Photography Lighting

What is Ambient Light in Photography?

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Written By Nate Torres

Ambient light is crucial to setting the tone and mood of any setting.

In photography, ambient light is the natural light that surrounds a scene.

It can be either bright or dark, and it’s essential to take this into account when taking photos.

Ambient light is an important type of lighting if you want to improve your photography skills.

Ambient light is one of my favorite types of lighting because it produces beautiful-looking, natural photos.

In this article, we’ll explain what ambient light is and how you can use it to create better photos.

What is Ambient Light?

Ambient light is a source of light that a photographer or videographer did not bring to the session that can be either artificial or natural.

Natural ambient lighting is something like sunlight, moonlight, fireflies, etc.

It’s either a fixed or a highly uncontrollable light source.

Artificial ambient lighting examples would mostly depend on the surroundings, such as streetlights, light bulbs, track lights, or even car headlights.

Although it does translate as “natural” light, you are still allowed to modify it using reflectors, scrims, or other modifiers. Some photographers refer to it as “modified” ambient lighting.

Sometimes, we need to modify the ambient light to match the object or mood we wish to create, especially when performing an outdoor shoot.

I should also mention the grey area between the terms “natural” and “ambient.”

While the term ambient light commonly refers to any available light around us, a few photographers also refer to the term “natural light” specifically for the sunlight and moonlight.

To avoid confusion or unnecessary debate when working on a project, it is in your best interest to explain your scene’s lighting in detail.

window ambient light
ambient light from the window

How Does Ambient Lighting Work?

Ambient lighting works by providing you with a sufficient amount of exposure without much glare on the camera. It is essentially a soft light that envelops your scene/room perfectly. Not too high that makes your eyes uncomfortable and not too little that it doesn’t create any effects.

Proper ambient light will help your subject or atmosphere to look more relaxed. It is even called mood lighting because of its ability to create a specific atmosphere.

For example, ambient lighting is often used to make a home shine and look more beautiful.

You can mix and match light fixtures to add a dimension of warmth to your scene too.

Where is Ambient Lighting Used?

Photographers can use ambient lighting pretty much anywhere.

It also comes back to your original concept, needs, and equipment possessed. You will get ambient lighting when shooting outdoors since there will be sunlight, moonlight, or city lights.

People who shoot landscape photography are essentially using ambient lighting. They can use natural light when shooting nature views at noon or night.

ambient light example landscape
natural ambient light “glow”

Artificial light coming from the buildings’ lamps can also be optimized to get a striking cityscape picture.

Using it indoors is also a great idea. Indoor photography, such as inside a studio, can utilize ambient lighting and a flash to get the best of both worlds.

Although some people may not agree with photographers that tamper/modify natural light and still call it natural light, every photographer has their way to achieve their artistic goals. Experimenting and combining multiple types of lighting is but one way to use ambient light.

Before diving more into ambient light, let’s briefly touch on the other types of lighting so you know how they differ from ambient lighting.

What Are Common Types of Lighting?

There are three common types of lighting: accent lighting, task lighting, and ambient lighting. Let’s unfold it one by one.

1. Accent Lighting

Photographers will often use accent lighting for specific points of interest to achieve the viewer’s desired effect.

The accent lighting will make a room look larger than it is. Frequent use of accent lighting is to highlight important and interesting objects that become the center of attention.

Sometimes people use it to ‘accentuate’ an architectural feature, such as an indoor layout, expensive statues/sculptures, or an artist’s masterpiece.

A common use of accent lighting that you may have seen is at a concert.

As a rule of thumb, accent lighting needs three times more light on the focal point than ambient lighting.

Fixtures that provide accent lighting include (but are not limited to); track light, tape and extrusion light, downlighting, and wall-mounted fixtures.

accent lighting
accent lighting example at a concert

2. Task Lighting

The task light will highlight the specific activity that people should perform in each room. It indirectly forces people to sleep in their bedroom, read in the library, or cook in the kitchen.

I highly recommend avoiding harsh lighting that will cast annoying and unflattering shadows.

For a more practical solution, try installing a switch for focal lighting separate from the room light switch. A pendant lighting, downlight, and portable/desk lamp will serve the best as task lighting.

task lighting
task lighting made from a lamp

3. Ambient Lighting

Also known as general lighting, ambient lighting serves to light up a room entirely.

It gives photographers consistent lighting through the room/space without being affected by other lighting sources.

Meanwhile, outdoor ambient lighting ensures visibility at night as well as security. Lighting up areas prone to the risk of injury and entrance/exits is also an important use.

But that’s not all folks. There are also various forms of ambient lighting that a photographer can endlessly play with

Types of Ambient Light

1. Backlight

Put the source of light behind your subject to create a backlight.

