Using the Sun As A Compositional Element - Digital Photography School

Using the Sun As A Compositional Element

As the sun set on Massachusetts Bay, I turned and saw my buddy Joe lining up a shot. I walked around him until the sun was directly behind his head, and dialed my exposure way back to -2 stops to create the sihouette. Canon EOS 50D, EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM. ISO 100, 1/6400, f/2.8. Shot in Av mode at -2 exposure compensation.

As the sun set on Massachusetts Bay, I turned and saw my buddy Joe lining up a shot. I walked around him until the sun was directly behind his head, and dialed my exposure way back to -2 stops to create the sihouette. Canon EOS 50D, EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM. ISO 100, 1/6400, f/2.8. Shot in Av mode at -2 exposure compensation.

For the most part, as photographers, we avoid shooting into the sun for fear that we’ll get some unsightly flaring.  The sun DOES present some exposure challenges, and of course, flare is a concern, but by carefully composing your shot, and properly exposing, including the sun in your images can create stunning results.

The first secret to using the sun is about positioning.  When you can, position the sun behind something else in your image. In the image of the photographer above, this gives the effect of a halo, helping create the silhouetted image.  By using exposure compensation to darken the exposure, I kept the sun from blowing out, and darkened the main subject into the silhouette. I then adjusted the white balance and color saturation to get the final result. Because the image was shot at f/2.8, the sun appeared as a giant ball in the image. In another example, the image of the daisies, a wide angle lens was used to make the sun smaller in the image, and was then positioned just behind the stem of the daisy. Because the image was shot at a smaller aperture, f/22, the sun appears as a star rather than a ball.  One of the cool things that happens when shooting into the sun with a wide angle lens at a small aperture is that the light falls off in the areas away from the sun, creating dramatic skies that go from near white by the sun, to deep blue in the corners.

This image of daisies was shot with the EOS-1D Mark IV and EF 14mm f/2.8L II. Exposure was 1/100, f/22, ISO 100. Aperture Priority.

This image of daisies was shot with the EOS-1D Mark IV and EF 14mm f/2.8L II. Exposure was 1/100, f/22, ISO 100. Aperture Priority.

Shooting into the sun does pose some exposure challenges.  Shooting into such a bright light can cause underexposure.  That’s not necessarily a problem if you’re going for a silhouette, but if you want some detail in the subjects that are backlit by the sun, you’ll need to dial in some exposure compensation to counter the brightness of the sun.  In the image of the Elm In Cook’s Meadow, the image at what the camera said was the proper exposure was a bit dark, and devoid of shadow detail.  Thankfully, for this image, I shot several images at varying exposures (also called bracketing). The image you see here was shot at +1.6 exposure compensation, in aperture priority mode.  This allowed for a level of detail in the shadow areas, while not allowing the highlights to blow out.

For this shot in Yosemite National Park, I shot in Aperture Priority, with exposure comensation set to +1.6.  EOS 5D Mark III, EF 24mm f/1.4L II. ISO 100, 1/30, f/16.

For this shot in Yosemite National Park, I shot in Aperture Priority, with exposure comensation set to +1.6. EOS 5D Mark III, EF 24mm f/1.4L II. ISO 100, 1/30, f/16.

By bracketing your exposures, you can see how changing your exposure will affect the look of the image.  Normally, I set my aperture and bracket my exposures by changing shutter speed, as I will generally know what I want my depth of field to be.  There are times to try it the other way, setting your shutter speed and adjusting your aperture. This will affect your depth of field, however, so be aware of what’s in focus and what’s not.  Your final option is to adjust the ISO.  The risks here are that when you raise the ISO to achieve the overexposure, you run the risk of introducing unwanted noise into your image, depending on how high you set the ISO.  This technique can give your several options when working with the contrast ranges you deal with when shooting into the sun.

Don’t be afraid to include the sun in your shots, using it as a strong compositional element. Too often we forget to use the sun in the image, simply using its light.   Including the sun in the shot creates new possibilities that can make for some dramatic images.

This shot of the canopy of autumn leaves in upstate NY was taken with a fisheye lens. The sun shining through the gap in the leaves added just the touch of drama I needed. EOS-1D X, EF 8-15mm f/4L.  1/60, f/16, ISO 100.

