Soft Light

by William Lulow

What is soft light and when do you need it? Soft light is the kind that produces an overall lighting. It is kind of omni-directional, that is, it gives the effect of coming from all around a subject but can be aimed at the same time. But the real tell-tale sign of a soft light is that it produces no shadows. How does a light do that? And, how can we use it?

Well, the easiest explanation for these questions is to look at the light produced by a cloudy day.  Nothing casts a shadow. Everything is lit with a kind of “soft” light. There are no specular highlights, no shiny reflections. Now think of what a cloudy day is. There is a bank of clouds between the sun and the earth. These clouds are diffusing the sun’s rays all over the part of the earth they cover. Also, the cloud bank is relatively large in comparison to the size of an object on earth or a human being.  That’s why there are no shadows. There is no “point light source.”  So, it follows that whenever we want soft light with no shadows, we need to have a light source that is both large, in comparison to the object we are photographing, and diffused like what the clouds do to sunlight. One other thing; the closer the light is to the subject, the softer the effect will be. This is because even a large light source (like the sun), if positioned far enough away, will act like a point light source.

There are several tools to help us accomplish this effect in the studio. One, is a light that will scatter rays in a rather broad pattern such as a bare bulb flash. This type of light can be positioned atop a camera. The pattern of light will be 360 degrees on a horizontal plane. The only place the light will not reach is below the camera. Because of the omni-directional features of this light, its effect will be to create a soft light with no shadows.

Another tool photographers often use is a large reflective umbrella at which the light is aimed. The umbrella does two things. (1) it is large, in comparison to a person’s head and (2) it helps diffuse the light by making it travel a longer distance before reaching the subject. If you want a soft light, the bigger the umbrella, the better. Again, if you think of the clouds on a cloudy day, they are huge in comparison to subjects on earth.

A third tool is what is called a “soft box.” A soft box is simply a light source placed inside a large box with a bit of diffusing material placed over the front. It follows our principle by (1) being large compared to the subject and (2) diffuse because of the diffusion material in the front of the box. There are many different kinds of soft boxes for many different purposes. If you are making portraits, soft boxes are not always ideal because a person’s head is not that much smaller than most of them. You have to be sure you are using a very large soft box. They are good for photographing smaller objects like cereal boxes, food, shiny things like pots and pans, etc. Soft boxes are made in many sizes. Make sure the one you use is significantly larger than the object you want to photograph (if you’re going for a soft effect).

I use an oversized photographic umbrella with twice the number of ribs in it as a normal one when I’m doing a portrait. It is a 60 inch umbrella with 16 ribs with a black backing. The reason for this is so that when the reflection of the light can be seen in the subject’s eyes, it appears round. These reflections are called “catchlights.” To me, it is annoying to see the reflections of a soft box or a light like a hexagon or octagon. They eyes are round and so should be the catchlights. The black backing is necessary because it concentrates all of the reflected and diffused light back to the subject. White umbrellas are totally useless for this purpose. (Although they can be used as diffusers).

Here are a few of the tools:

6-foot softbox   7foot umbrella  Barebulb head

6 foot soft box                      7 foot umbrella                   bare bulb holder


6 foot Softbox                    7-foot large umbrella                         Bare bulb