What Is Ambient Light In Photography?

If you are into photography or other visual arts, you have probably heard the term ambient light, but you don’t necessarily know what it means.

ambient light
UNSPLASH Nick Dunlap

People experiment and take various courses (like those offered by Photography Course) to learn to capture the ambiance or how to use ambient light or how to achieve it, and you may wonder what it is, how to do it, and whether it’s worth it. To put it most easily, ambient light is the light that you do not need to add to your photos. However, it doesn’t only refer to the natural sunlight.

What is the ambient light?

According to a dictionary, ambient light relates to the immediate surroundings of something. It’s any kind of light that you (a photographer) didn’t have to bring into the photo. It can be changed, altered, modified, but the source of light needs to be natural. Some photographers wouldn’t call ambient light any light that has been influenced in any way. Still, in general, it’s all about the source and the light that’s available in a specific location at a particular time.

However, ambient light does not always mean the same as the term natural light. Very often, natural light refers only to unaltered sunlight or moonlight, but many photographers use it interchangeably, so it is always better to precise what you mean or to ask more questions to know what another person wants.

You can take photos using only ambient light, or you can combine it with artificial light. You can use it directly or play with it a little bit. There are many different ways and techniques, and the choice depends on your desired effect. It’s best to experiment a little to know how the light works in various places at different times of the day. After some time, you will be able to tell when and where to shoot.

The most popular types of ambient light

Depending on the place and time, there may be several distinctive types of ambient light. Each of them will provide you with significantly or slightly different effects. You may combine them, play with them, alter them, and basically do anything that comes to your mind. You may have already been using some of these techniques without knowing how to call them:


In this case, the source of the light is behind a subject. The backlight can vary, depending on the location, the weather, the time of the day, your choice of framing, and exposure. You will also need to know how your camera reacts with this kind of exposure and which settings are the best. Place your subject between yourself and the source of the light. If there’s strong light and you’re not doing anything to alter it, you will take a photo of black silhouette, which may be an intriguing effect, but probably not the best idea for the whole photoshoot. Try experimenting with different types of lenses; you may also use something to bounce the light back or use a natural diffuser, like clouds, dust, etc.

Top light

As the name suggests, it’s the type of light that’s placed above your subject. It may help you create a dramatic, mysterious atmosphere. If you’re after darker, moody, gloomy shoots, this is the way to go. You can find it at noon when the sun is directly above you or in the room with ceiling lights.

Window light

If you want to shoot indoors with natural light, you have to play with your windows; or rather with your subject around the windows. It’s great for various types of photography – still life, portraits, newborn photoshoots, food, and more. It provides you with a soft, calm, and natural effect, plus, it highlights the colors beautifully, but it’s not only that. If you want something more intriguing or dramatic, it may be enough to cover your windows, e.g., with a curtain.

Door light

This is similar to the window light, but you’re using doors instead of windows. It works exceptionally well in the middle of the day when the weather is nice, and there’s plenty of sun coming in through windows and doors. It looks different from the light entering directly through the windows, as it bounces off the ground and walls, creating a more interesting effect.

Direct light

This is possible to achieve when you are the one standing between your subject and the source of light. If it’s coming from the angle, it will provide you with shadows, making the photograph look natural, but also a little bit dreamy. You need to walk around and try different angles to see what looks best. You may also consider diffusing the light to be more in control of the effect.

Don’t be afraid to experiment

Photography is all about experiments, getting to know your gear and your subjects, using and adjusting everything to your needs. The light is no exception here. You can try different angles and techniques, playing with the natural light only, or you can try altering it. Ambient light is excellent because it can provide you with many different results; plus, it’s waiting literally everywhere for you to use it. Work on your observation skills and imagination, and you will start noticing great things around you.

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