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Sorry if this has been asked before but I searched and was unable to locate an answer. Something that has always bothered me is in Star Trek whenever the Enterprise comes upon another ship in deep space. When we see the ship, either on the view screen or from a shot outside the ship, the ship always seems to be illuminated. I can see how there would be illumination in a solar system, near a star, etc... but in deep space wouldn't it be dark as the only light is coming from stars that are very far away. How would a ship look to another ship in deep space where there is not much light?

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I assume that the ship's instruments are sensitive enough to create an image from ambient starlight, and then it's brightened on-screen for the crew. – armadillo Feb 18 at 3:19
It would be helpful if you could include, with your question, a still from movie/tv show of a spaceship in interstellar space which appears to be lit by ambient lighting. I'm sure there are many examples, but you need to include one to counter the people saying "It's from the local sun" or "it's from the windows". – Max Williams Feb 18 at 9:43
How do you see when you drive on an unlit road at night? You turn your headlights on... – daiscog Feb 18 at 10:04
OMG I was literally thinking of posting this question as I was walking home yesterday. STOP STEALING MY THOUGHTS. – Whelkaholism Feb 18 at 10:12
It's also worth noting that Star Trek episodes very rarely take place in deep space. They're almost always near a solar system or space station or nebula of some sort, or en route between such locations. Mainly because deep space is boring. All the interesting stuff is on planets, etc. with just light years of nothing between them. I'd say it's implied that they just skip over the deep space part of the journey most of the time because it's usually not very entertaining. – Darrel Hoffman Feb 18 at 14:14
up vote 35 down vote accepted

Nearby stars are shining on the ships from off screen in addition to the ship's built-in lighting.

From the Star Trek: Voyager episode The Void:

USS Voyager is sucked into an area of space that is devoid of stars, planets or any other form of energy.

Because this place is devoid of stars, planets, and other forms of energy, there are no light sources other than the ships themselves. As Praxis pointed out in his answer, the ships do have plenty of lights that make them visible in the usual, relative darkness of space.

Voyager is visible, even without any outside light sources whatsoever, because of the built-in lighting shining on the hull of the ship.

enter image description here

enter image description here

You'll notice that, while still visible, the ships in the void are noticeably harder to make out due to the lack of other light sources. This seems to indicate that the reason we can usually see ships in normal space so much more clearly is that they are also being lit by relatively nearby stars or other light sources (even if these light sources are not shown) in addition to their built-in lighting.

enter image description here

The in-universe explanation is that nearby stars and such are shining on the ships from off screen in addition to any built-in lighting.

The out-of-universe explanation is that those making the show want to ensure that the audience can clearly see the ships, as not seeing them clearly would have less entertainment value.

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A reasonable answer within the limits of fiction, but as a photographer, the first image still screams "low level ambient lighting" to me. There is no way that the hull would have that uniform low level of lighting just from the lights available on the ship unless the hull glows in the dark. – Whelkaholism Feb 18 at 10:18
There were some excellent answers (@praxis @moridin @redcaio) but I think this answer was the most comprehensive. Thanks for helping me wrap my brain around this one, it was keeping me up at night! – user3338197 Feb 18 at 12:40
@Whelkaholism Yeah, and the shading on the last picture also screams "ship in a box, in an atmosphere". Real space pictures look noticeably fake exactly because shadows are almost perfectly black (very little ambient light in contrast with the direct sunlight), and everything is absurdly well focused (there's nothing to blur out the image). – Luaan Feb 18 at 19:35
@Whelkaholism Here's a better image… – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 18 at 23:15
@Whelkaholism: I think the one in this answer is "enhanced", or from the end of the episode where the ship is coming back into a stellar region. It was really dark throughout the ep with no (or negligible) ambients. – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 19 at 10:41

Starships have plenty of lights on them.

enter image description here

Your question ignores the fact that starships have their own lights on the exteriors of their hulls. In the images above and below (from The Motion Picture) you can see quite the contrast between dark and lit-up parts of the hull.

enter image description here

I would say that these images also answer your question of "How would a ship look to another ship in deep space where there is not much light?"

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Yes that second picture is much more how I would picture it in my head. Where most everything would be dark except for what illuminated the ship. Does the Enterprise have a spotlight to illuminate other ships? If a ship did not have its lights on, in deep space would it be nearly invisible to the eye (obviously the ships sensors could still detect its heat, magnetic, etc... signatures)? – user3338197 Feb 18 at 4:01
@user338197 : All of the standard starships we have seen --- Federation, Klingon, Romulan, Ferengi, etc. etc. --- have "running lights". All of these ships not only have lights on the exterior hull, but also interior light escaping through windows. If all of the lights were off, then sure, the ship would not be well-illunimated, apart from some light from the Enterprise itself and some stray starlight. – Praxis Feb 18 at 4:10
Yes, and I seem to recall more than one episode where the crew of a ship, or shuttlecraft, or something, deliberately turns off everything including the lights, in an attempt to not be spotted. – Michael Feb 18 at 16:32
And why would they turn on these lights in battle for the enemy ship's crew to see? ;) – user69715 Feb 20 at 2:05

An out-of-universe answer would be that the people watching the show need to be able to see the ship that the Enterprise has encountered.

As for in-universe: the view screen could probably create a image of the ship they have come across from the sensor information.

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This was my thought. In general, the ships are really far away (there are some scenes with ships multiple light years distant), so it's quite possible all they're doing is picking up some fairly faint signals, then the computer decides "ah, that must be a Bird of Prey", then projects an image of a Bird of Prey. As they get closer, they would pick up the ship in IR or similar, at which point the computer can paint a false-color image of even unknown ships. – MichaelS Feb 18 at 7:32

There is a rumour that it isn't actually real! "Enhanced ambient light" does not fly - there is nothing for light to reflect off and scatter, nor an atmosphere to diffuse it - all light in space is directional. The portrayals typically use strong directional sources, but with diffused shadow boundaries - because they look appealing, but as noted this is also wrong. Shadow edges would be sharp, except where there are adjacent objects to bounce light back into the shadow areas .

My bigger issue is not the above.It is that in space, where there is no up and down, every ship is precisely the 'same way up' as the Enterprise!

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Actually that is a very good point I never thought about. Why is it ships are always oriented in the exact same plane? I guess just artistic license, seeing two ships on entirely different planes would probably make my brain hurt! – user3338197 Feb 19 at 16:13
If I were piloting a ship, and we were approached by / approaching another ship, I would orient my ship so that the strongest shields were in front, best weapons pointed at the other ship (or maybe docking bay door if it's an ally), and I was primed for best maneuverability and visibility options. For most ships designs I have seen on the show (which, I admit, is very few) wouldn't that would imply basically "face to face" meetings? – Caleb Feb 20 at 0:30
But I do agree with your point. In zero gravity "... the enemy's gate is down" – Caleb Feb 20 at 0:33

In addition to (or elaboration of) @RedCaio's answer, remember that planets also reflect starlight and shine on ships - just as the moon lights up our nights here on Earth.

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This is covered in my answer. nearby stars and such are shining on the ships from off screen in addition to any built-in lighting meaning anything shining or reflecting light, including planets or moons etc. that's why I kept saying stars and/or other lights sources – RedCaio Feb 18 at 9:14
@RedCaio: Well, I did upvote you... – einpoklum Feb 18 at 9:38

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