Sharpness and Hard Light vs Soft Light

A few months back we published this video about blurry pictures:

One of the causes of blurry pictures that I mention is soft light–soft light causes soft pictures. Here’s the example from the video:

Of course, when anyone makes a moderate statement on the Internet, people extrapolate to a ridiculous extreme and then get mad at the person for making the moderate statement that they exaggerated. So to clarify:

  • Yes, that picture of your cat looks sharp even though it’s in soft light.
  • No, I’m not slapping Ansel Adams in the face and calling his cloudy day pictures unsharp.

With that out of the way, it’s important to understand that hard light accentuates detail and texture, and that extra detail makes pictures look sharper. Soft light hides detail.

Here’s another example. This is a screenshot from Lightroom, both pictures were taken with the same camera, same lens, and same conditions… but one of them is lit using soft natural light bounced through a window, and the other is lit using the hard light from a studio strobe. Can you guess which of these had a hard light?

In the photo on the left, obviously taken with soft light, all the texture of the metal is hidden–it appears smooth when it’s not. The leather has more detail, too. Ultimately, the hard lighting made the camera look sharper.

Just something to keep in mind–obviously you don’t want to start using hard light for your portraits.

6 Responses to Sharpness and Hard Light vs Soft Light

  1. Woody Green August 7, 2015 at 3:36 pm #

    Also, soft light is often diffuse light due to environmental reasons. No matter how great your lens is, it will not refocus scattered light. 🙂

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  4. Judith November 25, 2015 at 9:17 am #

    I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thank you for permitting me
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  5. Mehmet March 12, 2016 at 1:21 pm #

    Thanks for this useful information. So, hard light for wildlife, soft light for portraits.
    I’d like to ask which one is better for macro? That’s the part I am interested in. Thanks again.

  6. Steve November 17, 2017 at 5:28 am #

    Pffft…quality of light has nothing to do with actual sharpness, it does have something to do with contrast which will provide the appearance of increased sharpness.

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