Soft Lighting in a Hard Spot

Having just returned to Melbourne after six months in America, we were delighted to shoot Yelp's Elite Event at State of Grace, a stylish, hidden-away speakeasy that is worth tracking down. Shooting interesting photos in a location so packed full of beautiful people and design features all over the walls is one of the great pleasures of working behind a camera.

But it does present its own set of challenges.

The primary one being that shooting in dimly lit, over crowded rooms like this, you're dealing with a lack of light: something an on-camera flash can deal with very easily. But the last thing you want in this kind of portraiture is hard light casting ugly shadows on the people or wall behind your subjects. It can be difficult to avoid, but adding a simple soft box for your on-camera flash can make the difference between elegantly separating your subject from a crowd and accidentally adding an ugly dark outline around them. You can also aim your flash unit at the roof in order to bounce the light around the room to create soft light.

Often misunderstood as referring to the intensity of the light, soft or hard light is actually determined by the size of the light source and its impact on the shadows and has very little to do with the brightness level of the image. For example, the two images to the left appear very different in terms of the light's intensity, and it may seem as though the top photo is more softly lit than the bottom, but they are in fact both soft. What makes them softly lit is the light source: the larger the light source, the softer the light. This is simply because the light from a large source literally wraps around your subject, filling in all the shadows that you might have with a smaller light source (behind noses and hair lines, under chins, and on the wall behind the subject). That's why a soft box is really just an increase in the size of your light source. A smaller light source (like a camera flash, or the Sun) produces hard edged shadows because the light is emanating from a tiny point of origin. Softer light is almost always preferable when shooting people, so a simple soft box for your flash can make a world of difference!

Any of these options are the kinds of things that can elevate the final image significantly. And because the soft box causes diffusion, you won't blind your subjects so much either!