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Shooting Into the Sun

Many photography books for beginners say you should shoot with the sun over your shoulder. Don't believe them. Shooting into the sun can be tricky business but can yield dramatic results. Here are some tricks and tips.

Wildflowers on the Columbia Gorge
Wildflowers on the Columbia Gorge

Basic exposure is the first major problem you'll have to overcome when shooting into the sun. It's likely the main issue the authors of those beginning photography books were hoping to save you from. Backlighting will tend to make your subject darker than what is behind it, and if what's behind it is the sun you have a real exposure dilemma on your hands. Digital has a somewhat wider exposure range from pure black shadows to extreme highlights than film used to, but there are still severe limits.

Digital photography has made it easier than ever to overcome exposure latitude problems with HDR (high dynamic range) techniques where a series of shots at different exposures are blended later to create a shot that exceeds what could have been achieved in the field with just a single shot. In the past it was necessary to use graduated neutral density filters to block some of the light from part of the frame. I used to frequently use multiple stacked grad ND filters each positioned differently to blend light across a scene. I do still use grad ND filters sometimes but often dispense with them completely in the interest of cutting down on potential flare.

Lens flare can be a huge problem. Modern zoom lenses have a lot of glass elements and every glass/air interface can induce flare as the harsh light passes through. Good lenses have exotic coatings to minimize flare, but there's no way to eliminate the problem completely. A good lens hood is a must. There's no sense in letting any stray light into your lens when you're already contending with potential flare caused by the light rays you do want. Even if you can overcome lens flare, the same extreme backlighting can rob a scene of contrast. Everything can end up appearing washed out with no true blacks to be found. A good lens hood can help here too.

Blocking the sun with my hand (pardon the fish eye)
Blocking the sun with my hand (pardon the fish eye)

I've seen advertised various "flare buster" products that enable you to block stray light further but I've never felt a need to buy one. Simply holding my hat or hand over the offending spot can accomplish the same thing without the added expense or bother. You can also sometimes get rid of a stubborn flare problem by moving your position slightly or by angling the lens off axis a tad. Very small changes can have a huge impact on your flare situation. Experiment a bit and see what you can do.

The problem of lens flare is inherent in lens design but that's no excuse for the self inflicted lens flare many photographers bring on themselves by what they put on the front of their lenses. I'm talking greasy fingerprints here. You can solve a lot of lens flare problems simply by keeping the front of your lens spotlessly clean. Invest in some good lens cleaner and a micro fiber cloth. Cary them with you and use them. And if you put a filter on the front of your lens you actually triple your fingerprint problem since now you have the lens front element itself plus both sides of your filter to contend with. I'd urge you to dispense with the use of so called "protective" filters at least when shooting into the sun. Save them for the beach where they'll actually serve a purpose keeping salt spray and sand away from your lens glass.

High in the Olympic Mountains
High in the Olympic Mountains

Another great thing about shooting digital is that you can easily retake a shot in an attempt to get rid of flare. As I say, experiment. Digital also makes it easy to combine multiple versions of a shot together to take advantage of the best parts of each. I've been known to shoot an image with the top part of the frame intentionally blocked with my hand to cut down on flare and stray light across the bottom part of the frame. Later at home in Photoshop I replace the top of my hand shot with the top of a straight shot without my hand in order create a version with a better foreground and the same sun filled sky above it.

Welders Glass
Welders Glass

Another issue I would be remiss in not discussing is protecting your eyesight. Looking into the sun can be harmful, especially if done through a high power telephoto lens. One useful tool to help shield your eyes is a simple piece of welder's glass from the hardware store. This is a roughly 4-1/2 x 5-1/2 inch rectangle of almost black glass that looks somewhat like a large format square filter from brands such as Cokin. I bought mine years ago and carry it around in a Tamrac filter holder that fits it perfectly. It acts basically like a ten to fourteen stop solid neutral density filter that blocks not only visible light but pretty much every wavelength. If you try to look through it indoors it will appear essentially opaque black. If you look through it outdoors at s strong light source everything will be colored with a harsh green cast. But it will block enough light that it is actually safe to look at the sun through it. Use it to help with composition and then put it away when you actually press the shutter. Your camera never sees the green and your eyes are kept safe.

Lens flare, exposure and other issues can make it difficult to get good results when shooting with the sun in the frame. But oh can the results be worth the effort. Give it a try sometime.

Date posted: August 7, 2011


Copyright © 2011 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Previous tip: Managing Your Photoshop Workspace Return to archives menu Next tip: Waiting for the Shot

Related articles:
Essential Filters: Neutral Density and Graduated ND
Those So-called UV "Protective" Filters
What the Heck is HDR Tone Mapping?
Masking with your Hand for Shooting into the Sun

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