5 Creative Ways to Use Hard Light in Your Portrait Photography

portrait photography using hard light
Hard Light Portrait - Jim Harmer

I always teach my students that the light is the most important component of a good photo.  This always begs the question, “What makes good lighting?”  Generally, photographers say that good light is soft light.  That's often true, and if you want soft light, I wrote an article on how to achieve soft light.

Unfortunately, many photographers fall into the trap of thinking that the only good light is soft light.  This is simply not true, and I want to bust that myth by showing you seven creative ways to use hard light in your portrait photography.

Hard Light Photography Tip #1. Use the shadows cast by your subject to create a stand-alone portrait.  This tip works especially well when photographing kids.  Since kids are shorter and lower to the ground, the shadow is shorter, which makes a more clear and definite shape.  To apply this tip in your photography, keep in mind that the time of day is especially important.  Usually I like to shoot shadows two hours after sunrise or two hours before sunset.  At noon, the shadows are directly under the subject and at sunrise and sunset the shadows are not well-defined.  Shooting two hours after sunrise or before sunset seems to be the optimal time for this type of shot.

Hard Light Photography Tip #2: Let the hard light pass through an object to create interesting lighting patterns on your subject.  Photographers call this a “gobo” because the technique involves an object that GOes Between the light and the subject.  When using an interesting light pattern for a gobo, hard light is best because it will make a more clear and sharp outline of the pattern.

Hard Light Photography Tip #3: Use hard light to show off texture in a person's skin.  You'll remember from our post on texture that the best way to show off texture in a photo is to use light that comes from the side, rather than straight on.  The photo below is an example of effective use of hard light to show texture on skin.

hard light texture skin photography tips
Hard Lighting for Texture

Hard Light Photography Tip #4:  Use hard light to cast heavy shadows, which will create an ominous and dramatic look to any photo.

Hard Light Photography Tip #5: Show the wireless strobe in your photo to create a beautiful light burst.

Hard Light Photography Tip #6: Use hard light as a backlit rim light to make your subjects pop off the background.  This can easily be accomplished with a small strobe wirelessly triggered from behind the subject.  The photo featured at the top of this page is an example of this technique.  I simply put a cheap speedlight on a light stand behind the woman's face and fired it wirelessly with a $20 flash trigger.  For more on wireless flash, go to this page.

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