What Does Ambient Light Mean in Photography?

Photographs may appear more natural or modified. What brings the difference in most cases is the lighting used when capturing the photo.

There is a clear line of distinction between natural and ambient light in photography. However, many photographers usually confuse the two. 

Let’s find out what ambient light means and how well a photographer can use it to enhance the photograph’s quality. 

What Does Ambient Light Mean in Photography?

Ambient light is any light not added by the photographer but captured in the photograph. The light can either be artificial or natural. 

Natural ambient light sources may include moonlight, sunlight, moonlight, and fireflies. This is, in most cases, fixed lights or sources that the photographer can’t control.

In comparison, artificial ambient light includes bulbs, lamps, streetlights, and vehicle headlights.

A photographer can still modify the ambient light using reflectors or scrims to match the intended mood, usually in outdoor shoots. The modified ambient light can no longer be referred to as ambient.

However, when changing the ambient light, there can be some sections, usually grey, between the ambient and natural light; this still qualifies as ambient light. 

A photographer can capture ambient light unknowingly. Leaving this light un-edited presents the best experience of ambient light.

The photographer can learn a few tricks on capturing ambient light perfectly; otherwise, it may ruin the photograph. 

It’s a great idea for photographers to provide detailed information about lighting in their projects. This helps eliminate confusion when analyzing the project. 

How Does Ambient Lighting Work?

Ambient lighting operates by giving out the required level of exposure with effortless glare on the camera. It can be considered a soft light that blends in with the scene perfectly.

An ideal ambient light for photography shouldn’t be too sharp to distort the photographer’s sight and not too low to create unnecessary effects.

Ambient light also brings a more relaxed mood and can create a varied atmosphere in the photograph. It can be used to make an image shinier and beautiful.

When to Use Ambient Lighting

Ambient light can be used anytime, anywhere. However, its use may depend on a photographer’s needs, concept, and the resources at hand.

The chances of using ambient light are high when shooting outdoor photographs. This is due to the availability of its natural sources, including the sun, moon, and street lights. 

When taking landscape photos, the lighting resources in use are ambient lighting. Natural ambient light is used when taking nature pictures late in the day or at night.

On the other hand, a photographer will use artificial ambient light such as lamp lights and bulb lights when taking in-door photographs.

A flash can create better results when added to the ambient light during indoor photography. 

A photographer can still use ambient light in photography by combining different lights to achieve a particular mood.

Moreover, photographers use this light in various ways to achieve their goals. 

How Can Photographers Use Ambient Light in Enhancing Their Photography?

Photographers can use ambient light to set up unique effects that would’ve been impossible to establish without them.

Below are the various ways photographers use ambient light in photography.

Using Ambient Light to Create Balance

Getting ambient light to work with flash creates a perfect balance.

The photographer needs to balance the distance between the object captured and the camera. Test shorts are necessary to establish the most suitable exposure. 

However, the photographer needs to ensure that the flash does not distort the effect of the ambient light.

Note that ambient light can fade out. If this happens, the photographers need to test several positions to establish points with the perfect shot, with minimal interference.

Speedlights can help in enhancing edge lighting to the object being captured.

Ambient Lighting Lights up Portrait

Portraits have a more light requirement. Studio lights are used in modified form to light up portraits. Similarly, you can use ambient light when taking a portrait shot.

Window lights and backlights can create amazing effects on a portrait. These lights add glow to the subject to enhance the appearance to be more appealing.

Eliminating Dark Strings in the Photograph

Outdoor photography is easy as there aren’t instances of dark patches.

However, when taking interior photographs, a photographer may experience several dark patches or surfaces. Capturing the details of these surfaces may be challenging.

Ambient light is used to light up the dark corners and textures to capture a more detailed picture. 

Photographers should feel free to use ambient light when taking interior photographs.

The ambient light will light up the space for a quality shot and manipulate the appearance of the final capture.

The lighting can make subjects shinier and beautiful. 

Using Ambient Light to Take Spontaneous Shots

Spontaneous photos are photos taken suddenly without any order or plan. A photographer may have little time to prepare for the spontaneous shot.

Setting up the equipment, finding the best lighting condition, and organizing the subject well may be challenging to achieve in a spontaneous photo. 

Fortunately, ambient light comes in to provide the natural lighting condition required for the photoshoot.

A sudden emergent of the sun from the clouds presents a perfect situation for shooting spontaneous photographs.  

The Tarion Camera bag is the perfect camera bag pack selection for spontaneous photos. This bag can carry several pieces of equipment and readily access it when you want to take a spontaneous photo. 

Establishing the Appropriate Mood/Atmosphere

Ambient light can help establish the desired mood in a photograph. A peeking sun on the clouds helps achieve a wintery photograph.

Artificial ambient light can also be a perfect way of setting a particular mood.

Firearms and lamplights can be used to produce a warm effect, and you can use neon lights to portray different atmospheric conditions. 

Ambient lighting is a master when it comes to portraying atmospheres of varied characters.

