Ambient light is defined as any light the photographer does not bring to the shoot.
By definition, sunlight known as “natural light” would be ambient light. But since it has its own category, I prefer to separate natural light, especially the light that we have access to outside our home and buildings as its very own topic. In part, natural light has so many options and modifiers that it is not just its own topic, but it is its own book.
In that same vein, shooting at night is another very specific skill set. One we will explore at another time.
What does that leave us? Any light source inside your home or building that is there for a purpose other than photography. The sources we see repeatedly: Natural light that falls into a room to provide a base line of light for navigating from room to room; lamp light; mood lighting; overhead light; appliances often have their own lights to make it easier to see into them when working.
When using public or commercial buildings, the light may have been staged to create a look or mood. That is still ambient light. However, you as the photographer should not restage the light. This is an exercise in seeing the light exactly as it appears and bringing that to the photograph.
Facebook and Instagram are filled with photographs shot using ambient light. It is the light source of choice for most amateurs. It is available light.
For photographers who are adept is studio lighting, off camera flash, and alternative lighting, their view of ambient is different. They are used to walking into a room seeing where additional light might be needed and supplying that light before taking their photographs. They are confident in moving ambient light sources to create a better lit subject.
To begin this exercise, find a quiet place to sit and write. Without moving from room to room, create a listing of all ambient light in your home or apartment. And with each item listed, write down the light principles for that source: Direction, Intensity, Color, Harshness.
The same exercise can be done in any commercial building. One of my favorites is the Portrait Gallery at 8th and G streets in DC. It is a mix of ambient light and surfaces which bounce light.
Step two is to visualize your photographs before you start shooting. This will help you see how well you see light.
Step three is to create photographs using these light sources.
Did you understand how much drop off you were going to get from that source? Did you visualize how it would light up your subject or did it surprise you? Did you see in your mind what the camera saw?
We are working to develop the skill set of seeing light the way the camera sees light. That means by-passing the way our eyes see light. In a room with a single lamp, our eyes adjust very quickly from looking at the light source, to looking at the room, to looking at the darkest spot in the room. The eye is built to level out the light. But the camera doesn’t have this advantage. Depending on how you are set to meter the light, it may try to average all the available light and with only one light, it will overexpose the photograph. As metering occurs periodically, depending on where you are placing your subject, you often get a mix of overexposed and underexposed photos with very little control.
This problem goes away when you take control of the camera. The best way is to shoot in full manual mode. But for beginners shooting in a mode, like aperture mode, you can grab control by using the exposure compensation bar. With single source ambient light, often sliding down one full stop will get you a photograph closer to the one you thought you would be creating.
Two more things. One, when I am shooting on a location or even with a client, I am chasing ONE strong photograph. After years of photography, I know the power is in just ONE. Can you tell the story in just ONE photograph? The second tip is mental focus. I keep a small cheap journal book with me at all times. If I were going out to work on ambient light, I would be very focused on just that one task. Seeing and shooting ambient light. In my head, on the paper, I would have ideas of what I might like to shoot at that location. But often, while working, I get lost in being present in that space and it might take me in a new direction. After shooting for a while, I will take a break. Review my notes. See the space with fresh eyes and shoot a second set of photos. This is my process. Yours might be completely different, but this is what works well for me.
As you are working with ambient light, remember, we learn by doing. We learn by making mistakes. We learn by bringing a beginner’s mind to every exercise.
Collection of Ambient Light photographs.