The understanding of light is the most fundamental skill in cinematography. Watch and learn about the two basic types of light used in filmmaking and photography; hard and soft. Let’s break down these concepts and show you how to harness their power to improve your lighting.
Hard light is a direct, often single, light source that hits its subject at a specific angle. The sun is a hard light, as is the flash on your camera. This hard light creates bright spots of light on the subject with little to no gradation and a distinct, sharp shadow. In the late 1800s and very early 1900s, filmmakers relied almost entirely on the hard light of the sun for lighting, along with real life practicals like street lamps or open flame. (Photographers were already exploring other options at this time, but for some reason no one asked them!) Movies were mainly shot outside or in studios made with glass roofs so sunlight could stream down upon the actors. Thomas Edison designed a special stage for the Black Maria studio that rotated, so it was at the right angle under the glass roof to catch the sun’s rays, no matter the time of day.
Hard light is often described as harsh and severe (and maybe that’s the look you’re going for) but it can also be dramatic and seductive. Both classic and modern day filmmakers use the clean distinction between light and shadow offered by hard light to tell their story in the most ingenious of ways. Martin Scorsese’s earlier films, like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, use hard light to great effect, using the sharp contrast between light and shadow to mirror the dark and light within the hearts of his lead characters. The classic deep shadows and rich texture of Film Noir also come from a clever manipulation of hard light. The final scenes of George Clooney’s 2011 Ides of March are a textbook example of how hard light can be used as a dramatic tool.
Soft light wasn’t really used until the 1910’s when a sneaky filmmaker finally got the gumption to raid a photographer’s workshop and grabbed a diffuser. A diffuser is simply something that spreads or scatters and softens light. The first diffusers were most likely sheets of thin fabric hung over or in front of hard lights that broke up the direct beam creating a warmer, softer light that wraps around its subject. While the very fancy, official hanging sheets can be and are still used today, diffusers come in all shapes and sizes. Diffusers designed to attach to small camera mounted lights (as opposed to hung studio lights) are often made from curved, graduated or stippled glass or plastic. These curves diffuse the light creating a warm almost glowing look with a soft, graduated shadow. Some lights and bulbs are created specifically to give out a soft light or wash, like Fresnels, and as such are made with curves, graduation and stippling. Woody Allen is often noted for using mainly soft light. This gives his films a soft, romantic look, maybe a little hazy a times which fits the voice of his characters and films.
Most filmmakers use a mixture of hard and soft light to create a natural look that draws the viewer’s eye wherever the director wants it to be. There are, of course, notable exceptions and instances of hard light being used for dramatic effect, and then there’s the “classic” slightly terrifying sitcom where multiple cameras shoot simultaneously requiring an allover soft light with practically no shadows. What, no shadows? Yes, it’s true. Peter Pan be damned!
We hope this overview has inspired you to look at hard and soft light as tools in your filmmaking tool kit. To learn more about light and shadow see Zacuto’s Emmy award winning film of the same name Light & Shadow and visit www.zacuto.com to see more original programming.
ZACUTO, located in Chicago, IL, is known for their “Made in the USA” brand of high quality, originally designed camera accessories. Zacuto Films produces original programming with EMMY’s won in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 (Midwest region) Follow @Zacuto on Twitter.