Photography School #2 :: Ambient Light

By Camille Styles


Time for the second installment of Photography School with our resident expert, Mike Bullock. If you missed the first one, hop on over and get acquainted with Aperture. We’ve already received such an overwhelming response on this series, and I’m thrilled that y’all are as excited to tag along on my photography journey over the next year as I am! So, let’s dive into today’s lesson, on the basics of:

Making Ambient Light Work For You.


Mike stopped by to help me with a DIY we were shooting for this Easter project, and it turned out to be the perfect opportunity to learn about light. So Mike, tell us about ambient light, and why gaining an understanding of how to use it is so crucial:


Capturing light. This defines the act of photography at it’s most basic level.  While that statement may seem obvious, it’s commonly overlooked by people aspiring to take great photographs, as they turn all their attention to the camera and expect it to make great pictures for them.  The truth is, any of today’s cameras can create great photographs when used in the right lighting situation.  Many photographers spend their entire careers understanding how to best utilize and control light, but there are a few simple aspects and tips that anyone can learn quickly.  They’re by far the easiest, most-impactful (and economical) ways to improve your photography on a consistent basis.


Let’s talk about ambient light, or “available light”.  It refers to the light that is around us as opposed to light created specifically for a photograph.  Great photographers can spot and/or find great ambient light and direct their shots into it to get the best results. There’s a wide range of ambient light dynamics that can be used for different situations and effects, so I’m going to focus on just a few here.  

Key rule: The larger the light source AND the closer it is to the subject, the less harsh the shadows will be.  This is referred to as “soft light” and it works really well for portraits and lifestyle shots.  The most common ambient sources for soft light are window light and shady spots on a bright, sunny day.  This is opposed to a light source that is small and further away from the subject, which can create very harsh and unflattering shadows.  The most common sources of this are direct sunlight and those tiny, automatic on-camera flashes that sit on most cameras today.  I personally avoid both of these at all costs, unless there’s a very specific effect I’m going for…or if there is no other choice. That’s right…I’m telling you to turn off your camera’s automatic flash.  There are several technical lighting reasons that make it the fastest way to make your image look very flat and very average.  In great ambient lighting situations, you’ll never miss it.  In tougher ambient lighting situations, it will make you work more for the shot, which may or may not be worth the effort depending on the situation.  There are lots of ways to get around it in dark environments but it’s usually gets more technical and requires more expensive gear (which we’ll cover in a future lesson.)

When Camille asked for help with this Easter shoot, my attention turned to the ambient lighting situation. First, we had the table setup in direct sunlight on a bright day near a tree that was casting harsh shadows of leaves on the table and the kids faces, making them squint their eyes.  Not good.  Since this was a photo shoot (instead of a real party,) I was able to relocate the party inside near a big window that cast soft light onto the subjects – take a look at the difference!


Thanks Mike – such a great lesson for me, and hopefully for all of you, too! Sometimes all it takes is opening our eyes and really seeing the shot to understand how to make it better. Working with tons of different photographers on a regular basis has shown me that the really great ones have this incredible grasp on how to make the light work for them, and this little exercise helped me start to see it in a new way. Are there any specific problem areas or burning photography questions that you’d like to see Mike and I focus on over the coming months? Please leave a comment and let us know, and stay tuned for another installment of Photography School in May!

*photos by Mike Bullock