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What is ambient light and how can you take advantage of it to take your photos and videos to the next level? We explore the ins and outs of this basic lighting concept.
What is ambient light?
Ambient lighting is any light that a photographer does not add into their composition intentionally. Ambient lighting comes in many forms. Ambient light is the light already in the studio or shooting location without the photographer doing anything else.
Ambient lighting can be helpful or frustrating depending on the intended style and end product you are trying to achieve as a photographer or videographer.
You might have to decide to add light to the scene or get creative about blocking or modifying the ambient light.
Types of ambient light
Since ambient light is any source of light already available, it could be natural or artificial light. "Natural ambient light" is a term generally only used to describe sunlight or moonlight.
Once you modify the ambient light available, you might call it "modified ambient light" or describe more thoroughly what kind of lighting was used. Calling modified ambient light "ambient light" can be controversial to some professionals in the industry.
For example, ambient light could come from any of the following artificial light sources:
Ambient light could also come from any of the following natural light sources:
A photographer might be able to depend on a fixed light source, such as a streetlight, but not be certain about the consistency of bioluminescent light.
Why it's important to understand ambient light
Ambient light is unintentional lighting at first, but by fully understanding ambient light and what effect it has on your photos and videos you can take your art to the next level! The main factors to understand about ambient light are exposure, glare, and white balance. These factors will change based on the type and intensity of ambient light you are using.
You might need to modify the white balance to compensate for the ambient lighting. For example, it's important to be aware of how cloudy days can cause a cooler or bluer look to your shot, while morning sunlight can make your shots look warmer. Depending on your intended final product, you might need to make editing adjustments.
Using ambient light in photos and videos
Ambient light is a great way to set the mood for your subject. Because ambient light is tied to location, setting the time of day is a great way to set the mood in the location.
When you're trying to take landscape pictures, you're always using ambient light. For example, when taking pictures at sunset on the beach, you're applying the sunset's light as ambient light. This type of lighting can be romantic and moody.
When you taking portraits, ambient light can make or break a portrait.
Wedding portraits are often taken with soft, fresh light that highlights the tenderness of the couple's love. Artistic, moody portraits can be taken in low light to achieve drama and harsh lines.
Ambient light in videography can be even more complex because the lighting can change over time. For example, shooting a video of a landscape should take into consideration how the sun and moon will move across the sky and how their intensity will change throughout the day.
When it comes to applying ambient light, you are almost always using it in some way. How to use and modify ambient light is a different story.
How to use ambient light
There are endless ways to use ambient light to achieve any type of mood and style you want in your photography or videography.
When shooting at a location, there are so many creative ways to use and modify ambient lighting. You can focus on and modify:
Shade from inside a door or awning
Hard light or Directional light
Window light can be beautiful and soft or harsh and moody depending on the day, time, and other sources of light. You can use harsh light coming in from the windows to shine direct light into a dark room. You can also use soft light coming into a light and dusty room.
"Golden hour" is a popular ambient light right now that happens when the sun is at the right point in the sky to cast a golden glow.
Backlighting can create amazing silhouettes and harsh directional light can create striking shadows and lines.
Each combination will create different moods and highlight different subjects.
You can choose to use this ambient lighting on its own or add flash and other sources of light to create more interest or soften up shadows.
For example, you can have a lamp or night light turned on inside the room. It's also important to think about how ambient light can bounce off other surfaces such as mirrors and metal.
How ambient light is used for social media videos?
Most of the time, social media videos call for crisp, slightly more saturated videos with a good amount of contrast.
Ambient lighting is almost always used in social media videos. People who have become experts at taking selfies or videos of themselves generally know to buy certain lighting tools or use "golden hour" to cast an appealing glow on themselves.
In timelapse videos, many creators will show the passing of time indirectly by using the change in ambient lighting that occurs naturally over the course of the day.
Creators can also use ambient lighting knowledge to change the mood and style of their videos depending on their subject. This kind of lighting is to make sure that their posts stand out on the feed and stop the scroll!
Learn more about videography
Ready to head out with your camera and experiment with ambient light? While you're at it, why not explore Clipchamp's glossary of video editing terms so that you can take your video production skills to the next level? When you're ready, you can edit your photos and videos with new lighting techniques for free in minutes using Clipchamp.