How to Use Ambient Light in Photography

Available light photography excludes the use of flash to utilize the light that exists in the scene. Although you are limited by the type of light available, you don’t always have to be at its mercy.

When shooting portraits indoors, artificial light can be downright ugly. Overhead lights cast deep, unwanted, and unattractive shadows on people’s faces. Some light may bounce off walls and other surfaces, but not enough to compensate for the harshness of overhead light sources.

If you can, look for a window light that tends to be warm, diffused, and soft. It’s very flattering for portraits and it’s often the type of light that studio photographers try to emulate. If windows are not practical or available, try looking for a table lamp, which can provide directional side lighting and the lamp shade can diffuse the light. If all you have is overhead lighting, don’t pose your subject directly under the light. If you can, try placing them on the outer edge of where the light is falling to help soften the shadows.

The time of day is the best option for taking pictures outdoors. Late afternoon, early evening or early morning are the best times. The light is warm and welcoming and low in the sky, bringing it in at a pleasant angle. However, it is not always possible to shoot at these times. If you need to take photos at midday when the sunlight is strongest, there are several things you can do to help resolve the issue.

Sunlight overhead is even worse than indoor light. The shadows are darker and deeper. If you have an assistant, use what is called a “bounce card” or reflector. Although you can buy one, all you need is something light in color to help reflect sunlight into the shadows. Simply have your assistant stand to one side just out of camera range and hold the reflector. You can see it working. It can be as small as a piece of paper or cardboard.

If that’s not available, find an open shade. Look for the shadow of something like a building or a tree. The lighting here is generally pleasant and even, if a little flat at times. You can experiment with placing your subject deep in shadow or at its edge for different lighting effects. If none of the above is available, turn your subject and shoot its shaded side. Expose for those shadows and it will give you fairly even lighting on your subject.

Available light photography is what most of us do most of the time. Sometimes the light is perfect and you don’t have to do anything but press the shutter button. Other times, it’s far from perfect. It’s times like these that it’s good to know what you can do to help find the best options.

Record photographer Clifford Oto has photographed Stockton and San Joaquin County for over 37 years. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram @Recordnet. Follow his blog at Support local news, subscribe to The Stockton Record at

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