We are probably all familiar enough with the idea that photography is about capturing light as it paints our subjects in various colors, tones, and hues, but recently I am discovering that many are starting to refer to their photographic pursuits in very lofty terms, those being natural light, available light, and ambient light.  I can understand the desire to distinguish ones craft, because it is often difficult to “stand out” in a crowd.

However, at the risk of deflating a few of the loftier aspirations out there, I’ve always ascribed to the theory of learning through transparency and sharing of knowledge, so would like to take a moment today to talk about these various approaches to light.  How are they different?  How are they similar?  And perhaps most relevant, why would you use one method over another?  Fun stuff, so let’s get started!

Actually, before we get started – one small caveat – these are not definitions, merely my interpretations of the meaning behind the terms.  I may have slight differences in understanding of the semantics here, so up front, let me say that I encourage anyone to both offer their own insights, and correct me if I am blatantly misguided in my interpretations.  So, enough falderal – as I already said – Let’s Get Started!

Natural Light

Ahhh, natural!  It’s such a lovely word, somehow equating psychologically with peace and nature.  The essence of capturing a moment in all its raw beauty, whether a mountain mist, the serenity of a sunset at sea, or the waning sun casting its hues across a little girls face as she smiles and laughs!  Natural light simply means using only the light that is naturally occurring within a scene.  No flashes, no strobes, no speedlights or Alienbee’s allowed.  Pocket Wizards need not apply.  The only photographic technology allowed here is a camera!  (And probably a tripod since light is usually pretty low and hand holding can be tricky.)

Here’s a few examples of natural light:

Misty Mountain Sunrise
Misty Mountain Sunrise

A Girl's Smile
A Girl's Smile

Mexican Sunset
Mexican Sunset

Ambient Light

Ambient light photography is often confused with natural light photography, since ambient light refers to the light that is present in the scene, without introducing more.  However, here things like lamps and streetlights, and other items that are present in the scene are permitted to light the scene, since they were likely there already.  The key distinction that I make here is that photographers who are “ambient light shooters” do not add their own lights to a scene, rather they make use of the lights that are already present, whether naturally occurring or not.

Here’s a few examples of what I would classify as ambient light:

Candlelight
Candlelight

Brighton Armory
Brighton Armory

Denver Moon Rise
Denver Moon Rise

So, having hopefully defined the difference between natural light (only naturally occurring light) and ambient light (light already in the scene), the last type of lighting that merits discussion is that of available light.

Available Light

Available light is kind of interesting.  Photographers who utilize available light are referring to light that is available when they go to make their pictures.  This basically refers to any light available to the photographer at time of capture. This means the light can come from naturally occurring sources like the sun or moon, ambient light already in the scene such as the lights of a skyline or an auditorium, or the light of a candle.  The important addition to make here is that the photographer can add lights of their own to the scene.  Whether it’s strobes, flashes, speedlights with gels attached, or any other method that is available at the particular moment of capture.  I guess this excludes adding lighting effects after capture, but on that I am not as clear.  If I understand the terminology correctly, it basically refers to photographers that use their own lights to sculpt their vision out of a scene that also includes elements of the other two types.  In other words – flashes are permitted, and often used.  Whether it’s a studio shot, a landscape with some fill flash, or

Here’s some examples of what I would consider available light:

Studio Light: Kid Cowboy
Studio Light: Kid Cowboy

Alphabet Paint
Alphabet Paint

Portrait - Sunset and Flash Mix
Portrait - Sunset and Flash Mix

From what I’ve seen, most available light photographers tend to use the natural or ambient light with just a bit of fill from their own lights to bring some additional areas of interest to a scene.  They want it to look natural, but when push comes to shove, it’s not naturally lit.  It’s very well-lit, and often requires more skill than natural and ambient light photographers, often because it’s a mix of different lights, requires gels, custom white balancing and can get very technical very quickly.

So, there you have it – the three different types of lighting!  Which ones do you like the best?  Any points I missed in any of these descriptions?  Disagree?  Am I completely off my rocker here?  let me know what kinds you like, and your thoughts on these “classifications” in the comments or via email – I love to hear what others have to say!

That’s gonna do it for today – keep on shooting and we’ll see you back here again hopefully tomorrow!

6 thoughts on “Natural, Available, or Ambient?

  1. Hmmm, I’ve always considered the 3 types of lighting you discussed as being the same – ie different ways of saying the same thing.

    Also, for any photographers that consider themselves natural, ambient, or available light photographers, I think knowing how to properly use a reflector and a diffuser becomes a very important skill for portraits. I’ve seen quite a few natural light photographers who I wouldn’t pay a dime for because they didn’t expose the face correctly. Have you seen the trend recently too of using the natural lighting style label as a cop out for taking the time to get the lighting right? Maybe I’m way off on this.

  2. I prefer available or natural light which is why I prefer to shoot outside more than in but alas, we all need to use the flash at times. I can’t say that I have ever thought of light in the ways that you described but I love to shoot first thing in the morning or the last few hours of daylight.

  3. willowtreephoto says:

    I would put it as I like to shoot with LIGHT. while I really like natural light or available light 9 times out of 10 ill throw a reflector or something in there to get it just a bit better. On the other hand there are times that flash is the way to go. I mean you cant just shoot with one kind of light if you do then you severly limit yourself on the photos you create.

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