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Basic Lighting Lesson: Understanding Hard Light and Soft Light

03.15.13 @ 6:53PM Tags : , , , ,

Lighting does more than just expose your image. It’s one of the very basic tools that filmmakers have at their disposal to create an atmosphere for their story. While you need a certain quantity of light to give your movie the proper exposure, it’s actually the quality of the light that creates the look for your film. If you’re looking for a basic lesson in the differences between hard light and soft light, and what they can do for your image, look no further than the tutorial below.

Somehow Zacuto squeezed in some NSFW language in the 3 minute tutorial (thanks to Notes On Video for the link):

While some of you may be familiar with the finer points of lighting, I think it’s always helpful to get a little bit of a refresher. If you look at Hollywood films, there are various uses of hard lights and soft lights, but most often hard lights are used to fake daylight (since the sun itself is a hard source). There are certainly other instances when a light is left unfiltered and hard, but very often, most lights on a set are going through some sort of diffusion or are being bounced off of a surface — unless, of course, you’re making a film noir, in which case, everything is a hard source with hard shadows.

Even though you can learn a lot about lighting from watching movies, I’ve found it far more helpful to observe the way light interacts with surfaces in real life. Unless a bare bulb is hanging indoors, many of the lights we interact with on a daily basis also have some sort of diffusion material, whether it’s a lamp shade or the plastic housing of a fluorescent fixture, or even shades on a window.

What are some of your favorite uses of hard or soft lights? What do you prefer in your own shooting?

Link: Film Lighting Tutorial: Qualities of Light — Zacuto — Vimeo

[via Notes On Video]

Disclosure: Zacuto is a NoFilmSchool advertiser.


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  • Best lighting is natural lighting, period

    • Unless you’re lighting an unnatural scene :)

    • Natural light is great, but it’s not always available. Interiors, night scenes, ect.

      • natural/available light it is not always reliable. The o.p. is either trolling or he has never lit a movie in his life. For exterior day we usually use a mix of the sun (natural light) and HMI’s (artificial). Sometimes we can get by without having to spark a light but usually – at one point or another – we need to. Not to mention all the gripping involved (diffusion, bounces, reflectors, negative fill) even if we don’t turn on an artificial light.

    • Best lighting is any form of light. Corrected.

      Also might I just add that all light is ‘natural’…

    • “Natural” light is lazy lighting. ;-P

      • I prefer to think of it as “efficient lighting”. When you’re on a tight budget and schedule, natural lighting can save quite a bit of time.

        • That depends on the weather. It’s always good to have artificial lighting around anyway or you can spend half the day waiting for clouds.

    • Best light is controlled light. Unless it the golden hour.

    • stylized artifice is a valid artistic choice

    • Isn’t the best lighting the lighting that is appropriate to the scene? Kind of inhibiting otherwise dont ya think if you “limit” yourself to only natural lighting? ;)

    • “Best lighting is natural lighting, period”

      Leaving aside the accuracy of this statement, the lessons in this video apply to “natural light” just as much as they do to “artificial light”. That is one of the reasons we have “grips”.

  • I prefer a mix. Usually a large soft light for my key, a large dimmed soft light or hard bounced light for fill, hard light for my rim light and a tiny hard light source for a hair light and typically I use hard light for a background light. But, for dramatic noir settings I usually do no fill with all hard light sources.

    • I’m curious, how does one rim with a hard light?

      • Wow. Wish I was grown up enough that that sentence didn’t make me laugh out loud.

      • I’m curious, how does one rim with a hard light?

        You take a fresnel around to the side->3/4 back (out of frame) of the subject, point it at the subject, turn it on and tell the grips you don’t want a frame.

  • Steven Huber on 03.15.13 @ 11:25PM

    My favorite available light is whatever’s available on the truck.

  • I like natural lighting but its got to be chosen well as in you’ve got to get into the right position from the source. Lighting is my fascination with it though. I do a lot of color work in DaVinci Resolve and lighting truly is key. See if this doesn’t inspire you to be a better shooter.

  • I always thought the best lighting was the light that told the story.

    Interesting video. A little short on actual information but at least it was entertaining.

  • I have to say the use of humor was wonderfully refreshing! More tutorial videos need to be made in this style. Pleasure to watch even if the content was elementary.

    • Totally agree. As far as tutorials go, this was well-made and kind of creepy – my favorite combination!

  • This was nice and short yet it packed more education about lighting than most long tutorials and it was fun to boot!

  • I’d have liked the video to go a little more in depth too, but all the same glad there seems to be more of these videos popping up here lately.

  • Natural light doesn’t always help you with the mood or look of the scene and it’s good only if you are shooting a scene for like 15 mins. specially in interiors. The sun moves and the direction of the light changes, even if you are only using soft bounce coming through a window, for instance. Start a scene at 9am, break for lunch at 12N, re-start at 1pm and your lighting will be all over the place. What if your scene takes another day to complete? Part of the cinematographer’s art is total control of the lighting for visual continuity and to make it look “natural” among many other details