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This post was most recently updated on Feb 13th, 2022

There are several lighting methods to use in your photography though it is important to know when to use them as they can make such a difference.

As the sun goes down, you may want to use an artificial light source or simply wait to rely on the bright moonlight.

That could mean choosing between using diffuse lighting and ambient lighting.

Ambient lighting refers to a general light source that the photographer or cinematographer has not added themselves.

It can also refer to the available light and may mean natural light, such as sunlight during the day or moonlight at nighttime but also a streetlamp.

These forms of lighting are built-in to the shooting location itself rather than brought along and manually switched on for the desired effect.

Diffuse lighting can be added by a photographer to produce a scattered light and is often preferred because it creates softer shadows.

This type of lighting is great for portraits, but it also makes it harder to see certain details of your subject that do not have enough exposure.

On the other hand, ambient lighting gives off harsh shadows, yet is better used for highlighting a broader range of details.

What Is Diffuse Lighting?

What Is Diffuse Lighting

Diffuse lighting is essentially a form of artificial lighting and it can come from a large surface rather than one source.

This light source is typically a strongly reflected light or a form of ambient lighting that is diffused by something like a certain material.

For instance, diffuse lighting could be sunlight that has passed through a curtain that softens and diffuses that particular light source.

Diffuse lighting tends to be in the form of an artificial light which can be controlled. It is usually used by reflecting light from a white surface but can also come as translucent material or forms of glass such as opal glass or grayed glass.

One of the main features to recall with diffuse lightning is how evenly distributed it can be. This scattering of light can mean that it falls in several places across your subject and thus fails to leave a sharp shadow.

You can also produce some fascinating photographs as this form of lighting gives your subject more brightness with an increased alignment to the light source.

What Is Ambient Lighting?

What Is Ambient Lighting

Ambient lighting can be tricky to find a definition for. One way to look at it would be as a collection of light sources that are naturally available during a scene.

It can be the light source that fills in shadows, and also exists inside one. Just regular sunlight can brighten up those subjects in a soft shadow as a form of ambient lighting.

When we look out at a landscape during the evening, we may not realize that there are so many sources of ambient lighting.

From the moonlight to neon signs and indoor lightning that can stream outside.

Ambient lighting is an umbrella term as it can refer to the natural light which is there, whether the photographer or cinematographer requires it.

Ambient lighting is the most common of all light sources and applies whenever you take a photo that fails to use any additional light source like a strobe.

Of course, the most common source of ambient lighting is from the sun which can be powerful and useful enough on its own.

However, there are certain times of the day that are considered a ‘golden hour’ for taking photographs.

The best time to use ambient lighting is usually just after sunrise or before sunset when the sunlight is not as harsh.

While the light source may be decreased you should still find areas where the sunlight comes in at an angle to your subject.

If you cannot grab the ‘golden hour’, ensure that the sunlight is not directly in front of or behind your subject as it can be too powerful, plus you do not want anyone to stare straight into the sun.

Alternatively, if the sunlight is above your subject it can create increasingly dark shadows or highlights that are just too bright.

What Are The Key Differences Between Diffuse Lighting And Ambient Lighting?

For a photographer, one of the points to understand about diffuse lighting is how it can soften shadows.

This form of lighting can also enhance the 3D form of your subject so is useful for portraits or where there is a single dominant subject in your photo.

Diffuse lighting does require more preparation as you usually have to bring props such as light boxes or umbrellas to create the effect in the studio or even for outdoor photography.

Ambient lighting can be considered more basic but also increasingly effective and natural.

For providing a uniform light that comes from all directions onto a subject with a limitation on intensity, this is ideal.

On the other hand, diffuse lighting relies on how the light is directed and the surface of your subject.

This can be important when shooting a 3D object so feel free to experiment with your diffuse lighting until you achieve the desired effect.

Should You Use Ambient Or Diffuse Lighting?

Before you begin any photography shoot, you should evaluate the lighting conditions.

This should be done without adding any artificial light as the natural ambient lighting may be ideal.

Your choice of lighting should also depend on how it works with your shoot.

If you are simply taking photos of a single subject, you may want to use diffuse lighting at an angle to create an interesting shot.

The difference between these two types of lighting is subtle but crucial.

If you want to highlight certain details or create stunning portrait photography then you need to decide which of these two lighting methods you will use.

Diffuse lighting can introduce contrast into your photo as some subjects will appear brighter as they face the light source.

Those parts of the subject that are not facing the light source as directly will appear more shaded.

For this feature alone, the use of angles is really important and you may want to move your subject or the light source to create different effects and contrasts.

This experimentation is not as possible with ambient lighting as you cannot change the direction of sunlight, for instance

Final Thoughts

The difference between ambient lighting and diffuse lighting is usually one of preference and perceived effort.

If you want to use a natural light source you can simply stick with the ambient lighting that is available which will provide a uniform light over your subject.

However, if you wanted more control over how your subject was lit up then go for diffuse lighting.

By introducing an artificial light source or using a range of materials you can provide some interesting effects of a softer shadow, though this method does require more effort.