Whether a light is considered hard or soft depends on the type of shadow it creates. A hard light is characterized by shadows with sharply-defined edges. It’s usually from a single-point source, focused through a lens. In lighting gear this usually takes the form of a traditional spotlight, and in nature the sun would be considered the most significant form of hard light. A soft light is diffused and from a broad source. It produces fuzzy, gentler shadows. In lighting gear soft boxes, LED lighting, and fluorescent lighting like Kino Flo banks serve as typical soft light sources. In nature, blue sky lighting or the general light of an overcast day are soft light sources. Blue sky light is the result of the sun’s rays being scattered by Earth’s atmosphere, creating a diffused light source. Now while the softness of a light depends on the kind of light source, it also depends on the distance from source to subject. Even soft light sources at a great distance will produce harsh shadows. A good example of this is sunlight. Sunlight on a cloudless day produces extremely sharp shadows, even though the sun itself is a sphere that projects light in all directions. But since sunlight travels a great distance to reach Earth, only a small arc of its rays illuminate the Earth, making those waves effectively parallel, and not diffuse. Here we have a soft studio light producing soft shadows for this close subject, but the same light at a greater distance creates a much harder shadow edge.
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