As a beginner in photography, you’ll likely be taught to keep the sun behind you. That’s because you’ll have several problems when you photograph against the sun. These problems are related. They’re an overblown sky, and a poorly lit main subject. That’s a recipe for a poor quality photo. As you learn how to better use the light, you’ll learn there are plenty of times you want the sun in front of you. In this article, you’ll learn all about the techniques needed to make stunning images when you photograph against the sun.
This photo is taken towards the sun not long after sunrise. The sun is lighting up the muhly grass through flare.
One of the effects you may well see when photographing against the sun is flare. This is sometimes described as the effect seen when a plant such as a reed is lit up by the sun shining on the plant. In the case of a reed, they have a delicate head in the summer which picks up the sunlight. As the head is delicate, it won’t block the sun completely, but is instead brighter and also not silhouetted. In photography, there are a couple of other effects caused by flare that can be used by photographers.
Flare effect on a camera
Unless your photographing a sunset or sunrise, directly pointing your camera at the sun is something you’ll want to avoid. Instead, aim to use an object within the frame to obscure the sun. Alternatively, you can aim towards the sun, but keep the sun just out of frame.
Doing this will result in two effects: You’ll see that your whole frame has a sunlight “glow,” or it’s highly likely you’ll also see a rainbow-like line that consists of arcs of light progressing across your frame. Both of these effects can be used to your advantage to create a more artistic-looking photo. Should you wish to avoid this altogether, using a lens hood helps. You might also try holding your hand above the lens to block sunlight shining onto the lens.
There is a glow to this image caused by flare. You can see this coming into the frame from the top left.
The starburst effect is technically another aspect of lens flare. It’s a more desirable effect though, and you have more control over how this effect occurs.
To achieve a starburst effect:
Compose your photo, and aim towards the sun. The time of day isn’t that important, but it’s easier to control this effect during golden hour and into sunset or from sunrise.
You’ll want to obscure the majority of the sun, but allow just the edge of the sun to be shining through. Too little and the starburst won’t be noteworthy. Too much of the sun, and it will overpower your frame. Placing the sun behind the leaves of a tree is an ideal solution here.
This effect is caused by your lens diaphragm. The number of sunburst spikes is determined by the number of arms your lens diaphragm has. You get one spike per diaphragm. If your lens has an odd number, the number of spikes will be doubled. That means you’ll want to choose your lens accordingly.
This effect occurs when you close down the aperture of your lens. Apertures of f/11 and smaller should produce this effect.
Photographing into the sun is likely to mean your photo produces silhouettes. If you wish to see details in the foreground, you will need to overexpose. The overexposure could be +2 or +3 exposure value.
With a small aperture, and a high exposure value your shutter speed is likely to be low. Either use a tripod or compensate for this slow shutter speed by using a high ISO. The high ISO will increase the shutter speed. Choose a setting that allows you to take the photo handheld.
Closing down the aperture allowed the sun to appear as a starburst in this photo.
When you photograph against the sun you’ve always got a good chance of producing silhouettes. Getting the best silhouettes takes a little more nuance though. You need to plan your photo and choose the best angle to take that photo from.
The first step is to decide which object you’ll silhouette. Is this a person, or an architectural structure? Perhaps it’s a lone tree in the field.
Which direction will you photograph this object from? Will you need to arrive in the morning or the evening so that the sun is behind this object when you photograph it?
Is there a clear line of sight to the horizon? Or is there a reflective surface behind the silhouette which can be used to photograph the silhouette against it? You’re looking for a bright background that you can silhouette the entire object against.
If you’re silhouetting the object against the sky only, you’ll often need to kneel down to an angle. Getting close to the ground and photographing up towards your silhouette, will mean more of the silhouette is visible. Where the horizon line intersects the silhouette, it will often make the lower half of the object not visible as a silhouette.
