Hard or soft? Depends on the meal, doesn't it?
Much like how you like your light. Depends on your subject and your artistic intent as to whether you would choose hard or soft light. Actually that's a bit of a misnomer. It should be hard or soft shadows. It is the shadows that define the subject.
Hard light is the sort of light you expect at noon on a sunny day. Bright where there light falls, but with dark shadows.
Soft light is nicely diffused light that wraps around your subject so that there are no harsh shadows. You will find this sort of light outdoors on an overcast day, or in the shade. Indoors, you will find soft light near a window.
How hard or soft light is depends on the size of the light source in relation to the subject. The smaller the light source, the harder the light is going to be.
The astrophysicists have told us that the Sun is quite large, yet it creates hard light with well defined shadows. What's going on? Because the Sun is 149.6 million kilometres from Earth it appears small.
On a overcast day the clouds scatter the light from the Sun so the light source appears as big as the the sky.
A filament of bare lightbulb is tiny, and going to give hard light. So you put a lampshade over the bulb, effectively making the light larger, and hence softening the light in the room.
Think of those awful downlighters and the harsh shadows they throw when you stand directly underneath the beam. A more pleasing lighting effect is when the beam is bounced off the ceiling or walls, spreading out the light similar to the way clouds disperse the harsh rays from the sun. Keep this in mind when shooting indoors. Look for light that is bouncing off the walls for a softer, more gentle effect.
There are two common mistakes we make as photographers that yield horrible results.
"Put the sun behind you." Yes, that puts your subject in the light, but it makes them squint and will probably cause highlights and shadows where you don't want them. Rather put your subject in the shade. Or wait for a cloud to blow over.
Which brings us to the flash on top of your camera. It is relatively tiny, and you know the awful results. Just don't use it, except in exceptional circumstances - another topic to be discussed in a future episode.
The soft light from a window should become your best photography friend. Sorry, second best - me first!
The large area of the window is massive relative to the average human subject, so no unwelcome shadows. Soft light is flattering, and flattening. It evens out the bumps and bulges, and, like any good cosmetic advert would have you believe, soft light smooths out the appearance of wrinkles. If there are no strong shadows, wrinkles simply become less pronounced.
There are times when you might want hard light though. Hard light speaks of strength or decisiveness or contention or energy or solidity or power or vigour. The angular shapes of male subjects can benefit from hard light. Cars and mechanical things usually photograph better with hard light.
More often than not, you will probably want to choose soft light. Ladies, flowers, food and lazy pets bring to mind words like beauty, graceful, tolerant, calm, indulgent, sumptuous and elegant.
These aren't rules though. As the photographer, you use the light to describe your subject and set the mood. An angry woman or a bowl of hot chillies may be better served with a hard light. The pensiveness of a gentleman gaze may be enhanced with soft light.
Take a photo of your subject in soft light.
As a suggestion, take your subject outside. No direct sunlight of course, just a nice even light you will find the the shade of a tree or building. Don't neglect the composition non-rules, like background and subject placement within the frame.