounded by dark shadows, but you will also see that transition area or "gray zone" in between. The wider that gray zone between light and dark is, the softer the light.

You probably know that the harsh light of midday is not great for outdoor portraits. Based on the previous paragraph, and the fact that the sun is a giant ball in the sky, you may be wondering why. Although the sun is huge, it is still just a small light source compared to the big sky. With it directly overhead, you will notice shadows under people's noses and chins, and it is not very flattering.

Harsh light from the midday sun

The above photo also demonstrates the effects of the harsh light of midday. Notice the shadows on the children's faces. It isn't a big deal for this type of photo, but if this were a bridal photo or family photo shoot your subjects would not be happy with the outcome. Hard light is extremely unforgiving and in addition to shadows it really shows texture - like skin blemishes or wrinkles. Not a great look in a portrait photo.

By contrast, soft light occurs when that gray zone - the area between light and dark - is wide. The result is more flattering without the harsh shadows and puts less emphasis on texture. Soft light wraps around skin making texture differences less noticeable.

Achieving Soft Light Outdoors

One of the simplest things you can do to achieve beautiful, soft lighting outdoors is to choose the time of day of your shoot. Shoot in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the harsh, midday sun. You can also utilize a cloudy day when the clouds will act as a natural diffuser to "spread" the light out making it larger and softer.

If the light conditions are harder than you would like but it is time to shoot, you could consider the use of a reflector to add some fill light from below. You can purchase one fairly inexpensively or even try a large piece of white cardboard for a do it yourself fix. Place the reflector under your subject's face but out of the frame (an assistant is necessary) to bounce light back up to their face. This doesn't really address the issue of the light's softness, but it creates fill light for those dark shadows, which improves the look of the photo.

You may also want to try diffusing the light that strikes your subject. Again, unless you've got an unusual amount of arms and coordination... you will need a helper for this. Pros may have a fancy diffuser, but you could try a piece of neutral, semi translucent fabric mounted on a frame to achieve the same effect. The idea is to hold the material between your subject and the sun to diffuse the light. This widens that gray zone and provides the soft, beautiful light you want even if the natural conditions are harsh.

Using a reflector and diffuser in combination can be the solution for harsh outdoor lighting. For a reasonable amount of money you can invest in a kit that includes reflectors of various colors as well as a diffusor. If you are trying to take your photography to a more professional level, this could be a good investment for you. You will also need to call in some favors to find yourself an assistant!

Achieving Soft Light Indoors

Professional photographers go to great lengths to soften light for indoor portrait photography. Think back to your school pictures or maybe a department store family photo, and you may recall a large umbrella. Your photographer probably fired their flash into the reflective umbrella to spread the light from the flash over a larger area - making it softer. It is likely that you don't have fancy lighting equipment on hand, but you can still employ a few tricks to soften indoor lighting.

If you are using a natural light source (like a window) try something as simple as pulling the curtains down (if light comes through them) or hanging a white sheet to diffuse the light. If you are using a hand held flash, holding it closer to your subject will actually make it larger and as a consequence the light softer. You can also bounce your flash off the surrounding walls to soften it. For a smaller object, you can use a soft box to create soft lighting. (You can even make a soft box yourself!)

Choosing your time and location carefully and/or using some simple equipment can provide the beautiful, soft light you want for a portrait. If you are taking pictures of people of any age, you will love the forgiving nature and beautiful result that soft light provides. You will flatter your subject and save yourself lots of editing by creating soft light for your portraits.

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  1. David Peterson says:

    @Mr Ed,

    Photoshop has many more features than Photoshop Elements. However, Elements is all you'll need for general photo processing. See this very good web page for the differences:


  2. Mr.Ed says:

    What if any is the difference between "photo shop" and P hoto shop elements ??

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.