Three Methods of Making Stunning Photographs in Bright Sunlight

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Location Lighting Masterclass – The Art Of Shooting Into The Sun

Shooting directly into the sun may not be the first thing that pops into your mind when creating a photograph, but the effects it can have on your final image when done correctly can border on magical.

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There are three primary looks that can be achieved by shooting into the sun:

  1. The first of these takes advantage of lens flare and aims to over-expose the image drastically, creating a ‘dreamy’, almost glowing look. (see image above)
  2. The second ignores the foreground entirely, exposing only for the brightly lit sky and creating foreground silhouettes.
  3. The third comes somewhere in between, exposing for the brightly lit sky and simultaneously using reflection or fill flash to overpower the foreground shadows.
The Silhouette Look

#2 The Silhouette Look

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#3 The Balanced Look

Let’s work through each of these in turn, how to make stunning photographs in bright sunlight.

#1 – the Dreamy Look

This is not a photographic style I typically aim to produce, however it is nonetheless popular with many photographers. The style aims to expose for the skin tones predominantly, allowing the background to become significantly overexposed; and in the process, create a soft glow around the subject. This style can also take advantage of lens flare (the rings of light that appear in your shot when you shoot directly at bright sunlight) and the varying types of lens flare that different lenses create. To achieve this look, ensure that you have spot metering selected on your camera and measure directly for the skin (you will need to be in aperture priority mode for this). It doesn’t matter if the background overexposes; the primary aim is to expose for the skin and facial features. The brightness of the background will typically create a haze across the rest of the image.

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#2 – the Silhouette Look

Again, using the camera’s spot meter in Aperture Priority mode, you will need to meter and expose for the background. Select an area (not directly on the sun itself) of sky near to the sun. You can lock the exposure using the AE lock function (usually the “*” button on Canon cameras) to enable recomposition of the image. Alternatively, note the shutter speed reading where you metered on the sky, switch to manual mode and set the camera up with the given shutter speed and aperture manually. Here, the aim is to darken everything in the foreground so be sure to think about the kind of silhouette you’re creating. Less is usually more. Too much in the foreground just creates clutter and loses the focal point.

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#3 – the Balanced Look

The final, and arguably the most powerful is partway in between, and utilizes flash to fill the image exposure correctly.
Just like the silhouette style, you should meter on the background sky. If you don’t use flash, you’d end up with another silhouette. Instead, crank up the power of the flash as far as it will go (it takes a fair amount of flash power to overcome direct sunlight). About 600w (watt seconds) is preferable, and ensure that the subject you want to light up remains relatively close (due to the inverse square law, light fall-off will very quickly erode the power of the flash). Some post-production boost to the shadows and recovery of the background highlights may be necessary to properly balance the exposure.

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A few general hints to help with direct sunlight shooting:

1) Autofocus often struggles in direct sun. Try first shading the end of your lens with your hand, focussing on your subject, then switching off autofocus and taking the shot without shading the lens.

2) Colors and white balance can often be thrown by bright sunlight. Be sure to shoot in RAW so that you can true up any color differentials later on.

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3) Use a polarizer or ND (neutral density) filter where you can. Really bright direct sunlight and long exposures are not good for your camera’s sensor over time, just as they are not good to stare at with your naked eye.

4) Think about the time of day – you want light to fall behind your subject, not on top of it. Therefore, early mornings and late afternoons are best for this type of photography. It is also when the sunlight is weakest, resulting in less overexposure and less risk of damage to the sensor.

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5) Think about alternative fill light sources. Consider reflective windows, white walls, metallic surfaces – effectively anything that can bounce the direct sun back into the subject to naturally add fill light. This means you will need to have your back to the reflective source.

