What is Ambient Lighting and How to Make Best Use of It

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understanding ambient lighting

What is Ambient Lighting in Photography?

Ambient lighting is simply the light that is available. It can be natural or artificial light. This is the type of lighting that most people rely on to illuminate their pictures, and it exists without being added by the photographer.

Ambient light outdoors during the daytime is usually natural light from the sun. This is the most common light source used by people taking photos. It’s always there during the daytime and can be used for pretty much any type of photography. Indoor ambient lighting can be all-natural light, all artificial light, or a mixture.

portrait of a young woman outdoor.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Natural light is always considered ambient light unless it is bounced off a reflector. This is then modified ambient light. It’s a technical thing that does not have any important bearing on how your photos will look. 

About the only time it would be important to distinguish between what is ambient light or not is if you have to follow specific instructions. A client or editor may request that a photographer only uses ambient lighting to make the photos for a given assignment. This could often be a documentary photography job where the photographer should have no influence at all.

Practical understanding and appreciation of ambient light are vital to becoming a good photographer. Learning to see and discern it will help you make more interesting photographs no matter what your subject matter.

example of ambient lighted portrait of a couple on the street.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Seeing the Light

We see the light all the time. It’s not often we find ourselves in a location where there is absolutely no ambient light. Because you naturally see it, it’s not something you give much thought to. 

Most people don’t pay any attention to the quantity or quality of light in their immediate surroundings. They don’t think about lighting, ambient, or otherwise. They will not stop to consider the brightness or warmth of light from the chandeliers or track lights. Wall sconces or ceiling fixtures that illuminate an entire room produce no response. 

Photographers however are more likely to notice different lighting types. Whether indoors or outside, an experienced photographer will be aware of what’s lighting their surroundings. A well-placed spotlight will catch their eye. They will appreciate recessed lights and mood lighting. Three types of light bulbs with different color temperatures in a room will irritate them.

Surfer on the beach.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

The more you can learn to discern and appreciate the ambient lighting wherever you are taking photos, the more you can make of it, and the fewer bad lighting mistakes you will make. You can learn to be consciously aware of the lighting and where to position yourself with your camera to make the most of it.

As you first start to become aware of the differences in ambient light, you may have to work to form a habit of always noticing it. This comes more easily to some than to others. Once you practice noticing the quality and quantity of ambient light, you will evaluate it subconsciously.

I will often walk into a room and then realize I’ve recognized the best spot to take a portrait, even if I’m not there to take one. Build this habit of appreciating and analyzing ambient light. It will help improve your photography more.

two people walking an outdoor mall.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

How to Make the Best Use of Ambient Lighting

Making the best use of ambient lighting comes down to recognizing the quantity, quality, and direction of light. Seeing the location of the light source or sources is also important. 

Being able to read the available light helps you set the exposure on your camera well. Most of us rely on the camera’s light meter to do this. At times I have met photographers who do not need to use a light meter. They could look at the light and tell me what settings to use. I was able to set my camera using their recommendations and achieve perfect exposure.

Modern cameras have light meters that read ambient light, so there’s no need to guess. But this is a good skill. Looking at the ambient light and knowing the basic settings to take a photo can help you work more quickly.

portrait of a smiling woman taken using ambient lighting.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Understanding the quality of ambient lighting provides insight into how you can best use it.

Ask these questions about the quality of ambient lighting:

  • Is it hard light or soft light?
  • What atmosphere it will create in my photos?
  • What is the color temperature of the light?
  • Is there more than one color temperature of light?

Answering these questions helps you make the best choices about making the most of ambient lighting. Hard or soft light, whether from light fixtures or natural light, often dictate the mood of an image. The atmosphere window light creates is different than that of another lighting type.

A room with mixed ambient lights can be more challenging. When the color temperatures of artificial lights are not daylight balanced, this can create weird color casts. When you have some control over the types of lighting, your options for better photos increase.

hotel interior showing the lobby with ambient lighting.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Knowing When to Modify Ambient Light

The more you advance your photography and become aware of using different types of lighting, the more likely you will want to control light. Knowing when to and how to add to the ambient light gives you more flexibility.

Some photographers prefer only to use natural light. They are not interested in changing a scene’s lighting. In many circumstances, it’s not possible or appropriate to introduce additional light. In some genres of photography, such as landscapes, it’s not practical to have a photo lit with anything other than ambient light.

Product photography is completely different. At times no ambient lights are used. A photographer controls one or more lights to illuminate objects. This can be from flash or continuous lights. Photographers working in other genres, such as portraiture, also make use of flash and other lights to create the look they want. 

When you can see and discern the ambient lighting, you can learn when it’s best to add more, reduce, or otherwise alter the light. It might be a matter of popping in a little flash when there’s not enough light. Or you might want to add an accent. Closing the shades on windows will reduce the amount of ambient light in a room. Bringing in a set of studio lights to a room will give you control to change the atmosphere completely.

At times with interior photography, particularly the ambient light will not be sufficient to make a good photograph. Lighting from chandeliers, track lights, or general lighting may leave areas in the shadows. Introducing some flash or other light source will help bring the room to life. Of course, there is a skill required in setting up lighting to ensure you obtain the best results.

hot girl in the sunshine.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Balancing Added

Sometimes you’ll want to create a different look for your photos by modifying the ambient light. It’s often best to try and balance the light you add. If there are dark shadows or maybe some glare you want to eliminate, don’t overdo things. Aim to increase or decrease the light just enough to make it look natural.

If you are photographing rooms that are only illuminated by sunlight, it’s often best to balance bright and shadow areas. The sunlight will produce dark shadows. Creating a balance by adding light to these shadow areas will result in a style of photos used to help sell real estate.

Taking portraits in bright sunlight adding more light to your subject generally creates a more pleasant look. Setting your exposure for the person’s skin based on the amount of ambient light, you can then add some flash or a reflector. Using the TTL or auto mode on your flash and dialing down the output by one or two stops will balance the light nicely.

Young woman with a camera.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Balancing the quality of light you add will make it look more natural. When you can match the light you add to an image with the ambient light, and it will look more natural. In the image above, I had a flash with a small softbox mounted on a stand. I took a spot meter reading from my friend’s face. I then set my flash to TTL and dialed it down two stops. This provided me with the right quantity of light. The softbox balanced the quality of light to match the ambient sunlight that was diffused by some light cloud.


colored glass bottles.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

The most important thing when creating photos using ambient light is to look at the quantity and quality of the light. When you understand how the light affects what you want to take photographs of, you can then work with the light. Then you can capture the atmosphere in your photos the way you want.

Whether you are taking photos at night or in the daytime, you need to discern the quality of lighting in the space you are working in. Once you have a sense of the light, you can decide if you want to add some more light.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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