Check out this video by Mike Browne for a great backlighting tutorial.

2. Top Light

You will commonly encounter this light at stores and subways.

It positions itself on top of its subject.

3. Door Light

This term describes any light that comes through an open door.

4. Window Light

Any light that enters the room through the window.

Remember this image at the beginning of the article, well it’s technically ambient light, but more specifically window light:

window ambient light
window ambient light

5. Direct Light

A bright and harsh type of light. It can be either natural or artificial.

6. Golden Hour Light

A time-limited light that appears shortly after sunrise or just before.

golden hour ambient light
golden hour ambient light

7. Cloudy Daylight

This soft light appears every time the sun is partly covered up by clouds.

But knowing is only the beginning of mastering. One must also learn how to use it wisely and optimally, which I will explain below.

How to Use Ambient Light in Photography?

The first thing you need to use the ambient light to the fullest is your photography concept. Having a clear vision allows you to easily map out the required time and place for your shot.

That is crucial, especially if you want to shoot atmospheric portraits that emit a certain mood, in which ambient light photography is often needed. 

So what are the typical atmospheres? Well, there is your everyday gloomy atmosphere, the childish yet optimistic joyful atmosphere, and the mysterious atmosphere. These types of atmospheres will significantly help you explain a story, all with a lighting setup or a burst of light. 

The lack of control that you have over the light gives room for your artistic flexibility. 

Below is the explanation of the methods, tips, and tricks that will help you create those three atmospheres I mentioned above. Let’s start with the most mysterious atmosphere. 

1. Mysterious Atmospheres

Your go-to lights to recreate this atmosphere are cloudy daylight and top light. The mysterious atmosphere commonly uses a limited amount of light and sometimes hides a portion of the subject’s face. 

You can also use your harsh lights to create shadows and hide or emphasize your subject, especially if you’re taking photos with an object with textures, which will stand out when in front of bright light. 

Even if the lights aren’t well lit, you can still use them to your advantage. Leave your comfort zone and figure out new ways to monopolize the situation with what you have.

A little tip: Black and White is a classic color combination that always goes great with mysterious atmospheres.

moody ambient light
mysterious foggy atmosphere using cloudy daylight

2. Dreamy Atmospheres

Dreamy atmospheres bring the story of happiness, friendship, and, ultimately, romance. Photographers will commonly use a backlight and golden hour light to create this atmosphere. Some will even combine both of them to make their photos more artistic.

Golden hour light is useful for beginners that want to capture a dreamy atmosphere.

Artificial light is also an option for creating this atmosphere. You can increase the camera’s temperature feature and make your subject stand in front of a bright light source. Or you can use a golden lamp if you have one.

If you want it to be even warmer, then consider editing it in a post-production phase. Photo editing applications such as Photoshop or Lightroom will help you further.

Keep in mind that too much backlight without sufficient front light will dull your photos.

If this case happens, hold a reflector in front of your object to bounce the light and prevent unflattering shadows.

dreamy ambient light
dreamy atmosphere using golden hour light

3. Soft Atmospheres

The most classic, naturally-lit portraits aren’t that hard to make. You can easily use window lights and door lights to create them. These lights are an indoor photographer’s best friend.

If you decide to shoot indoors, you will get some advantages:

  • Avoid disruptive elements and their weather
  • Save a lot of time and get a swift yet productive photo session
  • Challenge your artistic creativity

The door light will provide more flexibility since you can control the amount of light that comes in. You can also manipulate the soft shadows along with the light.

When you take photos in front of a window, play around with the angles and shadows. After you find a way to maximize the light, you can have a masterpiece photograph with a stunning soft atmosphere.

Soft atmospheres work well for almost every type of photography, from landscape, portrait, wedding photography, and many more.

soft light portrait
soft atmosphere portrait
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Final Remarks

Ambient light is a type of light that you can find naturally around you, both natural and artificial. Many types of lights can be mixed and modified to create your artistic vision.

To get to the pro level, always try to utilize the light and the surroundings to elevate your photograph’s atmosphere.

And step up your game, always find the best solutions and adapt your concepts to new situations when it’s not as good as you think. Mastering those skills and you’ll be a full-fledged photographer who masters light in no time.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is ambient light daylight?

Ambient light refers to the available light in a scene, regardless of its source or quality. While ambient light can include daylight, it can also come from other sources such as artificial light or reflected light from surfaces in the scene.

How bright should ambient light be?

The brightness of ambient light can vary widely depending on the location, time of day, and weather conditions. There is no specific brightness level that is ideal for all situations, but it’s important to choose camera settings that can capture the available light in the scene in a way that accurately represents the mood and atmosphere.