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6) Consider some post-production magic, if too much flare is coming into the shot. Mount the camera on a tripod so that the image doesn’t shift, then take two shots of the same scene with the same exposure settings. For one shot, leave the image as is, but for the second, shade the end of the lens with your hand. It doesn’t matter if your hand appears in the image because during post production, you simply join the half from the shaded shot that doesn’t have your hand in it, with the bright half from the unshaded shot. This technique will leave the full effect of the flare around the sun, but enable you to remove the surplus flare from the rest of the image.

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Leo Edwards is a multi award winning photographer based out of Dubai and a Licentiate of The Master Photographers Association. His work has been exhibited from The Grand Atrium in Dubai to The Royal Geographic Society in London. Outside of photography he works with companies and individuals on financial success and management and is a partner in a successful Middle East advisory group.

  • Good way of summarizing it, Leo!
    So far, I have mostly experimented the second approach, that is, silhouettes, spot metering to the bright background and letting the subject in the foreground falling into darkness, so to speak. It’s a good idea to look for some patches of light that break the complete darkness of the subject, however, to reveal its shape and give it a more tridimensional look, rather than just a block of black.
    As for the first method, it’s not really a look that I like, so I haven’t tried it much; and concerning the third approach, I must say that flash is still my pending task and I really need to start stdying it further!

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    However, if you are using entry level bodies that cannot support HYPERSYNC, then you cannot get the above photos that easily.. Notice that mot photos are using flash with very shallow DOF. Even you could do it with high f-number or using ND Filter, you don’t have the powerful enough stroke / flash to lit ur subject..

  • Hammad Iqbal

    Right Choo. This would need either a monolight or multiple speelights at fullpower probably like Joe McNally does for his fill-flash photos in the Sun.

  • Thanh Nguyen

    Helpful article. Any chance you can post some EXIF data for exposure settings for these photos?

  • Ashley

    Thanks for sharing this, good tutorial. As Choo said it will be hard for most people to get the flash shots right with consumer grade equipment, but it’s a good inspiration.

  • Leo

    Hi Choo

    All of the images hot here are with the sun at a very low position at sunrise or sunset so the overall brightness / power of the sun has been reduced – the shutter speeds are all at 250th of a second with a Profoto Acute B2 (600w) at around 1/2 – 3/4 power – hope this helps – Leo

  • Leo

    Hi Ashley – It can be done, the below was shot on a Sony A700 with a single speedlight – 35mm – F13 – 1/200th sec – ISO 200. Speedlight set to full power. I waited for the sun to move behind the the cloud at the top right of the frame (otherwise the the single speed light wouldn’t of had enough power to expose the frame properly – hope this helps

    Leo

  • Leo

    Hi Thanh

    This chap was shot at ISO 100 / F9 / 1/250th Second with a Profoto Acute B2 in a 3ft Octa at about 50% power with the light source just out of frame to the left of the subject

  • Leo

    Hey Gonzalo
    Don’t be scared of flash – just get out there and use it – you can study as much theory as you like and it’s good to have a grounding, but it really is a “feel” thing that only comes with trial and error. Zach Arias’ One Light Workshop is likely one of the best tutorials out there currently to help you get that “feel” with a shorter learning curve.

    Leo

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Thanks, still 250th is too fast for most Nikon entry level bodies (eg D5100,5200, 5300, D7100, D610) … the faster they could go is 160th (at least true for my D5100)… The older nikon like D90, D3000 have no problem to go up to 250th. Some older remote also can’t support up to 250th like YN602. Only the latest YN603 could support up to 8000th. All these limitations give headache to me… and more costs and quality degration when comes to the use of ND filter.

  • Edhie Wibowo

    I thought what is meant by bright sunlight is in the middle of the day. But when I read your tutorial, it is not about midday photography.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Still 200th is too fast for D5100 and it will ends up with half-lit face. I need F13, 1/100s, ISO 100 with diffraction – quality drop. This image has no distraction because you have choose the background carefully. Beginners will seldom choose background ;). I suspect your speedlight is 1 stop more powerful than YN560.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    For me, using full power on YN560 continuously for 10 times will burn the flashgun. It has no heat sensor… ;{. Using flash under bight sunlight need properly choose the background to reduce the distraction, which is not easy for beginners ;{.

