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Whether you’re shooting landscapes, street photography, outdoor portraits, or just making a photo of your cat lounging in the window, a great many photos have one thing in common – sunlight. Yes, that big burning ball of fire in the sky can either ruin your photos or make them memorable. Some photographers enjoy the look of the sun shining brightly in the sky with radiant starbursts and flare while others do not. However you happen to feel about it, you will often find it necessary to shoot directly into bright sunlight.
I’m going to show you an easy way to deal with the invasive (yet often rewarding) circumstances of making a photograph when the sun is burning bright directly towards your camera. All this is done without the need for filters and is easily accomplished with some simple work in Photoshop.
Warning: Remember friends, the techniques shown here are intended to help you work in conditions faced when shooting into the sun as it relates to commonly encountered photographic conditions. Prolonged exposures aimed at the sun may damage your camera and purposefully staring directly into the sun will permanently damage your eyes.
First things first. You will need at least two photos of the same scene but shot with different exposures. Keep in mind that two photos are the MINIMUM required; one for the foreground elements and one for the desired brightness of the sun. Depending on the complexity and contrast of your scene, it is a good idea (as I’ve done here) to have additional exposures to help your final image look realistic.
If you prefer a prominent “starburst” effect for the sun, it’s a good idea to use a relatively small aperture (large f-number) for at least one of your images. Since we’ll be blending multiple photos together, it is crucial that each of them align as closely as possible. So, of course, using a stable tripod is integral to the outcome of your photograph. I know, I know…you’ve heard it a thousand times.
Before we move on to how to actually blend our images together, I want to tell you about an incredibly neat trick to help you reduce lens flare and get a much cleaner result when shooting directly towards the sun. You might have noticed one of my images has a big fat thumb right in the middle of the frame? This is not by accident.
What this allows us to do is block out the most direct light rays so that we have a good spot to blend in the sun from our drastically underexposed photo. Not only that, but it helps to greatly reduce (not always eliminate) the lens flare artifacts which commonly rear their head in these types of photos. It will all make sense in just a second.
As I’m sure you’ve already noticed, the actual acquisition of the photos you need is a very simple operation. The magic lies in how we handle those images in Photoshop. We can bring our images directly into Photoshop, or as I prefer, work with them first in Lightroom and then kick them over to Photoshop as layers. This saves time and makes things much easier, especially if working in Photoshop is new to you. Make sure you don’t crop any of the photos!
To open up your images as layers in Photoshop from Lightroom, make sure all of your photos are selected and then right-click on any images. Select ‘Edit In’ and then choose ‘Open as Layers in Photoshop.’
Once Photoshop launches, you will see all of your photos presented as layers in the Layers Panel.
Arrange the layers by dragging and dropping them into place. Sort the layers where the sun blocked with your thumb at the top. Proceed downward by order of decreased brightness with the darkest image at the very bottom.
Even though we’ve done our best to make sure all of our photos are composed identically, it’s a good practice to allow Photoshop to help out with aligning the layers. That way, they fit as closely as possible to avoid misalignment. Doing this is a snap (Photoshop humor) using ‘Auto-Align Layers.’ Make sure all of your layers are selected either by Ctl+click or Cmd+click (Mac).
If you have a large number of layers, a quicker way to select them all would be to highlight the top layer and then Shift+click the bottom layer (or vice versa). Once all your layers are selected, select ‘Edit’ and then ‘Auto-Align Layers.’
Leave the alignment projection set to ‘Auto.’
After Photoshop is finished cooking up those layers into better alignment, you might notice a small perimeter border around your image. This is due to Photoshop aligning the layers. Don’t worry; you can crop it out later.
You’ll need to incorporate layer masks so that you can paint in and out our layers as you go. Select each layer and add a mask by clicking the layer mask icon. There’s no need to apply a mask to the bottom-most layer in the stack.
For a refresher course on working with layer masks check out this article by Jim Hamel.
Now that we have masks added to all of our layers, it’s time to start blending. We’ll start with the sky and remove the obvious digit from the photo. Since the layer mask is set to white, make sure you are painting with black. If you get confused, remember the old adage “black conceals, white reveals.”
Even working with this small number of layer masks can get somewhat unwieldy. I recommend you merge each layer with the next after you’ve finished blending each portion of your photo.
To merge your completed layers, simply highlight them and use keyboard shortcut Ctl+E (Cmd+E for Mac). This helps avoid any conflicts with your masking. Blend your layers as needed based on your particular photos.
After each layer merge, be sure to add a layer mask to the resulting layer.
Eventually, you should have two layers remaining.
It’s here where things can get a little tricky because you will likely be dealing with blending your starbursts with a darker surrounding sky. Just take your time. It’s a good idea to set your brush to a low flow rate of 10-15 and your opacity to around 15 to start. Then gradually build up the effect. A soft brush is definitely required here.
With just a little bit of blending, we’ve successfully combined our four images of the sunset. Before leaving Photoshop, I went ahead and removed those few flakes of dust as well as the remaining lens flare artifacts that managed to escape my thumb. After you save your changes and close Photoshop, the newly blended photo will be thrown back to Lightroom for cropping and some final tweaking.
There are multiple ways to work around shooting directly into the sun to get great photos. Most involve various filters and careful positioning.
With a little basic knowledge of Photoshop, you can forgo the extra equipment and achieve results which are arguably as good or better than more traditional photographic methods.
This is especially helpful if you happen to be using a camera that sports less than spectacular dynamic range. Sure, you shouldn’t view this technique as a replacement for practicing solid photography techniques, but instead, it provides a way for us to easily bring home the photo we want at the end of the day.
Not too comfortable with Photoshop? We’ve got you covered!
Make sure to check out some of the great resources here at Digital Photography School which will teach you all you could ever wish to know about working with layers, blend modes and masking in Photoshop.
We’d love to see the images you create from this tutorial. Please share with us and the dPS community in the comments below!