Cinematography Production

Soft Light Basics

Understanding soft light

Photo Courtesy of Sean Gardner

Soft light results when light is bounced or diffused over a relatively large surface, either by light shining through a large frame of diffusion, or light bouncing off of a large white surface. When this happens, the light’s quality is altered in a fundamental way. When light moves away from a conventional light fixture, the rays of light are diverging from the relatively small area of the reflector and lamp. In contrast, when light moves away from a soft source, the bounced or diffused rays move away from all points of the diffuse luminous surface. If you think of it from the point of view of the subject being lit, light is coming to the subject from many angles. This results in three qualities that are often very desirable:

  1. Soft shadows. No clean, sharply discernible line is projected. The shadow lines are broad and fuzzy. Shadows appear as gradations of tone, so that the entire image is imbued with a softness that is natural and also very beautiful. The fuzzy quality of soft shadows also makes them easier to hide in situations where multiple shadows would be distracting.
  2. Soft light around the features of the subject. Whereas a face lit from one side by hard light is like a half moon (bright on one side and black on the other), lit by a large soft source, it shows a gradual drop off of light from one side to the other. Soft light tends to fill in blemishes in the skin. The overall picture has a full tonal range, light to dark, with no harsh shadow lines and lower overall contrast than when lit with harder light.
  3. Interesting reflections. When lighting shiny or glossy subjects or surfaces with glossy finish, a soft source is reflected as an amorphous highlight. Hard light, on the other hand, is reflected as a bright, glaring hot spot.
soft light in film

Photo Courtesy of Jay Lewis

A soft source can be used to create a soft highlight in dark wood, bringing out dark furniture or paneling by catching a reflection of the light source. The gaffer places the light where it is seen by the camera as a reflection in the surface. Especially in cases where you don’t want to throw a lot of light onto the walls, this approach yields a subtle, more natural effect. Along the same lines, a soft source makes a nice eye light. It reflects in the shiny part of the eye, giving the eyes a special brightness. A large, soft source reflected in this way need not actually shine a lot of light onto the subject; it need only be bright enough to create a visible highlight reflection.

Excerpted from The Set Lighting Technician’s Handbook by Harry Box © 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved

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