Achieving superhard light

By Oleg Ti,   April 3, 2015,   Views: 3224,   Comments:

Sometimes we do need very hard light! So often photographers shy away from using hard light, fearing harsh shadows they usually get using standard reflector. I don’t fear very hard light; I like it, because I like shadows. Shadows bring volume, shape and compositional perfection to our pictures. But it doesn’t mean I only use hard light. Every picture needs its own way of lighting. Sometimes I use several soft boxes or umbrellas trying to get as much soft light as I can. And often I see that hard light, very similar to sunlight, would be the best way to shoot a picture making it contrast, sharp and impressive.

Take a look at this picture.

Oleg Ti Achieving superhard light

It was made with only one lighting unit. I got hard, contrast shadow by using a standard reflector, making the light as hard as I can so it would mimic sunlight and create very sharp shadows. I like the result, do you?

But how to achieve such very hard light? What is the secret?

Let’s start with understanding the term “hardness of light”. I published an article where I described the term hardness and recalled the basic principles of using hard light. The larger the surface of the lighting unit, the softer it is. The closer the light, the softer it is.

It is very easy to get hard light with special lighting modifiers, which are all supplied with a built-in lens. Every company that provides lighting equipment has such modifiers. Profoto Spot Small, for example.

Oleg Ti Achieving superhard light

It produces very hard light, but there is just one problem: not every photography studio has this device. It is a rear thing in an ordinary studio. Usually, we only have standard reflectors (you can find them in every studio), so we need to discuss how to get hard light using this device.

You might think that just by using this standard reflector you will get hard light, and you will not be right. If we are talking about very hard light, super hard, as I call it, it is not enough just to use a reflector. To illustrate that let’s look at the picture below.

I put my lighting unit with a standard reflector at a distance of 2 meters from our usual “model” - lighting head.

Oleg Ti Achieving superhard light

Take a look at the shadow. Does it seem like a sun shadow to you? Not really. What you see is that the shadow has a feathered and not a crisp edge. I could call this light hard, but wouldn’t compare it to sunlight since it produces a shadow with a sharper edge. The light you see on the picture is softer, much softer.

But what can we do to make it harder? There are 2 ways: to put our lighting unit at a big distance from the model or to make the surface of this lighting unit smaller.

The first way is easy to achieve if you have a large studio. By moving lighting unit to a distance of 8 to10 meters (26-32 feet) from the model, we will get superhard light, which will be very similar to the sun. But here we will run into 2 problems. Where to get such a large studio? And what to do with the reflections bouncing from the walls and the ceiling of the studio, which make the shadows less contrast? I can say that honeycomb grid or barn doors could help us to handle bouncing light but I’d have to repeat: we should move our lighting unit to the distance of no less than 8-10 meters. And we will have to not only move it from the model but also keep the direction of the light. It means that we’ll need to raise it above the model and our studio’s ceiling height will be the first thing that will limit us in that.

What to do? To go the second route is to make the surface smaller. This can be achieved by making an easy paper mask. Take a look at the picture.

Oleg Ti Achieving superhard light

I cut off a small piece of background paper (you can always find it in the studio), made a hole in the center with a diameter of just 3-4 cm or 1 1/2 inches, and attached it to the standard reflector with tape. That made the lighting surface smaller and the light harder.

Take a look at this picture.

Oleg Ti Achieving superhard light

The light here is harder than on the first picture and looks more similar to the sunlight. And it occurs at a small enough distance from the model, just mere 2 meters. But what is the problem? Problem is, we don’t get a wide enough spot of light. A small hole creates a small spot of light, and with this hand-made modifier we can only take a portrait or a half-body picture. You may notice on the second picture some vignetting at the corners. You can correct it in Photoshop later on or you can move your lighting unit further away from the model. 3-4 meters is enough to get a wider lighting spot, which will cover your model from head to toe and allow you to make a full-body picture without post-processing it in Photoshop.

As you can see, it’s easy, it’s fast and cheap. All you need to get super hard, sun-like light is a piece of paper background, scissors and tape. That is all!

Good luck! Enjoy using superhard light!

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