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Three Methods of Making Stunning Photographs in Bright Sunlight

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

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.