Shooting into direct sunlight can make for intriguing and compelling photos. This post covers techniques for taking photos when shooting into the sun, recommended settings when taking photos into the sun, and what to avoid. Depending upon your perspective, this may not seem like all that earth-shattering of advice–it may be your standard practice, anyway. However, you’d be surprised by just how many photographers try to avoid shooting into the sun. (Unrelated to this post, but we’re also doing a giveaway for a copy of Photomatix Pro Plus–giveaway details at the bottom of the post!)
Conventional wisdom for years–pretty much since the dawn of film photography–has suggested that photographers should avoid shooting into the sun. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from shooting into the sun damaging your sensor (this is the top autocomplete result on Google search when you start typing “shooting into sun…”, despite the fact that it doesn’t pose a problem unless you’re in Live View) to it just it “not being the right way” to take photos.
If I had to guess I’d think that the latter line of thinking dates back to film days, when shooting in direct sunlight produced blown highlights, dark shadows, and generally unusable photos due to the difficulty of dealing with the dynamic range presented by such shots. That, or perhaps they’re worried about harming their vision? If that’s your concern, I’d say wear a few layers of sunglasses for added protection, or just close your eyes and shoot around blindly. (YOLO, right?!?)
Because of this, many photographers have been taught to shoot with their backs to the sun, with sunsets and sunrises being ideal times to take photos because of the soft light and glow they cast on objects they illuminate. In fact, I got the idea for this post as I recently stood at the Grand Canyon during sunset with a slew of other photographers who were participating in a workshop. Every single other photographer had their camera on tripods aimed to the east, where warm afternoon light was kissing the formations in the canyon giving them added depth and better color.
This is, more or less, the shot they were taking from our location at Mohave Point…
At the same time, I had my camera primarily aimed to the west, taking shots directly into the sunlight, occasionally looking back for shots to the east (like the one above). I also wasn’t using a tripod, which gave me greater latitude to pivot and take shots spanning 180 degrees around me. One of the photographers in the workshop made a recommendation to me, and when I explained what I was doing, some of the other photographers seemed dismissive of my idea.
I’m used to my methods being dismissed by this point–I often don’t use a tripod when shooting landscapes, I don’t even own a graduated neutral density filter, and I often choose lenses that don’t seem like the “right” pick in these situations. (As you can see, I clearly have no idea what I’m doing, but the joke is on you since you’re reading my advice!) Still, I was a bit surprised by the reaction as I really don’t think the benefit of shooting into the sun is a big “secret,” or even all that uncommon.
Here’s an example of a photo taken with my method of shooting into the sun.
Obviously, reasonable minds may vary, but I think the second shot is the more interesting one. It is by no means an amazing photo or a perfect example of the upside of shooting into the sun (the sky was dull and the view into the Grand Canyon isn’t the best), but my story behind this post centers around the afternoon I took this shot, so there it is.
As a general matter, I think shooting into the sun at sunset or sunrise produces more intriguing results and allows you more opportunity to get creative. Plus, the most interesting colors are generally in the direction of the sun, so if you like vibrant photos like I do, shooting into the sun is sort of a no-brainer.
Here are some things to consider when shooting into the sun…
Metering is the first thing to consider when shooting into the sun, and I can’t be of much help there besides pointing out the obvious that you need to be aware that shooting into the sun can screw with your camera’s meter.
How it screws with the meter depends upon the camera and your metering mode. If you’re in a mode that meters the entire scene or the portion of the scene where the sun is, the camera is going to underexpose your shot (or tell you to underexpose it if you’re in manual mode). To some degree, underexposing scenes is fine, as it’s easier to bring out shadows than it is to recover blown highlights in post processing.
However, if you’re shooting directly into the sun (as in, you can see the sun in your frame), going for what the camera thinks is an even exposure is probably going to be underexposed by too much. To fix this, consider spot metering a portion of the frame that isn’t the sun, adjusting your exposure compensation to the positives (I often use +.7 or +1), or bracketing the shots.
I’d recommend underexposing the scene a bit, but not a ton. If your shot is properly exposed for the sun with everything else being virtually black, you’re way underexposed.
If you’re shooting towards the sun, even if the sun isn’t in your photo, you’re probably going to have to contend with some degree of lens flare. Lens flare can be tricky. On the one hand, you don’t want to be known as the J.J. Abrams of landscape photography, with crazy flare present in all of your photos, blocking subjects, and generally becoming a distraction.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t try to avoid lens flare at all costs. Flare in some of your photos is perfectly fine, and can actually add to a scene if done well. I think a small line of flare across the frame can actually make for an interesting “leading line” to the sun so long as it doesn’t bring with it too many sun spots, artifacts, or obscure a major subject.
