Before we start, we should have a definition of both soft and hard light:
Soft Light – light from a source that has been diffused in some way creating low contrast and soft edged shadows or the complete absence of shadows. Think about the light of an overcast day.
Hard Light – direct light from a source that creates high contrast and hard edged shadows. Think of the harsh light of a bright sunny day.
The photos below were both lit by the same light source using different light modifiers. For those who might want the technical info on the lighting equipment, I used a Dynalite 4060 (4k) head with a RoadMax MP4 (400 watt seconds max output) power pack. The light output was adjusted to give the same exposure of f16, 1/160 sec, ISO 100 for both photos. The light was approximately 5 feet from the subject. The distance of the light did not change from one photo to the next. I handheld the camera creating the slight difference in composition. The camera I used was a Nikon D2x with a 105mm f2.8 macro lens.
As you can see the big difference in the two photos is the shadows. The beauty dish created diffused but contratsy light (note the shadows along the jawline) while the small reflector created a harsher transition (more contrast) from light to dark and a deeper shadow. A bi-product of using the small reflector is that the light does not fall off as quickly allowing more light to reach the background.
Soft Light or Hard Light, which do you like the best?
If you would like to learn more about lighting I will be teaching a Portrait Photography class at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, VA starting April 6, 2016.