If you’re a photographer or cinematographer, chances are you’ve used ambient light, whether you’ve known it or not. Ambient light is everywhere, and can make or break your image.

In this article, we’ll walk through what ambient light is, and how you can use it to your advantage for your next shoot.

Ambient Light Definition

Defining Ambient Light

Ask ten different cinematographers what ambient light is and you might get ten different answers. Ambient light is a bit of an umbrella term; its meaning encompasses innumerable types of luminescence. Let’s nail down the most agreed-upon definition.

AMBIENT LIGHT DEFINITION

What is Ambient Light?

Ambient light is any light a photographer or cinematographer did not bring to the shot. In other words, it’s any light that you haven’t set up yourself.

Possible Examples of Ambient Light

  • Sunlight
  • Moonlight
  • Streetlamp
  • Overhead lights at a restaurant

This video shows how ambient light can be used in photographer, and how it brings a different quality of light than a flash:

Ambient light or flash?

Ambient Light Meaning

Ambient Light Vs. Natural Light

Before we get into some of the uses of ambient light, it’s important to distinguish ambient light from natural light, since the two terms will often be used interchangeably.

Ambient light is to natural light what a rectangle is to a square: not all ambient light is natural light, but all natural light is ambient light. Natural light is any light provided by, you guessed it, nature– this could be the sun, the moon, or some bioluminescent subterranean creature. By definition, natural light isn’t brought to the set by a cinematographer. It’s there or it’s not. This means that it’s also ambient light.

But ambient light can refer to any artificial light which wasn’t brought to set, like a neon street sign or the fluorescent light of a subway. These examples wouldn’t be natural light.

Ambient Light Examples

Ambient Light in Film

Ambient lighting can have a variety of uses in film, and is only used more and more now that most filmmakers have transitioned from film to digital, allowing for cameras that are more sensitive to ambient light. Let’s look at a few examples.

THE RIDER (2017)
Still from Chloe Zhaos The Rider

Still from Chloé Zhao’s The Rider

Academy-award-winning director Chloé Zhao only has three films under her belt, but she’s already established a signature visual palette. Zhao relies heavily on natural ambient lighting in both The Rider and Nomadland to stunning effect. Both films are preoccupied with the vast beauty of the American West, and how it often is at odds with our modern culture. By using ambient light, Zhao emphasizes this theme, and creates beautiful images to boot.

CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994)
Fluorescents fluorescents and more fluorescents in Chungking Express

Fluorescents, fluorescents, and more fluorescents in Chungking Express

Like Chloé Zhao, legendary director Wong Kar-wai has created a distinctive visual style using primarily ambient light. Unlike Zhao, however, Kar-wai’s ambient light comes from the neon-soaked streets of Hong Kong and other metropolises. Kar-wai’s deliberate use of these lights viscerally highlights the artificial labyrinth in which his characters reside. His images are stylized, but rooted in realism– we feel like we’re on the streets in the early hours of the morning.

BREAKING THE WAVES (1996)
Cold ambient light in Breaking the Waves

Cold ambient light in Breaking the Waves

We can’t talk about ambient light in film without mentioning the Dogme 95 movement, where a group of filmmakers created a manifesto disavowing big-budget filmmaking in an attempt to focus on storytelling and direction. 

One of the rules written in the Dogme 95 treatise was a sole reliance on ambient light– or as they put it, “no special lighting.” One of the leaders of the movement, Lars von Trier, went on to make Breaking the Waves, arguably the greatest film of the movement (though it did break a few of the rules he had laid out). Breaking the Waves is a testament to naturalism and ambient lighting, the result of a director wholly focused on his actors and story.

Ambient Light Definition and Examples

Using Ambient Light

It’s probably obvious by now that save for the most controlled sets, ambient light is pretty much unavoidable. So it’s best to make the most of it!

A common misconception about ambient lighting is that a photographer doesn’t have control over it. Even though you might not be able to control the light’s existence, you can still control how it hits your subject and what purpose it serves in your image. Harsh noontime sunlight might be best used as a key light, or perhaps you use a bounce in order to utilize it as a fill light. If you’re shooting a horror film, maybe you’ll use moonlight for some spooky rim light. The possibilities are endless, and not out of your control.

The moon provides rim light in Arthur and the Invisibles

The moon provides rim light in Arthur and the Invisibles

UP NEXT

Practical Lighting in Film

So now you’re a master of ambient lighting (or maybe you’re not, but you want to read another article): what next? Time to learn about practical lighting, some of which can be ambient lighting, but some might not be. Read our article on the subject to learn about what the term means and how it can be used.

Up Next: What is Practical Lighting →
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