When it comes to flare, the problem is that you aren’t always in control. The quality an amount of flare you get depends upon your lens (some handle flare much better than others), as well as your positioning, the sun’s intensity, and a myriad of other factors.
Because of this, the best way to evaluate flare is usually to take a photo, review it, and adjust as necessary. Trial and error is key. If the flare is too intense or covering an important subject, adjust your location, angle of the camera, etc., until you get it right. If your lens doesn’t handle flare well and produces a lot of sunspots, pay attention to where these are. Random sunspots in the sky can easily be removed in Photoshop, but sunspots covering key elements of your photo can be difficult if not impossible to remove.
Changing your aperture can also affect the flare. My Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 is either awful with flare or great at it depending upon your perspective (it has a strong propensity to produce lens flare, although that flare rarely comes with sunspots), and I’ve noticed that stopping down (to f/16, for example) tends to produce hard green and red artifacts at the end of the flare trail (see above), while using a wide open aperture (f/2.8) produces softer artifacts at the end of the trail. Regardless, I typically try to remove these end artifacts in Photoshop, but if that’s not possible, I’d rather have the less ugly ones.
The important thing to remember is that flare can be your friend or your enemy. You determine which it will be when you’re in the field taking photos, so if flare is likely to be a part of your scene, make the necessary adjustments so that the flare enhances your photo, rather than causes it to be trash. Oh, and regardless of how you feel about flare, never add fake lens flare to a photo when post processing. It may look good to you, but it looks fake and awful to the astute eye. The only photos to which you should add fake lens flare are selective color photos. If you’re going for ugly, you might as well go all out. (Add a fake moon while you’re at it–who cares if it’s a daytime photo!)
If the sun is in the frame when you’re shooting towards it, a big concern can be that this will cause the entire sky to become blown out. This definitely can happen, but I’m not advocating photos with washed out skies. There are a couple of creative ways around this potential issue, the first of which is sunbursts.
Sunbursts are great because they cause your light source to be concentrated into a single (or close to it) point, rather than being diffused across the frame. This means that you’re much more likely to retain color and detail in the rest of your sky, instead of having it be white washed.
Contrary to popular belief, to achieve sunbursts, you do not need star filters. (Star filters can be fun to screw around with, but unless you’re taking photos in 1987, use them sparingly.) Rather, at apertures of around f/11 and up, lenses can naturally produce starbursts when photographing a point of light. The quality of sunbursts/starbursts and at which aperture you can achieve sunbursts depends mostly on the lens you’re using. Some lenses produce sunbursts at a more open aperture like f/8, while others don’t produce sunbursts until you’re stopped all the way down to like f/20.
As for how the sunbursts look, this isn’t really something you can change. It depends upon the glass and the number of aperture blades in a lens. I prefer sunbursts where it looks as if it “fans” rays of sunlight out. My fisheye lens is great for this.
Other lenses I have produce more points of light in their star/sunbursts (the number of points is determined by aperture blades), and I’m not a fan of these tighter and more numerous rays in the bursts. That’s just my opinion–your starburst preferences may vary widely.
Whether the sun will “burst” also depends upon the quality of the sky and air. If it’s overcast or cloud, the sun may not appear as a point of light to the camera, and it may not burst, no matter how high of an aperture you use. If it’s too intense, it also my not burst.
One technique I like to use when photographing sunbursts is to move around so that the sunburst is peeking out from behind something, but it from leaves in a tree or the edge of the horizon. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not a huge fan of a sunburst by itself in the middle of the sky.
While it’s not something I tend to do all that often, shooting with a wide open aperture when taking photos into the sun can produce a very dramatic, aesthetically pleasing look. It’s a bit difficult to articulate why this can look good, but it just does.
This can be very difficult, though. First, it usually washes out a good portion of the sky, if not the entire thing. If the sky you see is really interesting, you will not want to use this method. By contrast, if the sky is sort of boring anyway, this can be a useful way to eliminate a mundane sky.
For this to type of photo to succeed, you usually will need something else in the scene that’s visually engaging or dynamic. Long shadows from the sun, palm trees, or people all tend to work well.
The margin for error here is slim, though, so I’d strongly advise hedging your bets by getting a stopped down, sunburst shot to take home with this type of shot. The wide open, blown look might seem good in theory or look nice on your camera’s LCD screen, but when you get home you might wonder what you were thinking.
Do you shoot into the sun when taking photos? Any additional tips to add? If you don’t like shooting into the sun, what’s your reason? We love hearing from you, so please share your thoughts in the comments below!