What’s the Difference Between Ambient Light and Flash? | Profoto (US)

What’s the Difference Between Ambient Light and Flash?

18 May, 2017

Written by: Jared Platt

What’s the Difference? is a series of video lighting tutorials. Each episode responds to a single question. In this episode, Jared Platt compares ambient light and flash light. The entire series, including all videos, articles and lighting diagrams, is available here.

I am in one of the sunniest spots on planet earth. As I write this post, the weather man is talking about a cooling trend that will drop us down to 43°C (110°F). So, needless to say, I battle with the sun on a daily basis.

As a photographer, the simple and somewhat lazy solution is to find shade and shoot with ambient light. But our challenge for this shot was to compare a completely ambient shot to one where we took control and shaped the light to our liking.

With that in mind, we took our Off-Camera Flashes and our Light Shaping Tools out to the groves and went to work.

Our first shot in the series was completely ambient, where we followed the dictates of the existing light using only a Collapsible Reflector Silver/White for fill. Our final shot was a flash lit portrait, where we took control and literally reversed the direction of light throughout the entire grove with the help of a set of Profoto B1 and B2 Off-Camera Flashes.

Ambient Light

We began with the ambient shot. The grove of trees provided a pretty thick cover of shade with a few shafts of lights peaking through the trees here and there. The sun is behind and to the right of our model, providing her with a nice rim light. But we positioned the model to avoid taking a direct hit from the harshest shafts of light.

You can see the general direction of light on the trees, coming right to left, is a bit dramatic.  You will also notice that the light on the model is not quite so dramatic. To soften her shadows, we employed a Collapsible Reflector Silver/White to bounce the sun’s light back toward our model. We used the silver side of the reflector because we weren’t getting a lot of direct sun hitting the reflector, so we needed as much light as we could get.


This shot could have been done with or without an assistant to hold the reflector. In our case we used a c-stand.

This set up is about as simple as it gets. Yet it created a completely acceptable portrait.

Honestly though, we had a way to go before this shot would be something I’d want to show off. Our model was not standing out from the background. Soft and beautiful, yes. But she seemed to blend into her surroundings.

Adding Drama. Adding Flash.

Time to add some drama! The key to building the drama into this shot was to darken the forest by almost two stops and then add lights on our subject. But our exposure settings have not changed. We were still exposing at 1/200 sec @ f 4, ISO 100. So how then did we underexpose the forest? Easy, a Neutral Density (ND) Filter will knock down your light anywhere from a stop to 10 stops!

With the forest a little darker and full of drama, we added a Profoto B2 with two B2 Heads to the equation.

The first B2 Head was equipped with an OCF Softbox 2×3′ and a Softgrid. The softbox kept the light source large, while the Softgrid kept all that soft light heading in one direction, right for our model.

The softbox was placed off to the left and slightly behind her. This position short lit her quite well, giving her face and neck and bunny rabbit a lot of volume.


The second B2 Head was left bare. We used it to create a rim light on the model’s face and body and on the trees and branches. It is subtle, but you can see a bit of a shine on the leaves of the tree on the left side of the image.

In this simple lighting scenario, you can see that the model took on a new direction of light. The light now seemed to come from the left, rather than from the right. Of course, the sun’s light was hitting her from the right and from behind, but the sun’s light was now serving as a subtle hair light and not as the main light source.

I like the drama of this shot, and I think we might have stopped right there if it were not for one problem. The rest of the grove was giving us away. Look closely at the tree trunks. The trees still say that the direction of light was coming from the right, from the sun! That had to be fixed for me to feel great about the shot!

Lighting Up the Grove

The Profoto B2 with its two heads was the perfect tool to light the model. But we needed something with a little more punch to change the direction and quality of light in the grove itself.

So we pulled out our Profoto B1 Off-Camera Flashes. With 500 Ws of power, the B1 is a mobile powerhouse. In this case, we used three of them. The goal was to create a general direction of light from the left of the frame that would overpower the natural direction of light coming from the sun on the right.

One bareheaded B1 was used to broadcast light through the trees from above.

Another B1 with a set of OFC Barndoor was used to do the same thing to the underside of the grove’s canopy further back in the grove. The OCF Barndoor was used to flag off a pile of branches on the floor that was getting too much light.

Finally, a B1 with a Zoom Reflector was placed far back to create a forward rim light on all the branches and sticks and trunks in the grove. This light is where a lot of the texture in the background comes from.

The final result is a much more dramatic and beautiful shot with both texture and depth. The ambient light is still present in the shot, but the Profoto B2 pops the model out of the background, while the B1 helps turn the forest from a dark and scary place into a sparkling, magical wood.



Although each shot in this series was a good shot, the next shot was always better.

When you compare the original ambient shot to the final shot, you gain an appreciation for how much can truly be accomplished by being in control of the light – by shaping the light.

On a final note, in this case we obviously used a lot of flashes and a quite intricate setup. This was done to clearly show you the difference. But the same effect can, of course, be achieved with just a single off-camera flash.


Watch more video lighting tutorials in this series 

Learn more about the Off-Camera Flash system


Jared Platt

Jared’s website

Jared on Facebook & Twitter

Written by: Jared Platt

Products used in this story

Zoom Reflector

A classic among our light shaping tools

OCF Softbox Rectangular

A popular, versatile softbox for off-camera flashes