Depending on the light that the photographer captures, it can make the photograph dark, flashy, or mysterious. 

What Are the Types of Ambient Lighting?

There are several types of ambient lighting. Different types of this light have different effects on a photograph.

However, the critical factor is for the photographer to know what they want to accomplish. 

The list given below are examples of the standard ambient lights. 

Window Light

Photographers can use window lights to outline subjects on dim backgrounds. This can be great when taking portraits and still life shots. 

One thing about window lights is that they have a distinct direction. They help bring a 3-D effect.

When taking a shot using this light, the photographer needs to position the subject to a point where they can capture enough light. 

The subject should also have enough exposure to the light source. Moreover, if the subject’s highlights lack depth, the photographer can use reflectors opposite the window. 

Cloudy Daylight

Cloudy daylight is the light that penetrates through the clouds when they cover the sun. The light can bring about cool moods and atmospheres full of mystery.

For the best effects using this light, try bumping the ISO up. The photographer also needs to widen the aperture and lower the shutter speed if the light isn’t appropriate. 

Spicing up the effect with extra colors is great when this light is dim.

Door Lights

Door lights are similar to window lights. However, this light offers more and can be sharper than the window lights. 

This light tends to bounce off the surface after entering the room. Door lights can present perfect conditions for photographers to capture more appealing indoor shots, especially during the middle of the day. 


Backlights are a form of ambient lights that appear behind the subject being captured. It has a significant effect on portraits and nature photographs.

Backlights can help establish a perfect image outline. However, this is a challenging process that may require a more experienced photographer.  

When creating the silhouette, the photographer needs to know the perfect position where to take the shot.

The first step is to have the subject between them and the source of the ambient light. A more striking silhouette is likely to be generated if the ambient light is intense. 

The photographer also needs to be keen on overlapping. Too much overlap can cause your subject to appear blurred. This will, in turn, produce a poor silhouette. 

Shutter speeds ranging from one to one hundred and one to six hundred and forty are ideal for backlight photos. These shots also require wide apertures.

These are the ideal settings for a perfect result; however, the photographer needs to try several times before getting a positive result. 

Direct Light

Direct ambient light is a readily available source of light for photography. The only thing the photographer needs to do is to eliminate any obstacle between the subject and the source.  

Direct light from the sun travels in a common direction and will likely be exposed above the subject. This produces a clear shadow with sharp contrast.

Photographers use this light to emphasize the subject. Many photographers use it to create hard lines and shadow effects on an image. 

Top Lights

Top lights have adverse effects on photographs. The effect is the reason headlights are used in horror movies.

Top lights develop unique interior characteristics when they blend with dark conditions. Directing top lights over the subject helps bring about a mysterious setting. 

Top lights help photographers get a dark but hot photo. They’ll only need to be careful not to overexpose the source.

Golden Hour Light

Golden hour light is the light produced just before sunrise or sunset. Most photographers use this type of ambient light because they have remarkable effects on a photograph. 

This light makes photographs assume a warm and soft look. It also enacts a golden glow on the photograph.

Despite this light-producing longer shadows than average, their common direction of travel allows photographers to apply unlimited creativity to the photograph.  

The photographer needs to be organized, as this light disappears after a short while.

They need to have all the relevant equipment at hand and an exclusive plan; otherwise, they may run out of time. 

What Are the Different Atmospheres That Ambient Light Can Portray?

Ambient light has the potential to portray different atmospheres including gloomy, mysterious, dreamy, soft, and harsh atmospheres.

Most sources of ambient lights are out of photographers’ control; therefore, they need to employ their creativity in bringing out the intended atmosphere. 

Dreamy Atmospheres

The dreamy atmosphere crafts from golden hour light when combined with backlight. This atmosphere is associated with romance, friendship, and joyful moods.  

In the absence of these lights, the photographer can use artificial ways. They need to raise the temperature aspect of the camera and position the subject against a strong light source.

Make sure to balance the backlight and the front light; otherwise, the photograph will appear dull. Put a reflector in front of the subject to increase the front light.

Harsh Atmospheres

A harsh atmosphere is portrayed by direct light. They are ideal for portraits and street photographs.  

Direct light has sufficient power to expose most of the subject’s details, including their flaws. The photographer should edit if the exposed flaws distort the intended message.

Mysterious Atmospheres

Top lights and cloudy daylights are used to portray mysterious atmospheres. This atmosphere requires minimal exposure to light and may, in some cases, hide the subject partially.

Photographers can also use a black and white color monopoly to bring out the mysterious atmosphere.

Soft Atmospheres

Door and window lights are essential in creating a soft atmosphere. However, to achieve great results, the photographer needs to play around with the shadows and angles.

These atmospheres are ideal for various photographs, including portraits and landscapes.

Final Thoughts

Ambient lighting is found everywhere. Photographers capture this light knowing and sometimes without their knowledge.

Ambient light is not considered a bad thing; a photographer can use it to enhance or manipulate the photograph’s atmosphere.

However, some may still require some level of editing to ensure they do not distort the photo.

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