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.
There are three primary looks that can be achieved by shooting into the sun:
- 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)
- The second ignores the foreground entirely, exposing only for the brightly lit sky and creating foreground silhouettes.
- The third comes somewhere in between, exposing for the brightly lit sky and simultaneously using reflection or fill flash to overpower the foreground shadows.
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.
#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.
#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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’ve never shot light trails before, start with Darren Rowse’s excellent article How to Shoot Light Trails. Once you’re comfortable with the basics, here are five advanced tips for creating your own unique light trail photography.
1. Go big or go home
Young photographers are often better at digital photography than older photographers. This article will explain why this might be, and how you can improve your skills faster. You may be surprised to hear that IQ (Intelligence Quotient) apparently peaks at age fourteen.
Now, IQ is a deeply flawed measure of intelligence, and fourteen year olds certainly shouldn’t take over the world; but the young brain has incredible processing power.
As we age, we lose this raw speed and (hopefully) replace it with shortcuts, experience and ‘wisdom’. This allows us to make better choices and retain the illusion of intelligence, but it also limits our creativity. Incensed? Read on…
Knowledge versus understanding
A quick mathematics question; what’s 8 squared? Ask a child and they’ll have to work it out. You probably know it’s 64 without thinking. This is knowledge; remembered facts.
Remember Pythagoras’ Theorem? Maybe you even know the same explanation, ‘the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides’. This is knowledge; a tool. Ask a mathematician and they’ll be able to prove it and explain why it’s true. This is understanding.
Ask a layperson about the white balance setting on your camera. They’ll probably have no clue what you mean. Ask an average photographer and they’ll be able to tell you it controls the colour cast. Ask a physicist and they’ll understand far more deeply what’s going on and why.
Knowledge is very useful. It’s quick to learn by rote. How else can a young child pick up concepts that took the greatest geniuses years to develop? Most education equips us to slot into a role in a business. Understanding isn’t normally necessary. It’s enough to know that e=mc2 – only a few people need to understand the implications of this equation. Some of them for work; and others to satisfy a yearning to understand.
Precisely because our society values superficial understanding, it doesn’t occur to us to make knowledge our own, to transform it into understanding. We think that by knowing the name of something that we understand it. A brown-throated thrush. Satori. Light.
Make the leap from words to visuals
Words are useful; they allow us to communicate. But they’re really quite limited, and the language you speak tends to limit what you can think. Philosophers are acutely aware of this. So are mystics, and as artists, we’re always seeking to move beyond the cage that words present. Try defining love – or even the smell of fresh roses.
To communicate understandings, ideas and feelings, we have to package them up into sentences (parcels of knowledge) and share them with others, who then unpack them in the light of their own unique experience to create their personal understandings. I normally teach one-to-one, but when I teach bigger classes there’s a tendency for students to just collect the parcels and never unwrap them.
We are particularly prone to this, because Holistic Photography is both a craft and an art. We can certainly learn the first bit; apertures, shutter speeds, the inverse square law; but we often falter with the latter. The Golden Mean? That’s just another technique.
What ends up happening is that our head becomes so filled up with knowledge that it blinds us to the world around us. We’ll visit the famous cathedral that we read about in the guidebooks and have such a strong preconception about what it must be like that we fail to notice how it looks at the specific time that we’re there. When I’m teaching photography courses in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia is a major attraction; but there are a myriad ways of photographing it that are overlooked. If we’re photographing people, we may get so stuck in our heads thinking about lighting ratios or the half-remembered tips of a ‘how to pose your model‘ article that we’re not available to make the human connection which leads to the poses that look best. We get stuck in our heads and cease feeling or seeing.
Stand in front of Rothko’s multiforms in a gallery if you get the chance. You can’t quite explain why, but they move you, if you let them. Van Gogh isn’t treasured (now) because of his technique, but because of the way he expressed his internal world, which happened to match our own at moments. Because while we’re all different, we’re also all the same.
There is a visual language. You can learn it in art school. Complementary colour schemes for emphasis, how different shapes can give different meanings, and where to put things in your frame and why. But to understand how to create, you’ll have to feel in your own body what works for you, and let your own mind tell you what’s right or wrong.
Theory versus action
Young photographers look for knowledge online. They have access to more information than they can ever read. Most are open to learning, so they progress rapidly. Like the zen master said, your cup can’t be full if you want to put more in it.
But they also have the benefit of few responsibilities, short attention spans and huge amounts of time. They underestimate the importance of learning from others. So they read a bit, get bored, and just play with the camera. Digital is free to experiment with, so they make thousands of mistakes and try things we never would. Then, when they reach a barrier, Google instantly provides the answer. It’s no wonder that they learn far faster.
Compare the contrary method. To get a big stack of books and methodically work your way through them, supplemented by overpriced photography magazines. Let’s not forget the millions of photography articles online as well. It’s addictive. Our brain rewards us for learning. We feel like we’re improving. But content is a trap, and too much information atrophies or paralyzes us.
Information with application is different. If we can immediately use what we’re learning, we’ll assimilate it faster and retain more. I studied French for almost a decade and can hardly hold a conversation, but speaking Spanish with my Peruvian girlfriend makes it much easier to learn.
There needs to be a balance. I see some photographers who learned a few techniques back when film was still popular, and have just stuck with them. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, they reason. But no, you need to be constantly evolving, learning form others and letting your photography keep pace with your own evolution.
But chances are if you’re reading this, you’re taking in too much information without applying it. Get a little bit of relevant theory and then practice, practice, practice until you understand it well enough to integrate it with your vision. Then seek out another bit of knowledge to turn into understanding.
The takeaway from this is that we’re really not as capable as we might imagine. Nor do we understand how to best work with our psychology to make the most of our energies. We try to learn the ‘right’ settings by looking at the aperture, shutter speed and ISO used in photos we admire. But our brain hasn’t evolved to memorize numbers.
It can however tell you if a drinks can is full or not just by picking it up. Far better it is then to develop the muscle memory associated with changing the settings on your camera. Work on specific areas until they’re second-nature and you’ll find your photography will improve far faster.
Go forth and practice!
So that’s enough theory for now. Here’s a test; set an alarm to ring in a couple of hours then carry on with whatever you were doing. Try and remember what this article was about. If you can’t remember what you read, then there was no point in spending your time to read it. There’s a wealth of knowledge available that can push your photography to the highest levels; but only you can unpack it into understandings. Make it applicable. Make it stick. Use it. Make it your own.
I’m a newbie runner, but have a great friends to support. I hope I can run more often
by Matt Dutile
Along with lighting, subject, perspective, composition is one of the fundamental tools to creating better images. It’s one of the easier ones to begin applying to your own photography as well. Here are a few tips on improving your composition, with examples from a recent fitness photo shoot.