a fashion girl with sunglasses posing in the wild with back sunlight 太阳Photo by aykut bingül on Unsplash

Ambient Light: Definition | 6 Common Examples | 5 Workable Tips

December 7, 2022

As a photographer, you know that light is everything. It can make or break a photo, and it's one of the first things you think about when planning a shoot. But what is ambient light, and how can you use it?

In this article, we'll discuss ambient light: ambient light definition, common examples, and five workable tips for using it in your photography.

What Is Ambient Light?

In photography, ambient light definition is the existing light surrounding a subject. This light can come from natural sources like the sun or moon or artificial sources like light bulbs or lamps.

The term "ambient light" is also used to describe the light already present in a room before any additional light is added.

a plant lighted by the sunlight through the window

Photo by duho gong on Unsplash

You can use ambient light to create different effects in a photo. For example, using a flash will add light to a photo, but using ambient lighting will make the photo look more natural.

Additionally, you can use modifiers such as a scrim or reflector to improve lighting in a photo. Ambient light can also create a sense of drama or moodiness in a photo.

Ambient Light vs. Natural Light

Not every ambient light comes from natural lighting. However, all natural light is ambient. Ambient light can be both artificial and natural light. If the artificial light weren't brought on to the secession to create a specific look and was just "there," it would be ambient light.

Natural light is light that comes from mother nature. It can be direct sunlight, diffused sunlight, moonlight, or even bioluminescent creatures such as fireflies. It can also be light that has been reflected off of surfaces like water bodies.  

Common Example of Ambient Lighting

Outdoor Ambient Light

a young girl taking photo by holding a branch in hand with back sunlight

Photo by Cristina Anne Costello on Unsplash

Outdoor ambient lighting is used to describe the naturally present outdoor light. This can be sunlight, moonlight, or even light from artificial sources like streetlights. You can use it to create a variety of different effects. For example, it can create a dreamy or romantic look or add drama and mystery to a scene. It can also add more light to a scene, making it easier to photograph.


Sunlight can provide a natural and evenly lit scene when taking pictures outdoors. However, direct sunlight can also create harsh shadows and extreme contrast. To avoid these problems, it is often best to take pictures in the early morning or late evening when the sun is lower in the sky. Another option is to use a reflector to bounce sunlight back onto your subject and fill in any shadows.


bright moon in the sky surrounded with plan leaves

Photo by Shazli Waquas on Unsplash

When taking pictures at night, the moonlight can provide enough light to get a good exposure without artificial lighting. When using the moonlight as your only light source, it is important to use a tripod to avoid camera shake. Shoot in manual mode and use a low ISO to avoid image noise.

Street Light

It can be found in almost every city and town and is a key component of urban night photography. Street lights provide a soft, even light that can help to create a sense of atmosphere and place in a photograph. They can also help illuminate subjects that might otherwise be in shadow.

snowing city street with lighting stores

Photo by Aleksandr Popov on Unsplash

One of the challenges of street photography is dealing with the changing light levels as the sun goes down. Street lights can help to even out the light, making it easier to get consistent exposures. They can also add a bit of color to the scene, which can be complementary or contrasting depending on the other light sources.

Indoor Ambient Light

Indoor ambient lighting is a common type of lighting used in photography, and it can be created using various light sources. The most common source of indoor ambient light is artificial lighting, such as fluorescent lights, hand lamps, or chandeliers.

Indoor ambient lighting is often used to create a general illumination level in a scene without specific light effects. This type of lighting can be used to light a subject from all sides evenly or to fill in shadows that other light sources would otherwise create.

Sunlight Through Window, Door, Ceiling…

This ambient light is created when sunlight comes through a window, door, or ceiling. It can provide a soft, even light that is perfect for photography. This type of light is often used in portraiture to create a flattering light on the subject's face.

Artificial Light

woman taking photo by lighting half face with a red backdrop

Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

Artificial light includes light from light bulbs, lamps, and LED lights. It can create various looks in photography, from a warm and inviting glow to a cold and clinical feel.

One of the benefits of using artificial light is that it can be controlled more easily than natural light. This means you can choose the light's exact color, temperature, intensity, and direction.

Fire and Candles

Fire and candles are other artificial light sources you can use in photography. a girl looking back lighted with a fire

Photo by Alice Alinari on Unsplash

They can create a warm, inviting feeling or a sense of drama and excitement.

When using fire or candles as a light source, it is important to know the potential safety hazards. Ensure that the area is well-ventilated and that there is no danger of the fire spreading.

How to Use Ambient Light in Photography?

Now that you know what ambient lighting is and some of the different ways it can be used, here are tips for using it in photography.  

1. Make the Most of Backlight and Window Light

Backlight is ambient light when the light source is behind the subject. This can create a beautiful halo effect around the subject. A window light is a type of backlight that occurs when the light is coming from a window.

To make the most of the backlight, position your subject, so the light is behind them. This will create a silhouette effect. If you want to use window light, position your subject near the window, so the light is coming from the side.

2. Use Ambient Light to Set the Mood and Atmosphere

a girl holding bulbs in front of her face

Photo by Monisha Selvakumar on Unsplash

One of the great things about ambient lighting is that it can set the mood and atmosphere of a photo. To create a warm and inviting feeling, use a light source that gives off a warm light, like fire or candles. To create a more dramatic feeling, use a light source that gives off a cold light, like a fluorescent light.

3. Add a Reflector to Fill the Dark Part

Position the reflector opposite the light source, and angle it so that it reflects light into the dark areas of the scene. You can also use a reflector to bounce light back into the shadows created by a person or object.

For best results, use a white or silver reflector. If you don't have a reflector, you can use a white piece of paper or cloth to reflect light into the shadows.

4. Make a Balance between Ambient Light and Flash

candle light in little cabin

Photo by Hendrik Morkel on Unsplash

Balancing ambient lighting and flash is one of the most important aspects of flash photography. Too much flash will result in a photo that is too bright and harshly lit. More flash will result in a more dark and shadowy photo. The key is to find the perfect balance between the two.

Ensure the distance between your subject and the flash is not too close or too far. This will help to create a more natural-looking photo. If the flash is too close, it will create a harsh, unnatural light. If the flash is too far, it will not provide enough light, and the photo will be too dark.

5. Understand Color Template When Mixing Light

When mixing different light sources, it is important to be aware of the color temperature of each light source. The color temperature is a measure of the color of light, measured in Kelvin.

firing light in ancient brick oven

Photo by zero take on Unsplash

Different light sources have different color temperatures. For example, sunlight has a color temperature of around 5500K, while artificial light has a color temperature of around 2700K.

If the color temperatures of the light sources are different, the colors in the photo will appear to be different. For example, if you mix sunlight with artificial light, the photos' colors will appear different.

To avoid this problem, use a white balance setting appropriate for the light source. For example, if you use sunlight, you would use a white balance setting of around 5500K.


Ambient light is the light that is already present in a scene. It can be natural light, like sunlight or moonlight, or artificial light, like a light bulb. Ambient light can be used to create a variety of different looks in photography, from a warm and inviting glow to a cold and clinical feel. Now that you know what ambient light is and some different ways it can be used, put these tips into practice the next time you're out shooting.

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