Improve The Way You Light Your Portraits: Harsh Light v.s. Soft Light with Contrast

Improve The Way You Light Your Portraits: Harsh Light v.s. Soft Light with Contrast

Improve Your Portrait Photography Lighting with These 5 Simple Setups Reading Improve The Way You Light Your Portraits: Harsh Light v.s. Soft Light with Contrast 8 minutes Next Home Working Tips for Photographers

Want to level up your portrait photograpy lighting RIGHT NOW? Today’s video will show you the difference between Harsh Light & Contrast. This will help you create beautiful soft light and easily control the contrast, and you will always get nice dramatic portraits.

Follow this step-by-step tutorial with test shots, you will find how this can be so amazing that you will get great significant improvement in the way you light your portraits.

Jiggie Alejandrino, the portrait & wedding photographer we introduced before, brings about new lighting tutorial this week. He’s the Sony Ph Brand Ambassador, the Zeiss Camera Lens Ambassador, and regarded as one of the most reputable lighting specialists.

Today Jiggie’s going to show how to distinguish between harsh light and soft light with contrast. He will also show how to create beautiful soft light and how to control contrast to create wonderfully lit simple portraits.

  • Soft Light

Let’s start with the soft light. Before the shooting, first, you should build up a Flash Unit as your main light source:

  1. Choose a speedlight as your main light source. ( Sony f60rm Speedlight as example)
  2. Installed your speedlight in a magmod mag shoe, the umbrella holder.
  3. Attach a shoot through umbrella to the magmod mag shoe.
  4. The Flash Unit is ready!

Second, the Basic Settings of your camera:

  • Lens: Sony 24-70 2.8GM
  • Trigger: Sony Wireless Radio Commander ( to remotely control the flash unit )
  • Shooting Mode: Manual mode;
  • Shutter Speed: 1 /250
  • Aperture: f/2.8
  • ISO: 100
  • Flash: Set on Group B, at 1/8

The concept for the following test shot is just basically the model sitting down, having a cup of coffee and having beautiful soft light similar to that of a window coming from the light source. Take the first test shot:

This is beautiful soft light. But as you can see in the side of the image, we are actually getting a lot of contrast. And that is the topic of today's video, because a lot of photographers may misconstrue that to be harsh light. So next I will show you guys what harsh light actually looks like.

  • Harsh Light

To create harsh light, then you should take out the umbrella ( The modifier ). You may ask why do i have to take out this modifier in order to create soft light or to create harsh light? Because the larger your modifier the softer the light. So now you will get your flash unit without umbrella, which is still a relatively small light source to your subject, and you will be getting harsh light.

But since you removed the big umbrella, which was a diffuser, therefore your flash will now become stronger and it will overexpose the image. So you now you should make your flash weaker (at 1/16 power). Take one more shot:

Now that is harsh light. You can see there's a lot of contrast also in the other side, but that contrast is not actually a way for you to see the characteristics or the quality of light. It is about the shadow edge transfers. You see in this picture the shadow edge transfer the shadow is actually well defined as compared to this image, where you have the shadows which are less defined.

So now let’s get into the details of contrast. Contrast, actually by definition is really the difference of f-stops from your properly exposed portion of your face, to the shadows or to the highlights. Yes, contrast can also be from highlights to properly exposed or properly exposed to shadows.

Now in this case, we are talking about the properly exposed portion of coco's face. Properly exposed photo of coho's face to the transition to the shadows.The higher the contrast the faster the transition is to the shadows. But it doesn't necessarily mean, just because you've got a quick transition to your shadows. It is automatically harsh light.

As you can see in the above 2 images: The left side is shot with harsh light, you can see a clear definition or a line, separating the properly exposed portion of her face through the shadows. As compared to the right side, where you can see a transition between the properly exposed portion of model’s face to the actual shadows. And that is what you call the shadow edge transfer.Now that you can sort of distinguish the difference between contrast and harsh light. 

  • How to Create Beautiful Soft Light?

Next, let's start shooting now with beautiful soft light, and Jiggie will explain why he chose this particular modifier instead of reflective umbrella.

The beautiful thing about having a shoot through umbrella is this: You can bring the light as close as possible, creating beautiful soft light, up until it hits the frame. If it's within frame so you can pull it back a bit more.

Here’s the beautiful soft light, adjust your flash power again, and take the shot:

You will get beautiful soft light as if it is just coming from a window. But of course you can reduce the contrast by adding another light or another reflector.  

  • How to Control Contrast

So now let's open up the shadows by introducing another light source. In this case, use a standard 5-in-1 reflector and bounce light back. It won’t remove the shadows totally because that will flatten the image.

Set the 5-in-1 reflector on the other side. Use the white side because it won’t create too much specularity, but just nice soft light. Adjust the light to face the reflector a little bit more, and remove some light that's hitting the background. So technically it’s feathering the light just a bit, and take one more shot:

It's very very subtle.

Compare both images now, you can see just a subtle opening of the shadows, which reduces the contrast a bit, but still keeps the shadows. There in order for you to have that shape, that form and that texture of your subject. 

Remember: if you remove shadows from a particular object, you're actually flattening it. It's not going to be flattering especially for a portrait like this.

Move the reflector a little bit closer to your subject, in order to open up the shadows a bit more, and here comes the final shot:

Now you're able to distinguish the difference between harsh light, and soft light with a lot of contrast. The main thing that you have to look out for is really the quality of the shadow edge transfer, and that is the one that will show whether or not the light was shot with soft light or harsh light. You can even added another light source in the form of a reflector, in order to open up the shadows and reduce the contrast. But at the same time, please don't forget that contrast is actually good for your image, because that is the one that creates shape, form, texture and depth.

With this step-by-step tutorial, you won’t misconstrue harsh light & soft light with a lot of contrast, and you can always create beautiful soft light. Choose the correct background, light & modifier, follow the guide and try the lighting position & camera settings by test shots, you will get significant improvenment in the way you light your portraits

For More Inspirations: 

Kate Hand-Painted Collections

Kate 2021 Summer Backdrops Collection

Read More Resources: Handbook of Photography Backdrop

This is an exercise that you can do with basic equipments & studio space, and of course, you also need a fantastic hand-painted backdrop. Hope you can enjoy this video, and get some inspirations on lighting your own portrait photography.


Equipment used:

Backdrop -

MagMod Starter Kit -

MagMod MagShoe:

Shoot Through Umbrella -

Phottix 5-in-1 Reflector -

Sony A7R MarkIV -

Sony 24-70 2.8GM -

Sony Wireless Radio Commander (FA-WRC1M) -

Sony F60RM -


About The Photographer: Jiggie Alejandrino is a portrait and wedding photographer from the Philippines. He’s the Sony Ph Brand Ambassador, the Zeiss Camera Lens Ambassador, the International Phottix Pro Teamer, and the MagMod Philippines Brand Ambassador. He's and considered to be one of the most reputable lighting specialists in the Philippines, conducting workshops nationwide and have been featured in various photography magazines. I was also a multi-awarded portrait and advertising photographer.

Learn More:Youtube Channel  ;


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