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When talking about photography, “ambience” can be a very tricky term to pin down. Usually when talking about ambience (as distinct from “ambient light”), a photographer is referring to visual elements in a photograph that capture the mood, character or feeling of a place or thing – a visual element that allows one to recall the emotion of a scene. It's something that can be quite difficult to do with a photograph, but if you manage to do it the results can be great. Here are a few things that can help you define and capture the ambience of a scene.
The Quintessential Moment – One way to capture ambience is through timing you shot to capture the moment that best encapsulates a scene. Some examples of this could be when a bird is on the verge of taking flight from a nest. The moment that a cyclist throws their arms into the air to celebrate crossing the finish line. The look of concentration as a child places the last piece into a jigsaw puzzle. It is difficult to define for every situation, but you will usually know when it happens. With a little timing, these can be the perfect moments for a photograph. It does however, usually require the photographer to sit back and think about what might happen next. That will give you the time to prepare for the moment.
Think Backgrounds – Often the context of a subject can be essential to emphasising its place and backgrounds can be very useful in establishing context. A football player with a background of screaming fans in a grandstand. A boat in front of a pending storm. These are examples of when a background can be almost as important as the subject itself to emphasise the feeling or emotion in an image. One sneaky trick that some photographers use is to find the background first, set up the shot and wait until an interesting subject walks into the foreground.
Don't Forget People – When you're shooting in populated areas, people can often be key to ambience in a photo. One of the types of photography that often oozes ambience is environmental portraiture. Taking photographs of people in their natural surroundings often brings together a lot of visually emotive elements to add that element to your photograph.
Take Advantage of Surrounding Items – The items in a scene can often add as much to the emotive nature of an image as the subject itself. Make sure you are taking advantage of those items that might help you with this. This will often be done for you if you're shooting environmental portraits of people going about their work or hobby. Often they will already be surrounded with things that will add emotive elements to the image.
Think About the Lighting – While it's difficult to generalise here, lighting can have a great effect on the visual emotion of a scene. Harsh lighting can work, but it's easier to create a moody effect with softer light. In fact the term “ambient lighting” usually refers to the soft and diffused light which illuminates a scene without casting harsh shadows. Look for ways to make the light a little softer or shoot at times of the day when you're more likely to be able to take advantage of light that isn't so harsh. Of course, this isn't always possible, but it's one of the things to keep in mind.
If You're Not Sure, Then Shoot! – Trying to line all of this up can be difficult. Is the background right? Should I wait for a slightly better moment to shoot? Are the people in the shot doing what I want them to? It's easy to get analysis paralysis. The solution to that is to keep shooting! There is nothing worse than waiting for a slightly better moment for a photograph that never actually comes.