For cinematographers, the choice between soft lighting and hard lighting is almost akin to Hamlet’s famous line, "To be, or not to be," in terms of its philosophical and aesthetic ramifications.
"It’s a crucial choice, as the way you light a scene or an actor can totally change everything about them," notes acclaimed cinematographer Matthew Libatique, ASC, whose credits include Black Swan and three previous collaborations with director Darren Aronofsky, including Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, as well as Jon Favreau’s Iron Man franchise and upcoming Cowboys and Aliens. In Black Swan, the DP and director went for "hard, very dramatic and moody lighting," says Libatique, which underscored the inner psychological disintegration of Natalie Portman’s obsessive ballerina. "It suited the story, but if you want beauty, glamour andromanticism, you’re always going to go soft."
For Libatique, soft lighting is sort of like "the auto-tune" for cinematography, "as it basically puts everything ‘in tune’ from a balance perspective," he says. "When you work in hard light, there’s such a strong contrast between light and shadow, and typically when things are moving, it throws everything awry. But when you use soft light, it affords the actors the ability to move around as the light is so balanced from one end of the room to the other."
Apart from such practical considerations, there are artistic advantages to soft light. "It wraps around the face, and it makes people from Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis to Harrison Ford and Robert Downey Jr. look beautiful and handsome," he notes. "And, of course, there are different styles of soft light—there’s soft light with direction and soft light with a more ambient feel. It’s also how you balance all those things."
For Libatique, "the quintessential soft-light approach is what you see in all the films of Ingmar Bergman and his DP Sven Nykvist," he says. "In their films like Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander, it’s a total mastery of soft light and naturalism that comes from that." He goes on to stress that "people just don’t stand in hard light if they don’t have to. In fact, it’s inconceivable in reality to see someone in hard light delivering two paragraphs of dialogue. I think people exist in between light sources, and when you try to achieve naturalism, as I was doing in Black Swan, people are going to exist between those sources and not in them."
In terms of comparing HD versus film in creating a soft-light look, the cinematographer reveals, "I don’t think that they’re totally different. The edges between tonality become a little more distinct in HD, and there’s less subtle tonality there in the grays when you look at a grayscale; and by that, I mean that the soft light is still soft, but it actually gives the impression of being harder in HD than it would be in film."