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Ambient light

Embrace the natural radiance of ambient light in photography...

What is ambient light?

Ambient light is a source of light that a photographer or videographer did not bring to the session, and it 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.

Room with natural ambient light from sun.
Natural ambient light from sun on walls

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

Hand with computer screen light on it.
Artificial ambient light on hand from computer screen

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 must 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.”

Take note!

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

Explaining your scene’s lighting in detail is in your best interest when working on a project. This will avoid confusion or unnecessary debate.

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 low 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 or "natural light" photographers are essentially using ambient lighting.

Man standing on top of staircase wearing rain jacket.
Portrait using natural ambient light

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 who tamper/modify natural light and still call it natural light, every photographer has their way of achieving their artistic goals. Experimenting and combining multiple types of lighting is but one way to use ambient light.

Types of ambient light

1. Backlight

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

Woman with the sun behind her.
Portrait using artificial backlit ambient light

2. Top light

You will commonly encounter this light at stores and subways. It positions itself on top of its subject.

Woman boxing with light above her.
Portrait using top light ambient light

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:

Room with natural ambient light from sun.
Natural ambient light from sun on walls

5. Direct light

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

Woman wearing flower dress with harsh ambient light on her.
Portrait with harsh, direct light

6. Golden hour light

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

Woman walking down path with golden hour ambient light on her.
Portrait with golden hour ambient light

7. Cloudy daylight

This soft light appears every time clouds partly cover up the sun. But knowing is only the beginning of mastering. One must also learn how to use it wisely and optimally, which I will explain below.

Man posing in park wearing Gymshark tank top during cloudy ambient light.
Portrait with cloudy ambient light

How to use ambient light in photography?

You first need to use the ambient light to the fullest is your photography concept. Having a clear vision lets you 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 a 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.

Women with hair in her face on a hill during blue hour.
Portrait taken with natural ambient light for mysterious look

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 who 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 before a bright light source. Or you can use a golden lamp if you have one.

If you want it to be even warmer, consider editing it in post-production. Photo editing applications such as Photoshop or Lightroom can help. Remember 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.

Beach with people walking by the sand during golden hour ambient light.
Landscape photo taken during golden hour for dreamy atmosphere

3. Soft atmospheres

The most classic, naturally-lit portraits aren't that hard to make. You can easily use window lights, door lights, or even cloudy days to create them. These lights are a natural light photographer's best friend.

Man posing in park wearing Gymshark tank top during cloudy ambient light.
Portrait with cloudy ambient light for a soft atmosphere

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 before 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.

In conclusion, 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 become a pro, you should always try to utilize the light and surroundings to elevate your photograph's atmosphere.

Step up your game, always find the best solutions, and adapt your concepts to new situations when they are not as good as you think. Mastering those skills, you'll be a full-fledged photographer who masters light quickly.

Š 2024