Ambient light in photography – what is it and how do you use it?

The answer to the question “What is ambient light in photography?” is very straight forward – it’s the available light. In other words, whatever light is already lighting the scene before the photographer arrived, whether they then started adding light or not.

But if you want a more of a specific answer, some types of ambient light are:

  • Sunlight
  • Street lighting
  • Candle light
  • House lights
  • Neon shops signs

You get the picture? Ambient lighting can be natural light or artificial light. It’s whatever continuous lights are already lighting the scene, not added by the photographer.

Outdoor portrait using ambient light in photography
Lit by ambient light of the late afternoon sun from behind and off camera flash from the front

Will my photos be affected by ambient light?

Most of the time, yes, ambient light is visible in photos.

The only time it isn’t is when photographing with flash and setting a fast shutter speed so that the scene is recorded as black if the flash doesn’t fire.

In other words, underexposing the ambient light (a lot!).

Portrait lighting with flash indoors
I took this photo in my studio late in the day. I wanted a very contrasty image with deep shadows, so it’s lit entirely by flash. No ambient light.

White balance of ambient light

The color of ambient light changes according to the type of lighting so you’ll either have to adjust your white balance in camera, or correct it in post production.

If for example you’re photographing a basketball game in the gym, your eyes just see a well lit gym. Your camera sees a scene lit by light with a greenish tinge.

This is because most of the time the type of lights used to light a gym are probably halogen (unless they’ve been updated to LED lights). Halogen lights are not white. So, to counteract the green tinge, adjust your white balance and hey presto, the people in your photos no longer look ill.

The same goes for photographing indoors in low light with the house lights on. Except, instead of green, the light will appear very yellow, even orange, in photos.

Flash is a different color temperature from natural light. However, even natural lighting has different color temperatures – light at the middle of the day is white, but at the start and end of the day the light is much warmer. 

So, when photographing with ambient light, it’s really important to set your white balance for the type of light. You could adjust it afterwards on the computer, but that’s one more thing to do later. So you may as well do it right from the start.

And while we’re on the subject, don’t be tempted to set your white balance to auto, because it’ll increase your time in post processing. For consistency you’ll have to adjust the white balance on each photo, because auto white balance constantly changes white balance settings during a photoshoot.

Going back to what I was saying about flash and ambient light…

You can combine ambient light with flash. The trick again is keeping an eye on your white balance. When using two different types of light, you can set white balance to only one of them, so one won’t be correctly balanced.

This isn’t a disaster. In fact it’s a great way to get creative! More on that in a moment.

Portrait using ambient light in photography indoors
A photo of me for a change (hello0)! I did this selfie in my studio using flash combined with natural ambient light coming in the large windows opposite me

How do you take ambient light pictures?

Natural light is a form of ambient light, so taking ambient light pictures is the same process as any natural light photo.

To make the most of ambient light you need to take control of the scene, which is a two step process involving:

  • Camera settings
  • Controlling the light

Camera settings for ambient light photography

How to expose for ambient light:

  • Decide on the mode you want to use: manual mode, aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode or program mode.
  • Measure the ambient light using either your camera’s reflective light meter, or an incident light meter.
  • Adjust your aperture, shutter speed and ISO according to the scene, look you want, subject and activity. What you adjust depends on which shooting mode you use.
  • Snap away.

Sound familiar? It should do.

It’s exactly what you do when photographing with natural light, which is a type of ambient light in photography.

Have you ever taken a photo at night around a campfire using the fire as your light source? The fire was your ambient light. Because of the low light conditions, you no doubt had to increase your ISO, slow down your shutter speed and widen your aperture.

Your camera settings determine the ambient exposure – how much ambient light is allowed in the photo. In other words, you can underexpose, overexpose or accurately expose the ambient light with your camera settings using the exposure triangle.

You’ll see why this is important to know in a moment.

Controlling ambient light in photography

You have three ways to control light in all lighting scenarios, regardless of what type of light it is:

  1. Reflect light – bounce light back into your subject with a reflector or any reflective surface
  2. Diffuse light – partially block the light with a diffuser or any thin fabric that lets through some, but not all, of the light
  3. Block (aka flag) light – use a solid object (black or white) to cast shadow over your subject so that no direct light lands on them. The object can be handheld or look for the shadow cast by a large object, like a building or a tree.

If you understand ambient light so far, you’re ready for more advanced lighitng techniques.

Further reading: Best time of day for outdoor photography – portrait tips

How do you use ambient light?

You can combine ambient light in portrait photography with other types of light. Ambient light can be used as a fill light to fill in shadows or as the key light to light the subject. So, if the ambient is:

  • Natural light – you can add flash, or a constant light (like a desk lamp)
  • Neon lights (like shop signs) – you can add flash or a constant light, also called continuous lights (like LED light)
  • Etc

Further reading: Flash vs continuous light photography- which is better for portraits?

This is where the point that I made earlier becomes important – your camera settings determine how much of the ambient light is recorded.

Portrait using flash and ambient light outdoors
I underexposed the ambient light source, which was natural light, for a dark(ish) background and lit her with flash to create shadows to flatter her face and separate her from the background

Method 1: Dark background

If you want the subject to stand out and the background to be dark:

  • Underexpose the ambient light source (i.e. measure the light on the background and set your aperture, shutter speed and ISO to underexpose it). 
  • Then add enough additional light to your subject with either artificial lighting or reflected light so that they’re accurately exposed. 

Method 2: Light background

If you want the subject and the background to be equally lit, but the light is behind your subject so the side facing you is in shadow and the background is not:

  • Accurately expose the ambient light (i.e. measure the light on the background and set your aperture, shutter speed and ISO to expose it correctly)
  • Then add enough additional light to your subject so that they’re also accurately exposed. In short, balance the ambient light with your flash (or whatever you’re using to light the subject)

Just make sure you set your white balance for the light falling on your subject. 

If you understand this concept, you’re ready to learn how to use off camera flash for portrait photography.

Further reading: Getting started with off camera flash

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about ambient light in photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my portrait photography lighting tips have helped you, share that too.

4 thoughts on “Ambient light in photography – what is it and how do you use it?”

  1. Hi Jane,
    I read each and every article you send to me. They are very informative and really enlightening. Though I am not a beginner, I have learnt many things from them.

    Reply

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