Look at the position of the sun in the sky. Is it too intense? Can you hide the sun behind an object? Is it possible to create a starburst effect from the sun?
Silhouettes are black, so of course, the silhouetted portion of your image will be underexposed. Typically, you’ll expose to get the sky correctly exposed within your photo. As the sky is very bright, the rest of your image will be dark and silhouetted.
This was an ideal place to take a silhouette. The person is silhouetted against the sky, and the reflective surface of the water.
Sunsets and sunrises
Of all the things photographers photograph, sunsets, and sunrises are surely the most popular. This time of day fascinates photographers of all levels, and you certainly don’t need to be a photographer to appreciate those colors in the sky. This time of day is also the best time to photograph against the sun. Especially while the sun is close to the horizon, as it won’t overpower your photo with too much light.
So what are you looking for to get the best result?
Know the angle – The sun changes position in the sky from winter to summer. Uses resources like suncalc to find out how a change of angle through the course of the year will affect your photo.
Check the weather – Overcast days won’t produce a sunset or sunrise! Always check the forecast and try and head out for optimum conditions. You’re not looking for a totally clear day either, 30-50% cloud coverage is nice.
Scout the location – Knowing a great location to visit on the day a good sunrise arrives is good. Knowing exactly where the best angle to photograph from within this location is even better.
Focal point – Unless the sky is truly epic for your sunset or sunrise, you’ll need a focal point to give your photo interest. A lone tree or building structure is often a great subject. Likewise, a river that gives a reflective surface, and perhaps a leading line will also work well.
Filters – Landscape photography where you photograph against the sun often need graduated neutral density filters. Be careful that the sun doe not produce unattractive and unwanted flare when you use these.
Post-processing – Post-processing can enhance your images. The use of techniques like digital blending, and graduated filters are important tools.
Sunset and sunrise are always captivating times to take photos against the sun.
There are some useful pieces of equipment you can have when photographing against the sun. Depending on the type of photograph you take, you’ll need some or all of this:
Lens hood – This is needed to minimize or eliminate the effect of lens flare on your photo.
Filters – Using a circular polarizing filter is a good idea for photography in general. Photographing towards the sun means using graduated neutral density filters is also a good idea.
Strobes – Should you wish to light up a person or object, when you’re photographing against the sun, using strobes is necessary. Without these, you’ll have silhouetted people or objects. Should you wish to avoid this, additional light will be required.
Reflecting disc – This can be used to reflect and direct sunlight onto the person or object you’re photographing. They’re more often used for portraits, and can be used on their own or in conjunction with strobes.
In this photo, an external flash was used to light up the couple.
Digital blending is a post-processing technique that uses luminosity masks to control the light across your photo. This has led to an improvement in the quality of images produced by landscape photographers who photograph against the sun. This is a large topic, so to learn more you should read this article.
In order to get the best results from this technique, you’ll need a tripod and to bracket your images when you take a photo. You’ll then need to spend time learning how to blend so you can produce natural looking and professional results. Learning how to do this will significantly improve the final results of your photos. Keep in mind that there are occasions you won’t need to use this style, and using filters, or producing silhouettes is an alternative to this.
This image used digital blending. The rocks in the foreground were lightened, and the sky darkened.
Show some flare, photograph against the sun!
The sun provides photographers with their main source of light. Knowing how best to use it is vital for the best photos. In this article, you’ve learned how to photograph into the sunlight – a trickier proposition than photographing with the sun behind you.
Do you enjoy photographing towards the sun? Which techniques and ideas do you apply in your photography? Do you have example photos you can share with the community? At digital photography school we’d love to see your images both from the past, and perhaps your future images having read this article.
So now it’s time to get out into the sun, and photograph against the sun!
is a specialist in creative photography techniques and is well known for his work with a crystal ball. His work has featured magazines including National Geographic Traveler. With over 8 years of experience in lensball photography, Simon is an expert in this field. Get some great tips by downloading his free e-book!
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