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Photo Tip of the Week

Staring Into the Sun, or as Close as You Can With a Camera

Who doesn't love an image of sunrise or sunset that features the sun itself as star attraction? But before you go out to shoot one, here are some tips to help you succeed.

First, the sun is nowhere near as big as it seems based on everyday experience. It only seems as big as it does because it's so bright you can't (or shouldn't) look too closely at it. For most of us, we're talking teleconverters and very long lenses if you want to go for those larger than life sunset shots.

Often, a better approach is to shoot images of the landscape strongly lit by the sun. This can be more fun than going big anyway. Every shot of the sun itself (except during an eclipse I guess) looks basically the same. It's round. Surprise. And a wider angle of view can open a wider world of possibilities in terms of composition.

Next, the sun is bright, very bright. Did I mention not to look directly at it? When composing a shot, you may find it useful to use a tethered display to avoid looking through an optical viewfinder. As an alternative, try to get everything set up early and wait for the sun to enter the frame. Or go to the hardware store and buy a piece of welders glass and hold it over the front lens element. Yes, it will make everything look ugly green, but you can remove it before you look away and press the shutter release, so all will be well, and the same goes for your eyesight.

Shoot in raw mode for best results, even if you normally shoot jpeg. Not only will raw provide much wider control over the final exposure, it will also let you to better optimize the look of your image by tweaking the white balance slider. With jpeg, your results are locked in once stored on your camera's memory card. Shooting raw provides a second chance to visually adjust the look of each shot post-capture.

Exposure for sunrise and sunset is often problematic. When in doubt, underexpose. There are limits to how much detail you can pull out of the shadows, but if you burn out the highlights, they are truly gone, and there's no getting them back. If the brightness range is too extreme, and if your subject is cooperative, shoot at multiple exposures and digitally blend the results later via HDR or other merge techniques.

Or underexpose even more and turn your foreground subject into a silhouette if its outline will work as one. The best silhouettes are of shapes that are clearly recognizable or even iconic like people or trees. You need something that can be identified by outline alone. When shooting silhouettes, just meter on an area of sky away from the sun and let the rest fall as it may. Or spot meter on the area you want to silhouette and make sure it comes out black. Remember that exposure can be adjusted to a degree post capture. In a pinch, a curves adjustment in Photoshop can turn an "almost silhouette" into a proper outline with no color or detail remaining.

Make doubly certain that the front element of your lens is spotlessly clean. Any fingerprints or smudges will show under the direct sunlight. Remove any filters from your lens. At best, a filter gives you more glass surfaces to keep clean. At worst, the light will reflect off those glass layers and cause nasty flare.

Polarizers will not make sunsets look more saturated. They work best when shooting ninety degrees from the sun, a direction that has little to do with the topic under discussion here. They just make your viewfinder look darker as would a neutral density filter, but neither one will have much of an effect on an image, assuming the exposure difference has been compensated for with a slower shutter speed. The saturation effect is an illusion. Let the colors come from nature, or if you feel compelled to help out a bit, do it in the digital darkroom after the fact.

For composition, find a viable foreground and then position yourself so the sun falls where you want it. You can somewhat work with the sun as it moves, even though slowly, but your foreground is likely rooted to the ground where it is so start with that. Remember too, that some shots are simply not meant to be. It's not always possible to line things up the way you want. Then again, it may be possible at another time of the year, given that the path of the sun through the sky does shift over the seasons (unless you find yourself shooting at the equator of course).

If you have both the sun and a foreground in the frame, there will be a horizon line. Consider carefully where you position it. If you have a really nice foreground, place the horizon high, with the sun playing just a supporting role. If your foreground could use a bit of help and the colors in the sky can support it, place the horizon low and play to your strengths. Either way, avoid placing the sun in the center of the frame just as you generally should with any subject. When in doubt, follow the rule of thirds.

In order to render detail in the foreground while not burning out the exposure of the sky, consider shooting for HDR and merge your results. Before you use all those frames though, pick out the best single one and see if you can pull appropriate detail from the shadows during raw conversion. You'll probably get the most realistic results if that works, and if it doesn't, you can start to work on various HDR merge options with multiple frames. If you want to go old school, shoot with a graduated neutral density (GND) filter, but remember to keep an eye out for lens flare. If your foreground is moving, this may still be your best option to avoid merge problems later.

Afternoon haze can sometimes create problems when shooting at sunset. The air is generally clearest at sunrise before evaporation off water and vegetation has a chance to obscure visibility as the day progresses and temperatures warm. These days, air pollution can make things even worse since it can get trapped in the increased water vapor due to that evaporation.

When shooting at sunset, haze problems typically get considerably worse once the sun enters the frame. Within reason, you can adjust contrast after the fact in Lightroom. Another approach would be to shoot a scene in the late afternoon when the shadows are in the correct orientation, but before the sun dips low enough to be visible in the frame, and then shoot another frame once the sun gets to where you want it to be. You can later merge foreground detail from the first shot, with the background and sky from the second.

If you want a starburst effect, stop your lens down to a small aperture. The rest is automatic, thanks to the way light passes the edges of the aperture blades. Just say "no" to those commercial starburst filters. They never look real, and they just give you more glass layers to cause distortions from lens flare.

And don't forget to look behind you every now and then. While the main light show is usually where the sun is, the colors on the opposite horizon can sometimes be wonderful too. Blazing orange and yellow in front of you, or subtle shades of pink and blue behind you. It's your choice. Once the sun does drop below the horizon, the cooler shades predominate everywhere. So, bundle up and stick around for the late show. Just make sure your battery is charged so it doesn't give out before you do.

Date posted: October 27, 2019


Copyright © 2019 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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