This shot of the canopy of autumn leaves in upstate NY was taken with a fisheye lens. The sun shining through the gap in the leaves added just the touch of drama I needed. EOS-1D X, EF 8-15mm f/4L. 1/60, f/16, ISO 100.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick's work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

Some older comments

  • Varun Kalra

    April 8, 2013 01:15 am

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=3863136196579&set=a.3863134316532.118420.1823709470&type=3&src=https%3A%2F%2Ffbcdn-sphotos-h-a.akamaihd.net%2Fhphotos-ak-prn1%2F859263_3863136196579_1419385788_o.jpg&smallsrc=https%3A%2F%2Ffbcdn-sphotos-h-a.akamaihd.net%2Fhphotos-ak-prn1%2F560178_3863136196579_1419385788_n.jpg&size=2048%2C1536

  • Lynn C.

    April 4, 2013 03:15 pm

    I hadn't tried this before, was quite happy when it worked. Very helpful tips!

    [eimg url='http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8390/8618592352_84da0504f2.jpg' title='8618592352_84da0504f2.jpg']

  • Premal

    April 4, 2013 06:57 am

    Tattoo of a tree on snow covered ground.
    http://500px.com/photo/4150732

  • Celine

    April 4, 2013 03:38 am

    I shot some silhouettes this last weekend nearby my house in Stavanger, Norway. I also tried to incorporate sunstars in the shot....https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.524002264305599.1073741827.182066305165865&type=1

  • Debby

    April 4, 2013 02:34 am

    I enjoyed the daisy shot. I like that there is some detail and it isn't just a silhouette. Exposure compensation is a great tool when used appropriately. Thanks for your great explanation.

  • Jillian Wilson

    April 2, 2013 04:11 pm

    http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/2887148

  • satesh

    April 2, 2013 12:51 pm

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/satesh/8611030533/

  • Jbelle

    April 1, 2013 09:12 am

    Does anyone have any examples to share of shooting portraits into the sun? Is it possible without flash?

  • Scottc

    March 31, 2013 10:50 pm

    Interesting point about the exposure compensation, I learned about that by accident.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4759964763/

  • DON

    March 31, 2013 03:57 am

    I enjoyed the article hugely and can't wait to shoot some sun-inclusive photos today.

  • Jillian Wilson

    March 30, 2013 08:15 am

    This article is just what I wanted. I shot an amazing sunburst image last week, but didn't know why it was so successful. These hints will help!
    You can see my image at - http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/2887148

  • owaisphotography

    March 30, 2013 03:55 am

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/owaisphotography/8528038140

  • Andrei

    March 30, 2013 02:50 am

    That is a nice picture CSinclair
    But i have a question about a normal automated photo camera.
    Isn't the brightness setting a software thing? If so, couldn't it be adjusted later on computer?
    I know it wont work as exposure or iso setting, but the "brightness" or other similar settings is what i mean.

  • Thomas Schmidt

    March 30, 2013 02:09 am

    I was shooting against the sun to capture the mood of low Winter sun in northern Norway.

    http://thoschmiphotos.blogspot.de/2013/03/low-winter-sun.html

  • Patricia de Almeida

    March 30, 2013 12:14 am

    I love using the sun as natural light, u can do imaginable things with the sun, love the article!

  • Bob Hosken

    March 30, 2013 12:10 am

    Very well done Tip Sheet.

  • Vilem

    March 29, 2013 09:41 pm

    Is it really necessary to make exposure compensation when shooting to the RAW format? Well in PS I can do after with all compensation I need. Is it true or not?

    Thanks for answer:)

    V.

  • Cramer Imaging

    March 29, 2013 02:25 pm

    Great idea with the exposure compensation there. I've had a few images not turn out because of the foreground being too dark. That should help.

  • Albin

    March 29, 2013 07:25 am

    Daisy shot is great. I'm not a fan of geometrical spiked suns (or night time city lights) but that's just me.

  • CSinclair

    March 29, 2013 05:31 am

    I like shooting into the sun, I used it on this image shot in North West Scotland

    http://www.chrissinclairphotography.com/#!Loch-Assynt/zoom/c1br1/image4zt

  • Rick Mays

    March 29, 2013 03:56 am

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/n8402b/8584834590/' title='Picacho Sunset' url='http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8527/8584834590_f3f286cdfb.jpg']

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