Facebook Pixel Backlit Landscape Photography: Why You Should Shoot Into the Sun (+ Tips)

Backlit Landscape Photography: Why You Should Shoot Into the Sun (+ Tips)

Shoot toward the sun. Elevate your landscapes!

In landscape photography, avoid photographing toward the sun.

It’s one of the most common tips you’ll hear from seasoned landscape photographers. In fact, it’s a tip that I’ve previously shared, myself!

Now, avoiding strong backlighting is a well-known tip for a reason. When you point your camera into the sun, you’ll be faced with very difficult lighting conditions, and you risk losing details in the highlights and the shadows (or both at the same time!). Expert landscape photographers know this, and they know the dynamic range that their sensors are capable of capturing, which is why you often hear the above advice.

That said, the importance of avoiding strong backlight might not be as relevant today as it was several years ago. Today’s sensors and post-processing opportunities are much more forgiving, and what once was a bad idea can now be an opportunity.

In this article, I’ll show you how photographing toward the sun can enhance the atmosphere and add an extra dimension to your landscape images. And I’ll share my best tips so you can include the sun in your shots with amazing results!

Why you should include the sun in your landscape photos

I’m sure many of you are ready to jump straight into the comment section right now and tell me how much of a bad idea it is to shoot towards the sun. But give me a minute to explain why it’s something you might want to consider doing with your landscape photography.

The greatest benefit of adding the sun to the frame is that it adds depth to the resulting shot.

Take this next image as an example. As you can clearly see, the sun is present, and the shot is incredibly three-dimensional:

Tips for Shooting Landscape Photography Towards the Sun

But if you remove the sun, the photo becomes flat and much less interesting:

Tips for Shooting Landscape Photography Towards the Sun
This is the same composition and location as the previous shot – just with the sun behind those distant clouds!

Sure, you could process the sunless image to add some three-dimensionality and drama, but the result wouldn’t be the same. Without the sun, the image is flat; with the sun included, the image comes to life and drags you into it.

Including the sun can also be beneficial from a compositional perspective. In the example above, the bright sun serves as a focal point. The viewer’s eye is naturally guided along the cliffs and up toward the sun in the background.

Here, it’s important to keep in mind that our eyes are naturally attracted to the brighter parts of an image. So if you include the sun in the frame, and you ensure that it’s positioned in a background area where the viewer’s eye can rest, it’ll do a great job of drawing the eye from foreground to background.

(Of course, whether this looks good depends on where you place the sun. You must think of the sun as a compositional element and position it accordingly, the same way you’d position a mountain, a picturesque cabin, an interesting tree, and so on.)

One final benefit of shooting toward the sun is that you often get beautiful shadows moving from background to foreground. These can serve as additional leading lines that help guide the viewer’s eye and add an even greater sense of depth.

How to effectively include the sun in your landscape photos: a few powerful tips

Hopefully, you now agree with me that the sun can sometimes enhance your landscape images.

However, there’s one thing I need to make clear: including the sun in your images won’t always be beneficial. There are certain conditions or methods you should take advantage of for this to work. Here are some tips to help you out:

1. The time of day matters

While there are exceptions to this advice, the best landscape images generally come when the sun is low on the horizon. The sun then creates a soft glow and gives a nicely balanced light, plus it often turns the sky into a breathtaking canvas of color:

Tips for Shooting Landscape Photography Towards the Sun
When the sun is low in the sky, a backlit landscape can look spectacular. Note the colors and atmosphere that I captured here!

Additionally, when the sun is low in the sky, the landscape features a more limited tonal range, making it easier to capture backlit shots.

On the other hand, during midday – when the sun is positioned higher in the sky – the light is harsh and less pleasing to the eyes. This is something you generally want to avoid in landscape photography!

2. Carefully place the sun within the frame

I’ll start by saying this: There’s no one single correct spot to place the sun within your image. Sometimes it’s beneficial to place it in the center, while other times it’s better to place it on the side.

This is where trial and error, as well as experience, come into play.

Tips for Shooting Landscape Photography Towards the Sun

For the image above, I chose to place the sun at the very edge of the frame. Partly obscured by the clouds, it doesn’t attract too much attention; instead, the viewer is drawn to the beautiful light hitting the landscape while subtly guided from the foreground to the distant background.

If you are familiar with semi-advanced post-processing techniques, you might be aware of a processing style called light bleed. This is a technique that involves heavy dodging and enhancing/creating a light source that diffuses through the image, and it’s used by a lot of landscape photography professionals to create an ethereal effect.

However, by placing the sun at the corner or edge of your frame, you can actually produce the light-bleed style in-camera.

Other times, however, you want to place the sun in the center of the image. For the image below, placing the sun in the center added a light source that your eyes naturally go toward. Had I instead placed the sun to the side, this image would have been less balanced.

Tips for Shooting Landscape Photography Towards the Sun
Here, I think a centered sun works much better than an off-center sun. The distant brightness draws the eye, and it also helps maintain a sense of dynamic symmetry.

3. Obscure the sun

In my opinion, one of the best ways of including the sun in your landscape photos is to partly obscure it. You can do this by waiting for the sun to get low in the sky, then position your camera so the sun is peeking out from behind a tree, a mountain, etc.

When you combine a partially obscured sun with a narrow aperture such as f/8 or f/11, you can achieve a beautiful sunstar or sunburst:

Tips for Shooting Landscape Photography Towards the Sun
Who says the sun needs to be fully visible? I achieved this sunstar effect by partially obscuring the sun with the distant mountain and using a narrow aperture.

4. Use a graduated ND filter

Since the sun is so much brighter than the surrounding landscape, it can be hard to capture a well-exposed image when including it in the frame. But by using a graduated neutral density filter, you can darken the sky in your image while leaving the foreground untouched – resulting in a well-balanced image even with the sun in the frame.

Unfortunately, working with graduated ND filters is not always ideal. Since the transition between darkened and transparent parts of the filter is a straight line, it can create unwanted darkening effects if you’re photographing a scene where something is projecting above the horizon.

Graduated ND filters are better to use when the horizon is flat, such as in the image below:

Tips for Shooting Landscape Photography Towards the Sun

So what do you do when faced with a high-contrast backlit landscape that isn’t amenable to photographing with a graduated ND filter? That’s where my next tip comes in handy:

5. Bracket and merge your files

Another more flexible method of capturing well-balanced images with the sun included is to bracket multiple exposures and blend them in a photo editor. This is the better choice when the sun is at the highest position in the sky, as the contrast is even greater – or when you can’t effectively place a graduated ND filter over the horizon.

To create this next image, I actually captured three files: one exposed for the landscape, one exposed for the sky, and one even darker to balance out the brightest parts.

Tips for Shooting Landscape Photography Towards the Sun

Then I blended them in post-processing to produce a final shot with good detail in both the land and the sky!

Try including the sun in your landscape shots!

Hopefully, I’ve been able to convince you that shooting toward the sun isn’t a complete no-no. And if you use the tips I shared, you’ll be well on your way to capturing some stunning backlit landscape photos, too.

Photographing into the sun can be tough, but the rewards can be great, so give it a try and see what you think!

Now over to you:

Have you captured any images that are shot toward the sun for your landscape photography? Share them in the comments below! I’d love to see them.

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Christian Hoiberg
Christian Hoiberg

is a full-time landscape photographer based in the scenic Lofoten Islands who helps aspiring photographers develop the skills needed to capture beautiful and impactful images. Visit his website to get a free download of his eBook 30 Tips to Improve Your Landscape Photography.

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