Shooting in the sun

The sun is a powerful source of light. Perhaps a bit too powerful when it comes to photography. If you try to look at the sun with your own eyes you’re gonna feel a sting of pain. Most of us cannot do it at all, and if you try then you feel like you can still see the sun “burned” into your vision for a little while after. This is kind of what can happen if you take a picture of the sun. Some would say that you should be careful overdoing it when shooting the sun as you might ruin your sensor. Personally I have no citation on this, it’s just something I’ve heard, but I don’t actually know for sure.

If you read my article about flash photography then you may remember how I talked about the size of the light source. There are no light source in our solar system larger than the sun itself, but if you measure it from where you stand it will relatively look like it is only a few centimeters. (This is also why we always want our subject as close to the flash surface as possible, simply because it relatively becomes a larger surface from where the subject stands). Now, obviously we cannot place the subject closer to the sun, so there’s not much to do about that.


Example of a shot directly into the sun while finding an “in-between” setting, over exposing the sun, and under exposing the subject.

Here are the places you can put your subject and what you can expect to happen:

1) Subject facing the sun in direct sunlight: You will have the most light to work with, but it will be very rough light that will make the subject squint their eyes and get a kind of unnatural look. It will likely physically hurt if they stop squinting. The shadows in the face will also be rather harsh and will likely result in a less than favourable look.

2) Subject with their back to the sun: This will give the most natural look in the subject’s face, but will also be difficult to get a good shot of depending on the location of the sun. Because the surroundings are likely to be far brighter than the subject’s face, the details on the person in the shade will likely be under exposed. (Ie. darker). If you set the camera settings to adapt to the person, the background will be over exposed. Personally, in situations like this I will almost always try to have the camera take a well exposed picture of the person and let the background blow out. Having the background out of focus (using a shallow depth of focus) will make this effect even better.

3) Place the subject in the shade: Placing the subject in the shade will give a better exposure of both the subject and the parts of the background also in shade. The downside is that you won’t have that powerful light that gives outside shots the glow that they usually have. The light in shadows are also usually pretty flat and kind of dull.

4) Use a camera setting that is “in between”: Simply set your camera setting to over expose the sun and under expose the subject. Depending on what you’re looking for you can get a rather interesting result.


Shot using a fill light

5) Compensate for the difference in light: If the subject has the sun in her/his back, it is quite possible to compensate for the lack of light in front by using a fill light flash for example. This will give the glowing edges from the sun around a silhouette that can look very good, but at the same time also light up the parts of the subject in shade. This is a commonly used technique and is often one of the best options in my opinion. The downside is that you have to adapt the strength of the flash, and the only real way of doing this is a couple of trial and error shots. With more experience you should be able to make a fairly educated guess to this, requiring less time to get everything ready.

Another compensation can be to use a reflector. A reflector is basically simply a large straight surface, usually in a light color of some variation. This is held at an angle so that light that hits the reflector, you guessed it, reflects onto your subject. This is a clever move because you will get a light onto your subject that will most likely be a good compliment to the surrounding light. It is also quick and easy, though it often requires an assistant. Another plus is that you won’t run out of batteries.

Last, but not least, as long as its possible it is always a good idea to shoot your images outside duing the “golden hour”. This is the time of day that is either one hour after sunrise or one hour before sundown. You can always find out when this is at your location by checking This is the time of day where the great outdoors just seems most magical and gives the best light to shoot in. Notice in the example above how the trees are for example lit better on one side than the other, feeding more depth to the shot and making it just look more interesting.

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