How To Achieve Really Soft Lighting

by William Lulow

Note: This article got mixed up with another last week! Sorry for any confusion, but here it is again!

As I have said many times, the secret to really soft lighting, the kind you normally would need to flatter your subject, is to use a large light. The applicable theory is that the “larger the light, the softer the effect!” For more than 30 years now, I have been using a specially made umbrella which is about 5 to 6 feet in diameter and has twice the number of ribs that normal, photographic umbrellas have. It’s almost impossible to have umbrellas custom-made these days, but, back in the days when I was learning about lighting, I had this one made. Today, after so many years, it’s white, reflective surface has also yellowed a bit and produces a quality of light that not that many other photographers can duplicate.


This images shows my main light, fill-in and background light. You can see the relative size of the umbrella. The trick is to move it as close as possible to the subject. So, it’s the distance as well as the size that produces a really soft-quality light. In addition, the roundness of the light also tends to wrap itself around the subject, further softening the effect.

Here’s an example:


Here, the fill-in light, which is a much smaller softbox placed below the face, helps to surround the face with light. Even though the face is lit from above and below, the strength of the fill-in light is about half of that produced by the main light. This allows for just the right amount of shadow that produces some depth to the image. Here’s another example:


This image was made with just the umbrella! No fill-in light. So, the shadows on the right are just a bit deeper. But, even with no fill-in, the quality of this light is so soft that you almost don’t really need it!