  • Jerica Charity Aquiatan Ruiz

    priceless advice for a neophyte like us

  • Barry E Warren

    Thanks for sharing this, great read.

  • That is partly true there can be equipment requirements but it does say “masterclass” in the beginning of the article to indicate this is not a beginner type tutorial. Hope that helps.

  • Great post… Thank you. I had always avoided back lighting, but a few months ago I started experimenting shooting nature. It works particularly well with flower, leaves and petals. These photos were taken early afternoon in May.

  • Thanh Nguyen

    Thank you for your response and added info about the lighting gear you used! Very interesting shot.

  • Doug

    This link says you have a max sync speed of 1/200s
    http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/d5100.htm

    The problem could be that you are using a non-Nikon flash with the camera and expecting top performance out of it. Grab a SB600 off ebay (between $150-$200 normally) and you have a high quality flash that will actually work with you camera correctly.

    Or just stop taking pictures at noon on a sunny day if you don’t have the equipment for it. There are lots of helpful tips in this article that need no flash at all to implement effectively.

    Reflectors can be incredibly cheap as well, that may be a better solution for you if you don’t want to invest in a new body or flash.

  • The India photos are all clearly staged and taken with a large softbox – not your average “tourist” photos. Probably the subjects were paid a few hundred Rupees to pose too (it’s amazing what people in India will do if you slip ’em a hundred Rupees – US$2) to sit still for ten minutes while the shot was being set up with an assistant.

    The barren sand dunes tree shot (from a popular tourist spot known as Deadvlei in Namibia – I have a similar photo – been there done that) is a pretty standard exposure with a modern multi-pattern meter and if shot RAW one can easily fine tune the exposure to achieve that result so almost a no-brainer.

    Always gotta love sexy white girls in bikinis – lighting and exposure was the last thing I was thinking about…..LOL

  • drdroad

    Leo, you have a different interpretation of ‘bright sunlight’ than I do. Almost all of these photos are shot with the sun near the horizon, not high in the sky.

  • Richard

    “Alternatively, note the shutter speed reading where you metered on the sky, switch to manual mode and set the camera up with the given shutter speed and aperture manually” Oh, come on! There’s an exposure display in the camera’s viewfinder. It works in manual mode! Just set the camera in manual mode and leave it. Choose ISO and aperture in advance, and dial in the shutter speed for the area you are metering. So simple – no need for switching back and forth between two modes, or hunting for the AE Lock.

  • Luanna

    Hey, Leo Edwards! And where did you take this photos from? they look amazing! thanks!

  • Leo

    Hi Anthony – no assistants were used in any of the photos in the article and no money changed hands – you can find out more about my technique in – “The Adventure Photography Handbook” – you can read a review of the book and watch a video trailer here http://www.slrlounge.com/e-book-review-the-adventure-photography-handbook-by-leo-edwards – its all about creating empathy and rapport with subjects and making a connection.

    The photographs above were taken in Allahabad in Northern India during the 2013 Kumbh Mela festival.

    I’m glad you’ve experience Namibia its a great destination for photographers – would love to see your shots of Sossusvlei, please feel free to post them here.

    If you fill in the contact form on my website I will happily forward you a complimentary copy of my book.

  • Leo

    Hi Luanna – they were taken in Allahabad in Northern India during the 2013 Kumbh Mela festival – there are some behind the scenes posts on my blog of this trip – warm regards Leo

  • Leo

    Hi – the sub heading is – ” The art of shooting into the sun ” given the choice I would always rather shoot with the sun near the horizon – it ensures better colour saturation and for the sun to be partly in the frame. To shoot into the sun with the sun high in the sky would only allow me to shoot cloud formations and the odd aeroplane 😉

  • Luanna

    So very nice, Leo! Congrats on yout job! May I use some of these photos for an online post giving you the right credits?

