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What is Ambient Light & How to Use it in Photography


Ambient light photography is the first type of lighting technique we use as photographers, whether we’re aware of it or not.

After all, ambient light is free, versatile and can be flattering when used correctly.

This doesn’t mean that using ambient light is easy – as a photographer, you need to learn how to control the available light and use it to your advantage.

In this article, you’ll find many examples of different ambient lighting techniques and how to use them to improve your photography.

So, let’s dive in first with a quick definition.

What is Ambient Light?

Ambient light is the available light on location before the photographer adds any flash or additional light. Keep in mind that the definition of ambient light changes according to the field.

For light designers in the theatre, ambient light is all put together on purpose for the show, and it creates a specific ambience where the action takes place.

Ambient light is also the overall illumination of a room or a space in architectural light design and interior design. Task lighting and accent lighting are considered separately. In photography, all of these are included in the ambient light definition.

Since Shotkit is a website for photographers, I’ll be referring to the definition used in the photography field. This means whatever lighting is already there when you arrive for the photoshoot.

(I just wanted to let you know that there are other interpretations of the term ambient light in case you run into them.)

What’s the difference between ambient light and natural light?

Any light source you didn’t add before taking the photograph is considered ambient light. It doesn’t matter if it’s natural or artificial.

Instead, natural light is a type of ambient light that comes from a natural light source—for example, sunlight or moonlight.

7 Types of Ambient Lighting

1. Outdoor sunlight

Credit: Khanh Le

When you think about ambient lighting, the first thing that probably comes to mind is sunlight – this is also natural light.

Because the sun is free and almost always available, it’s also the most common type of light you can use in photography.

This doesn’t mean that it’s always the same, and it will give you boring or predictable results. You can create different moods depending on the time of the day.

Another thing you can control is the intensity of the shadows. If you photograph in the shade or during a cloudy day, you’ll have soft shadows – while the direct sun will create hard and deep shadows.

2. Indoor sunlight

Credit: Haley Black

For an indoor photoshoot, you can still use natural ambient lighting if there’s a window at your location. Depending on how many windows are there and how big they are, the lighting might be intense to fill the entire room or dim.

If you can move your subject – like in a still life or portrait photography – place them as close to the window as possible. You can add a reflector if necessary.

Instead, if you have to illuminate the entire ambient or the subject is too big – when photographing furniture, for instance – you might have to use HDR photography.

Sometimes, ambient light is not enough for these situations. In which case, you’ll need to add a flash to fill in the darker areas – just be careful not to overpower the ambient light so that you don’t lose the mood.

3. Moonlight

Credit: Dreamlens Production

If you’re shooting at night, you can still have natural light as ambient lighting. Of course, I’m talking about the light provided by the moon.

It may not be immediately obvious, but the moon can be a powerful light that can illuminate an entire scene.

A full moon gives more light than a crescent moon, but you’ll still need to use long (slow) shutter speeds – especially if you don’t want to raise the ISO values too much.

So, it’s better to use a steady tripod for your night shots if you’ll only be using ambient light.

4. Fire

Credit: Tomáš Malík

Although not many people consider it, fire is a natural light you can use for ambient lighting. It can be the main light of the shoot if it’s strong enough, or it can create a warm environment or a specific mood.

A few examples of incorporating fire as ambient light can be candles, fireplaces or bonfires (if outdoors). Strictly speaking, if it’s true ambient light, you didn’t light the fire for the photo – it was already there in the scene.

Of course, you should still take every precaution when there’s fire, even if you didn’t start it because you don’t want any accidents.

5. Indoor artificial light

Credit: Rodnae Productions

Almost every room or indoor ambient will have artificial lighting – whether it’s in wall lamps, ceiling lamps, neon lights, etc.

It’s essential to consider the colour temperature of the lights. Nowadays, most lights come in different tones, from cool light to warm, but this also depends on the type of lights, whether they are LEDs, tungsten, etc.

Remember to make sure you adjust your white balance accordingly.

6. Outdoor artificial light

Credit: Aleksandar Pasaric

There are lots of artificial lights outdoor too. Consider store signs, street signs, street lamps, etc. If you’re doing cityscapes, you’ll deal with this type of lighting.

However, you can also use this type of ambient light for some creative portraits without lighting your subject separately.

7. Artificial and natural light 

Credit: Rachel Claire

You’ll often find ambient light that mixes artificial and natural lighting – especially when you’re shooting indoors.

It might happen outdoors too – say at the golden or blue hour when the natural light isn’t strong enough, so the street lights might still be on.

There are two things that you need to master in these situations – white balance and exposure – you can read more about the exposure triangle here.

It’s not easy to do, but you can rely on HDR and other post-processing techniques to achieve the best results. The idea is to get a final photo where the ambient light is pleasing as well as realistic.

How to Use Ambient Light for Better Photos

Any time you grab a phone or a camera and snap a picture without flash or any additional lamps, you’re doing ambient light photography.

This doesn’t mean that all you can do with ambient lighting are simple snapshots – here are some tips to really use it to your advantage.

  • If you’re using natural ambient lighting, understand how the sunlight changes during the day and throughout the year. Also, check the weather forecast before the photoshoot.
  • If you’re using window light, position your subject close to it and face in that direction.
  • Learn about different colour temperatures and how to balance them.
  • Do HDR photography when there is a lot of contrast.
  • Use a reflector to fill dark areas. Instead, use diffusers when the light is too harsh.
  • Use a tripod when you’re shooting during the evening or in low light conditions.
  • Learn to balance flash and ambient light to achieve portraits that capture the mood and atmosphere of the room.

Final Words

As you can see, you can use ambient lighting for any subject – whether you’re doing still life photography, landscapes, portraits or events.

However, if you want to grow as a photographer, you need to know how to work with it and use it in the best way to achieve professional results.

I hope these tips and examples are helpful. If you have any questions or want to share more suggestions, please do so in the comments.


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