Soft Lighting: Everything You Need To Know
There’s nothing quite like the dreamy, subtle glow that soft lighting can bring to your film project. It’s one of the most popular lighting methods for a reason. And it does far more than just make a subject look “pretty.” It can create feelings of calmness, eliminate hard shadows, and even endear your characters to your audience. Here’s what you need to know about soft lighting and how to use it in your next project.
What is soft lighting?
There are two basic kinds of lighting: hard light and soft light. Hard light is characterized by bright plains of light and sharp shadows. It’s perfect for creating a sense of intensity in scenes of high drama. Soft light, on the other hand, isn’t quite so dramatic.
With soft light, the light source is either far away or highly diffused. This causes the light to wrap around the subject, blending away hard shadows and sharp lines. This creates a flattering effect for faces, making soft lighting a favorite technique for portrait photographers. But soft lighting can do more than just flatter your characters — it can help you tell your story.
Why soft lighting is amazing
Great directors and cinematographers know more than just how to create different types of lighting. They know when to use them properly. Soft lighting is fantastic for scenes where you want to create a peaceful atmosphere or lend an angelic quality to your characters.
Soft Lighting in Stranger Things
In Season 3 of the Netflix original series Stranger Things, scenes set at the Starcourt Mall are often lit with diffused lighting from the large skylights. This helps create a sense of ease in the earlier half of the season as Mike, Eleven, and the rest of the main cast grapple with domestic problems over ice cream and shopping. It’s the “calm before the storm.” In later scenes set at the same mall, we see far more harsh lighting to convey the story’s urgency. It creates the perfect contrast between fun and games and dire stakes as the Upside Down begins to bleed into Hawkins.
Soft Lighting in The Dark Crystal
Let’s look at another example from a Netflix original series, this time from the fantasy puppet show The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. In this scene, the diffused lighting from the overcast sky softens each puppet’s face as they navigate the forest. Again, it’s another peaceful respite from a series that’s full of high-stakes action and drama. The serene lighting of the scene also highlights both Deet and Hup’s sweetness and innocence, which helps endear them as characters to the audience.
Soft Lighting in The Crown
Speaking of kind and endearing characters, Season 4 of The Crown had the challenge of portraying one of the most beloved women in human history, Princess Diana. Have a look at this scene, which depicts Diana’s famous visit to an HIV ward in a New York children’s hospital.
The filmmakers could have chosen to light the scene with only the fluorescent lights overhead, which would have created harsh and unflattering shadows. Instead, the bright lighting from the large side windows provides an overall softness to the scene, lending an almost angelic glow to both the children and Diana’s faces. It’s a touching moment that highlights Diana’s compassion. This scene helps both the press and the audience fall in love with her character. The soft lighting is a big part of what makes it so successful.
Throughout the course of the series, the directors consistently portray Diana with soft, flattering lighting — even as she struggles with her eating disorder and crumbling marriage. The overall soft lighting in the final scene of the season creates an interesting contrast between Diana’s “fine-on-the-surface” exterior and her tumultuous mental state. It helps garner empathy for her plight from the audience, who try to imagine themselves in her shoes.
In each of these cases, the lighting is a deliberate choice to tell the story.
How to create soft lighting
Now that we know why directors use soft lighting let’s go over how to create it for your own projects. If you’re outside, filming on an overcast day is an excellent way to capture soft lighting. With the direct sunlight obscured by clouds, the lighting becomes soft and muted. You can also soften direct sunlight by using diffusers or umbrellas to filter and redirect the hard light, creating a more flattering look for your scene.
Special sheets of fabric called scrims are also a common tool for softening light when filming outdoors. A larger overhead scrim can provide a filter between the sunlight and your subjects. Smaller versions can bounce light to soften harsh shadows. A scrim is usually crafted from natural or artificial white silk mounted on a special frame. But if you’re working on a budget, you can also use plain white bedsheets to create the same effect. Check out this DIY scrim tutorial that you can put together for only $20!
If you’re filming inside a studio, you can also soften the effect of your studio lights with a sheet of diffusion paper. Mounting a sheet of specialized paper to the barn doors of your lights is a cheap and easy trick to soften up a harsh light. It’s also ideal if you’d like to create a more subtle effect, as the paper will only create a slight diffusion.
Another specialized tool for softening light is the softbox. Thanks to their rectangular shape, these mimic the subtle light from an open window and can provide more control over your bounce light than a reflective umbrella. Softboxes come in varying sizes, ranging from 18 to 24″ to 48″ or even bigger. They make wonderful key, fill, and backlights that provide an overall soft glow to your scene. Every filmmaker should have at least one in their toolkit!
China ball lantern lighting
China balls are also a fantastic way to create soft, diffused light. The subtle glow they provide can create a magical effect for your scene. Plus, they’re a super cheap option for budget filmmakers! Check out how to use those here.
Don’t be afraid to play with different tools and techniques until you find the perfect soft lighting you’re looking for. Sometimes you don’t know the right look until you see it on the camera!