  • Thanks Leo I’ll check it out….Yeah India has absolutely mind-blowing culture and religion photo ops during the numerous Hindu festivals, not to mention historical sites and landscapes. I have to admit I handed out a few Rupees in my time there to get some posed shots. When time permits to do proper metering, I generally don’t use flash, preferring to photograph people subjects using a prime lens like 50 f/1.4 with the lens near wide-open for bokeh effect and spot metering on the faces which leads to slight over-exposure for Indian and African subjects with their darker skin tones. Otherwise I shoot with the DSLR camera in “Sports” mode preferring to just get that shot. Also I practice slow-shutter speed panning shots in busy marketplaces and “just standing on the street corners” My flickr page is at https://www.flickr.com/photos/anthonymaw
    thanks!

  • Leo
  • Aaron DC

    heheheh funny that he goes from copying settings to manual mode, to admitting, in India, he’s shooting with a Profoto in a 3ft Octa – like that’s what tourists or even serious amateur togs lug around with them when they go on holidays.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    One funny thing is that, a cheap point and shoot camera can sync flash up to 1/1000s, old Nikon D300 can sync up to 1/8000s, but why the recent entry level Nikons can only up to 1/160s? What has gone wrong?

  • Digvijay Singh

    Hello Anthony,

    I went through your flickr page and I really liked it. I found some amazing clicks. However, I saw your comment above “(it’s amazing what people in India will do if you slip ’em a hundred Rupees – US$2)” but I feel the other way. I think we as a photographer know it very well that we even pay supermodels for our clicks. I would request you to tour even other countries in world and you will observe the very same behaviour.

    I feel it’s a normal human tendency which doesn’t limit to any country citizen but just the greed of money.

  • Hello Digvijay yeah I’ve slipped the occasional Rupee, Yuan, Riel, Kip, Kwacha, Peso, Pound, Soles, Cedi, (and occasionally a US dollar bill, though not often because the locals can’t do anything with it right away) to an interesting photo subject somewhere in the world to pause in his/her life to give me a quick pose. I think it’s only fair and everybody walks away happy!

  • Digvijay Singh

    Hello Anthony,

    Yeah, that’s exactly what I was trying to say in my comment. It’s what people do and as you told it’s only fair because they are getting paid for doing something!
    My objection was the way you related that to the country because somehow I feel bad after reading your line. I would like you to only judge the people by those kind of activity and not an entire nation by that.
    Every nation has a great culture and history behind it which shouldn’t be put into bad light just because of few persons.
    Though I totally agree with you when I see it from your point of view because as a tourist you got to judge things by what you come across.

  • Salim AeA

    I would like to share my experience as well

  • Salim AeA

    I would like to share my experience.

  • Salim AeA

    One more

  • Ahmad

    These caputres are from Pakistan????

  • Nader

    Why would u ever shoot a model against the sun? If u have to, u shouldn’t make your flash light noticeable. U should make it look like an available natural light. Especially if it’s a documentary. Otherwise, if u want to show ur lighting skills, shoot in the studio and chroma key it, which is boring. Most of those shots look chroma keyed.

  • Yassine Oufkir

    exifs : f3.5 – iso 100 – 1/320

  • me

    I would suggest the main title is reworded to be accurate, or just use the subhead as the main heading.

  • RR

    Thanks for the great article and photos!

  • James Holland

    I can shoot at 1/200 with my d5100. If i use my Nikon sb700 flash…. with the yongnuo 560 III only syncs at 1/160 or less….

  • I wonder what kind of diffusion the photographer used for those flash shots, it looks way softer than a bare flash. Maybe a small softbox of some kind? I’m guessing they didn’t lug a large one around. Great images!

  • Marty Chamberlain

    Why don’t you just write your own article..

  • Deepak Dangol

    Handy post. I have always struggled taking photos in direct sun.

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