Most filmmakers will opt to light their actors with soft light as it can be very forgiving, easy to work with and is often most pleasing to the eye. But lighting everything with tons of diffusion isn’t the only way to go, and there are certainly times when hard light will give you a better result.
Filmmaking, like most other art forms goes in cycles. Certain looks, styles, editing choices, and other techniques will come and go, and soft lighting has definitely been “in” since the late 60’s/early 70’s. Before then, hard lighting was far more standardized and was employed on countless feature films in the golden age of Hollywood.
In those earlier days of cinema, lighting was approached very differently than it is today – likely because of the role that physical studios used to have in the filmmaking process. Obviously many films and television shows are still shot in studios, but more productions than ever are shot on location and therefore need to approach their entire lighting setup differently. In the heyday of studio films, hard lights were rigged up to the grid high above the talent, and aimed down to fill out specific areas of the stage that would land right where the actor’s marks were. Since the lights were very “spotty” and so far away, the quality of light was very hard… But it worked.
For many years this was the go-to look for filmmakers across the globe. But like everything else, eventually it became outdated.
By the 1970’s different trends in filmmaking styles, technology, and other factors caused a sea change in cinematography and soft lighting completely took over. Huge soft sources stared replacing small hard sources, and the look of old Hollywood quickly disappeared. But much like how soft lighting had it’s place in the old days of Hollywood (even before it was popularized), hard lighting still has it’s place in today’s cinema.
Some of the best films and television series will mix hard and soft lighting beautifully, much in the same way that you might mix handheld and steadicam footage. A show like breaking bad for instance, was able to utilize hard lighting in many sequences to create a film noir-ish look, while still reverting to soft lighting as needed for other scenes. By tapping into both creative choices, the storytellers ultimately created a very dynamic visual world that guided the viewer emotionally from scene to scene.
With all that said, my point is that knowing how to light with hard sources is just as important as knowing how to utilize soft lighting. You may not need to use hard sources as often as you would use soft sources, but for those times when you do want to change up your look, you’ll want to know how to get it right.
Whether you are aiming to do a film noir type of shoot, or simply want to light a scene or two of your film with hard lighting to create a mood, these three tips are for you:
1. Use Fewer Lights
Depending on the scene you are shooting, you may only need a single light source to achieve the look you’re after. And in fact using fewer lights will make your life a lot easier when it comes to hard lighting. Working with hard lights can be much more challenging simply based on the quality of light alone. A soft lighting setup will be very forgiving and therefore you have some more wiggle room when it comes to where exactly you place your fill light in relation to you key. With hard lighting setups, you have to be much more specific as to where you place your lights as the shadows can start looking nasty pretty quickly (more on that below).
The reality of hard lighting is that often times you are best served by just using a single light. A one light setup will allow you to create hard, defined shadows on your talent without having to battle your fill light, which will of course diminish those shadows. Using a backlight is the exception to this rule, as it will simply help to separate your talent from the background even more-so, and theoretically shouldn’t affect the look of your key light. The same logic may also apply to a background light, depending on where your talent is placed.
Here’s an example of a shot that I took just yesterday with a single hard light pointed directly at the talent:
And my setup (which was a bare Lowell Tota lamp) on one of our other shots:
2. Don’t Be Afraid Of Shadows
Probably the biggest issue that filmmakers have when trying to shoot with hard light are the shadows. Many filmmakers make the mistake of attempting to treat their hard light setup as if it was soft lighting, and have a really difficult time wrapping their head around the idea that it’s perfectly okay to have harsh shadows in the frame. In fact, shadows are exactly what define the look of a hard lighting setup, so if you are trying to eliminate them or control them too heavily, you probably shouldn’t be using hard light in the first place.
You need to remember that shadows are your friend. Once you stop trying to fight them and start finding ways to work with them creatively, a lot of possibilities will open up. You might want to light your talent from down low to create a big shadow of them on a wall, or place them right up close to a wall to get a very small but defined shadow behind them, giving the scene a lot of edge. And if for any reason you really don’t want to show any shadow in a particular shot, simply move your talent further away from the background (or wall), light them from a bit more of an angle, and shoot them from the opposite side. That will effectively hide the shadow off frame, and will still give you the hard light quality on your talent’s face.
3. Control The Spill
If you’re lighting more than one character or a relatively large environment, controlling the spill of your lights will be absolutely critical. Imagine you need to light a scene in a warehouse with two characters standing 15 feet away from each other. You might start by setting up a single key light for your lead actor, which will likely look pretty good right off the bat. But then when you walk in your supporting actor, you realize that the key on your lead isn’t giving him/her enough exposure. Naturally you will need to add a separate key light for that actor, but then it will interfere with the spill from the original key, and will leave you with some weird looking shadows.
As I mentioned in my first point, sometimes using a single light is best for hard lighting setups. That said, when you need to use two or more lights be sure to control your spill as much as possible. In the scenario I outlined here, you could start by simply flaging off the hard light source on your lead actor, ensuring that it doesn’t hit your supporting actor at all. From there, the second source that you add in will have it’s own defined shadows, and you can easily avoid the double-shadow effect that can look so bad on camera.
Once you get the basics of controlling hard light down, you can really start to have some fun. Hard light is very shapeable (unlike soft light) which means you can use flags, blinds, and other objects to create really interesting looks on your talent, or in the background.
In my opinion, working at a high level as a visual filmmaker means that you know how to craft your lighting setups for any possible mood. While most scenes will call for soft light (as it’s more forgiving and flatters the actor’s faces more), there is definitely a time and a place to use hard light. Whether you need to light an entire film that way, or just a single insert shot – it’s so important that you understand the differences in the quality of light between hard and soft, and how to work with each of them respectively.
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Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!