Sep 2014


Depending on the type of photography you’re interested in, ambient light is either something to be encouraged, overpowered, killed or balanced. In all scenarios though you’re guaranteed that there will be some, so you’ve got no choice but to deal with it. In a lot of cases this is easier said than done. Such was the case at Vicki & James’ wedding reception party that I shot recently.

Backtracking slightly, what is ambient light? Well my own definition of what classes as ambient light is as follows;

“Any light source that is already present within the scene that has not been introduced by the photographer.”

Some might argue that the introduction of a continuous (i.e. always on, non-flash) light source would add to the ambient, but I’d disagree as I like to keep the definitions separate. In a lot of cases the ambient light might be the sun, venue lights or even the faint glow of christmas lights in the background of a frame.

Lets be very clear, we need ambient light at least a little bit in order for our camera’s auto-focus systems to work and for the photographer themselves to actually see the scene they are shooting. As soon as the ambient dips too low then we hit AF trouble and our job as photographers becomes a lot more difficult. This was certainly the case when covering Vicki and James’ wedding reception the other day in Field Place, Worthing. At times and in certain areas of the venue the AF systems on my D4 and D800 were struggling and hasty recomposition was sometimes needed to hunt for those contrasty areas to help the cameras out. At times this was tricky and frustrating stuff. This was mainly due to the band and DJ dimming the tungsten lights at one end of the hall during their setup and performances, which of course they are entitled to.

Using fast glass with large maximum apertures (small ‘f’ numbers) helps a great deal as this maximises the light gathering for focusing, however sometimes even this isn’t enough.

The effects of ambient light on AF systems is a side topic really, as my opening paragraph eluded to, it’s usually the choice of how to deal with the ambient that has the biggest impact on the mood and context of a shot. In my opinion the best event photographs are ones that acknowledge the ambient. The ones that record the character of the space shown in the photo and allow the participants to recall vidily what it was like to live that scene at the time the photograph was taken. If the photographer is killing the ambient and totally surplanting it his/her own version of lighting then are they really capturing those moments in a way that will connect the viewer in years to come with the memory of those events as they actually unfolded? I don’t think so. So for me ambient is important.

To slightly contradict the above statement; ambient is important but in most cases it mustn’t be allowed to take over. Through manipulation of shutter-speeds, ISOs and apertures I like to introduce the ambient but keep it firmly pegged a stop or two below the subject exposure when using on or off-camera flash. This isn’t always possible of course and you have to constantly adapt to make the most of changing situations to ensure that you capture the moments as best you can. For those that want to understand more about the effective mixing of ambient and flash then I suggest googling ‘Dragging the Shutter’ for a bit of light reading.

What’s the point of this post? Well partly it’s to note down my idle thoughts (as always) but hopefully it will also act as a reminder to photographers out there to consider the ambient a bit more in your shooting and to capture more moments as they actually happen instead of injecting a fake lighting reality created by flash bombardment.

Sometimes it’s important to only use the ambient light. Sometimes the ambient light on it’s own is perfect. The shot at the top of this post was taken at Vicki and James’ party; not of them, but of one of their guests who’d wandered into the barn porch and was checking her phone. The warm specular glow of the exterior lights and the colder semi-soft light of her phone screen make for a nice moment captured using nothing but the ambient light. Sometimes less is more.

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