What’s wrong with the photo below?

Example of harsh lighting in photography

Depending on where you are in your photography journey,

  1. you might answer that the photo is underexposed.
  2. you might say that Stella’s head has a hotspot (a blown-out, completely overexposed area).
  3. you might say that the photo has too much contrast (too many darks and too many brights).
  4. you might say that the photo was taken in harsh lighting rather than soft.

Any of those answers are correct. The first 3 answers are symptoms of the problem: harsh lighting.

Harsh lighting is the light you see at high noon or on a hot summer afternoon. The angle of the sun creates lots of shadows, and those shadows are deep and dark and they have harsh, well-defined edges. The highlights are very bright and often blow out. This is the kind of light you generally want to avoid in photography.

How many family photos do you have like this? Some people are in the shadows, others are in bright light, and the photo doesn’t at all do justice to the moment or the place? That’s harsh lighting!

The opposite of harsh light is soft light. Soft light has brighter shadows with soft, fuzzy edges. Soft light doesn’t create hotspots on your subject. The light on your subject is even and wraps around every inch of your subject that is visible to your lens. We spend a lot of time in my Guided365 Photography Project talking about soft light.

Soft light is ideal for photography. We often find it in open shade, on overcast days, or as the sun rises or sets.

Even though soft light is always preferable to harsh, sometimes you can’t avoid shooting in harsh lighting. In those cases, you have several options for improving your photo:

  • You can play with the placement of your subject, changing the angle that the sun shines on him or her. Sometimes that helps. However, in the photo above, Stella was in her post-bath shivering sulk and wouldn’t have considered moving from her bed, thank you very much.
  • The general rule of thumb when shooting in harsh light is that you should raise your exposure as bright as possible without blowing out any important hotspots. As you can see from the photo above, that strategy didn’t help me much. Extreme lighting conditions like this can’t be fixed in post-processing.
  • But the best solution is to pull out your trusty scrim. And there’s a good chance you have one in your house, even if you didn’t know it!

A scrim is a piece of material that diffuses the light in your photos. Diffusing light is a technical term for softening it.

Soften Harsh Lighting with Scrims or Scrim Substitutes

Often photographers have scrims in their 5-in-1 reflectors. The scrim is usually inside the reflector frame – you use it by taking off the reflector covers. It is the back circle in this image:

Soften harsh lighting with a 5-in-1 reflector scrim

By placing the scrim between your light source and your subject, you soften the light shining on him or her, to create a photo more like this:

Soften harsh lighting - example

Compare that to the photo of Stella above – the one with dark shadows and bright highlights. The scrim is the primary difference between the two.

If you use a 5-in-1 reflector scrim, you’ll need to prop it between your subject and the light, have an assistant hold it, or attach it to a light stand. None of those options worked for me.

Instead, I pulled out a scrim that came with one of my off-camera flashes. It’s a simple piece of lightweight, translucent fabric that attaches to a softbox. I taped it onto my sliding glass door to reduce the amount of sun that was shining directly onto Stella.

Soften harsh lighting with a scrim

From there, I adjusted my exposure settings and shot. Stella was much happier with this flattering lighting.

Soften harsh lighting - example


Another common household item that works as a scrim is a window sheer. They are already hanging in your window just waiting for you to take a great photo! I took this photo using a window sheer:

Softening Harsh Lighting - window sheer

Notice the shadows around her nose and jaw? Those shadows aren’t deep, and it would be hard to draw a precise line at the edge of the shadow. That’s what soft lighting does. Soft lighting also pops the colors and is flattering to skin tones. Do you see what I mean when I say that soft light wraps around your subject?

If you don’t have sheers, check out your bathroom. Does your tub have a translucent shower curtain liner?

Soften harsh lighting with a shower curtain

Remember that translucent doesn’t mean transparent. If it’s completely clear and you can see through it, it won’t work. You want the frosted liner that hides the important details of whoever is bathing behind the curtain but lets the light shine through.

You can hang shower curtains from windows, porches, doorways, and even tree branches (if you’re ambitious) to soften the harsh light in many places.

In spite of all the materials you can use as a scrim, you will want to take photos where softening the light isn’t possible. In those cases, the moment is more important than photographic perfection. Take the photo and love it! But you’d be surprised about how often you can soften harsh lighting. If you are at home, place your subject next to a window with a sheer before shooting. Or throw your reflector in your camera bag and have a friend hold it in scrim mode. Once you open your mind to the possibility of softening light, you’ll remember it when you need it!

PS. I know there are tons of other scrim substitutions out there. What do YOU use to combat harsh lighting?