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Photography for 4th Graders: Soft Light vs. Harsh Light

April 7, 2015

This is the seventh post in our Photography for 4th Graders series, born from a seminar that Becky has taught twice to 4th graders at her kid’s elementary school. It’s perfect for anyone interested in learning how to create higher impact images by using composition and light more effectively. See below for links to additional lessons!

So you’ve heard me talk about “good light” before – that good photographers don’t look at a scene and say, “That’s nice, let’s take a pretty picture!” Instead, photographers say, “See that gorgeous light – we’re about to make an amazing image!” And each time, I know you’ve wondered, as I used to wonder – What in the WORLD is “good light”? Great question!!!! The answer is multi-faceted, but the most significant component to the answer is this:

Good light is SOFT.

What? I didn’t just answer it all for you? Oh! Now you want to know what “soft” light is. Fair enough. Here we go….

Hard Light vs. Soft Light

Main Point: Learn to “look for the light” by looking at shadows. Hard light produces very dark, very distinct shadows. Soft light produces lighter shadows that slowly fade into highlights. Soft light is more flattering and forgiving than harsh light. It is easier to work with.

More on Hard Light:

“Hard light” is anything that produces very distinct, contrasting shadows.  

Look at the pillars on this image below – you could trace a line between shadow and highlight. This is very hard light; sometimes we also call it harsh light.

Hard Light Examples (9)


Hard light is produced by small light sources (*small relative to the subject, see the next bit of info).

In the left image below, the bride happened to be standing about 20 feet away from light that was coming through the side panel of a door. The panel was maybe a foot wide. For the image to the right, I had a single flash set up on a lightstand. Again, for both, you could easily trace the separation between shadows and highlights.


Hard Light Examples (2)


Hard light is also produced by light sources very far away from the subject (like the sun, which is 93 million miles away!).

Sunny, cloudless days fill us with joy, but they are just about the most difficult situation to photograph. Look at the shadow of Joshua’s head on his chest – what a strong shadow!! For adults, who have stronger and larger features than children, the shadows created around our eyes and noses and mouths are almost always incredibly unflattering. You also tend to get a lot of squinting in harsh sunlight, as you do here. It’s kind of cute in this image, but not so much for adult trying to smile their prettiest! There are other issues as well, which is why right under this photo, I’m going to give you some tips on photographing in harsh light 🙂


Hard Light Examples (13)


Hard light is difficult to control. On bright sunny days, I’ll generally try to find soft light… see below.

But if you MUST use it:

1. Try compositions that don’t include a face.

Hard Light Examples (12)

2. Try compositions that pull back and tell a story without a huge emphasis on the face.

Aruba 2015 4482


(side note: i am totally asking for it by including this image in the lesson. Turns out that 40 4th graders fall out of their seats groaning and laughing when they see any kissing. Not sure why I didn’t anticipate that.)


Elizabeth and John Engagement RAW 1543

3. Remember to expose for the subject!! In harsh light, that will usually mean UNDERexposing (letting in less light).

I had to underexpose about 3 full stops for this picture – you can’t see any of the shore at all.

single vertical



More on Soft Light:

“Soft light” is anything that produces very, very soft shadows – you can hardly tell where the shadows begin and end. (Soft light does show shadows – no shadows at all is produced by “flat light” ). This kind of light is far more flattering for adults. It’s also just much easier to work with because scenes with soft light generally fit into your camera’s dynamic range.

If you look at any object in this image, you can easily see the shadows the object is creating – they travel diagonally down and to the right of the image. But the shadows are very light.

Laura Powerfull Fitness Breakfast Pics-8


In this image you can see shadows underneath Jack’s neck and jaw. Look at his neck… it goes from dark to light, but the change is so gradual that it would be difficult to decide where to draw the line separating dark from light.


Aruba 2015 3032


Soft light is produced by large light sources (*large relative to the subject). A window (that is not directly facing the sun) produces soft light because it spreads the light through the entire surface of the window.  You can tell the window was to the camera’s right.


Kelly & Tyson Wedding-1215


If you ever want to photograph food, turn of ALL of the lights in your house, then bring the food to a window that isn’t facing the sun. It’s really all you have to do – the rest is just playing with the angles.


Rocklands Farm Spring Wedding Photos


Soft light is produced by “diffused” light sources (when the light passes through something, it is diffused) like a curtain or a cloud. When the sun shines through a cloud it becomes MUCH softer. The entire cloud becomes the light source. On a day like this one, I was able to take any photograph I wanted.


Deep Creek-41


Likewise, if you find an area that is shaded from the sun, the (relatively) tiny sun (relatively small because it is so far away) stops being the main light source. Instead the ambient light shining into the shadowed area becomes the large light source. I took this image outside of a Chick Fil-A about 2pm on an extremely bright, sunny, cloudless day. The roof of the building made a shadow, so I brought my friend and wedding planner Margo Fisher right to the edge of the shadow. See how her face is illuminated beautifully and softly while the background is much darker? This is a great technique for dealing with harsh noontime sun.


Soft Light Examples (4)



When the sun’s rays are wrapping around the earth (at sunset and sunrise) the light is much softer. The light is also warmer (more yellow/cold/orange/peach) which makes it especially beautiful. This is every photographer’s favorite time to photograph.


Nicholas 4 Monthsl 1215


To recap: try to find soft light in these places:

  1. In a doorway shooting towards the inside (meaning you stand outside and point your camera inside. Have your subject face you. Make sure you bring them out to the edge of the shadow.
  2. Indoors by a window (during daytime, of course!). Make sure to turn off all indoor lights. Turn the subject’s face towards the light.
  3. Look for a shaded area created by a large tree, roof, etc; … Find the shadow on the ground and bring the subject right to the front of the shaded area.
  4. Almost anywhere outdoors at sunrise or sunset!!!



If you haven’t done the homework for Frames, Isolate the Subject, Dynamic Range, or Exposing for the Subject (or even if you have) they are all great assignments to experiment with now that you have this information!

Pick a spot in a fairly sunny area around your home. Remember to try to use a darker background and all the other things we’ve talked about!  Take at least two pictures in this spot with the subject facing towards the sun.

  1. Take one right in the middle of the day, about noon, 1 or 2pm.
  2. Take another one right around sunset (sunset will be about 7:45 next week)

I. Composition
Choosing what goes into a frame and where to put it. The idea with composition is to place a subject and background together in a way that tells one story!!
1. Rule of Thirds
2. Symmetry
3. Leading Lines
4. Natural Frames
5. Color and Clutter

II. Lighting
Learning to see and use natural light to create a mood and attract the eye.
6. Dynamic Range
7. Expose for the Subject
8. Hard Light vs. Soft Light
9. Backlight vs. Frontlight

  1. Janet Reynolds Matijkiw says:

    Howard County School system is so LUCKY to have you …. you are going to need to clone yourself to be able to do everything you do…and you do it all so well. Combining your two loves together ~ Photography and teaching ~ is brilliant!

  2. […] One thing I emphasized in our harsh light lesson is that it’s tough and may be easiest to avoid by simply learning to look for soft […]

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