I have spent much of the last year (in photography) chasing light – photographing the sun. Whenever possible I love to photograph in soft sunlight as a hint of light brings a photograph to life. Golden hour – that time of day photographers enthuse about – is the very best time to photograph in sunlight. The shadows are softer and the light less harsh than it can be in the middle of the day (especially in summer). However I’ve taken photos in mid winter at midday when the sunlight is filtered through a hazy mist, photo’s like that of the deer further down this post, proving that if the conditions are right you can use the sunlight to your advantage at other times of day too.
Golden hour is the hour after the sun rises in the morning and before the sun sets in the evening. The light is softer, the tone warmer and it is much easier to photograph everything at this time. But especially portraits as you can ask people to face towards the light without them squinting or it casting harsh shadows on their face.
Although ‘hour’ is not necessarily literally an hour and in winter the time is more extended…
It is generally accepted that the midday sun is harder to learn, the contrast in your photo will be high and shadows harsh. If you are taking photos in the shade the tone of them will be blue. This kind of light play can also be beautiful though, use the patterns of the shadows to add interest perhaps?
Shooting towards the sun while its a way above the horizon will, in effect, bleach the colour from the sky This is lessened as the sun is closer to the horizon. Though brightening a photo in editing will also have the same effect. A lot of my photos are taken this way, I guess I prefer the light behind a subject to the shadows cast when the subject is facing the sun.
I know it goes without saying but as always I’m stating the obvious anyway. Never look straight at the sun because your eyes are precious and it would be silly to damage them for the sake of a photo. And wear your sunglasses!
So lets have a little look at a few ways to use the sun to your photographic advantage. Be prepared to fill the cutting room floor with cast off’s though, exposure takes a while to master! Unless that’s (quite possibly) just me.
1 | try a little black & white
Just a thought…
If you are unsure of what the effect is of the light in your photo you could try setting your camera screen to black and white. This may not be possible on all cameras (and I’m not sure if at all on phones) but with a Canon you can set the screen to black and white while shooting in colour.
Another suggestion is to have a look at your photos with a black and white filter when editing. Although it may not help with photos already taken, you can learn from them and adjust your technique if needed. I have thrown away a lot of photos while learning how to use the sun! And will likely keep on doing so as I play a little more.
I will use black and white photos in this post alongside the colour photos as they demonstrate most effectively how and where the light is cast.
2 | reflected light
This is a great place to start if you aren’t sure about holding your camera up to the sun just yet.
Think about all those reflective surfaces around you. Of windows and doors, white or light buildings. Any surface that can reflect light and bounce it around the frame adds life to your photos. In the photo below the sun was out of frame to the left, just over the buildings on the opposite side of the street to those in the frame. My camera lens is pointed away from the light. What that means is the reflection of light in the windows is indirect but bright and the tops of the buildings are lighter than the bottom.
The effect can be exaggerated if you like by turning up the highlights and whites in editing or darkening the shadows and black. I also love to tweak the contrast and clarity a tiny bit in editing.
Light and water are a perfect combination. The stillness or movement of the water will bring different qualities to a photograph and the water itself reflects light onto the surfaces surrounding it. In the photo below the sun was just out of frame to the left, the buildings as you can see are in shadow. But the windows and gold painted design are reflecting light and the ripples in the water create a sparkle, one of my favourite watery lights. And Venice wears it ever so well!
Below is another example, taken early one morning before the sun had properly risen above the buildings. There’s still a hint of it there but the light is softer. You can see – particularly in the b & w version, how the water has reflected the light of the sky lifting what would otherwise be a darkness towards the bottom of the frame. Actually this photo would be better without so much sky, it’s framed for instagram squares really where I would crop out that extra sky. And maybe turn up the brightness a notch to fit my gallery…
3 | shooting into the light
This can be much trickier than a hint of sun to the edge of the frame. Focussing is partly guesswork as you can’t look into the viewfinder while the sun is in or almost in the frame. In a frame with all kinds of depths – like the branches of blossom below – it is easier to get at least some of it in focus! Alternatively angle your camera away slightly and focus on an object at a similar distance to the one you want to photograph. This technique will involve a bit of trial and error and most likely a lot of frames on the cutting room floor. But when it works its gold. (The photo at the top of this post was taken this way, the sun is in frame to the right though it was slightly hazy so it isn’t clear it’s there but it is!)
If you are using a camera, consider your aperture. This was taken at f2.8 to give a lovely depth but if you increased the aperture so more of the frame was in focus it would be easier to get that focus sharp!
sun in the frame
Filtered through your subject – in this case blossom branches – the sun is not so harsh. You can use anything with an element of transparency or gaps to filter the sun, if you catch it right you will get rays in your frame too.
When the sun catches the lens it creates a flare, a line of dots of light that leaks into the frame. Below is a subtle example of it – taken more by accident than purposefully it has to be said, but it happens to line up with the tallest grass flower so perfectly. The streaks and dots sun flare makes can be effective, they mask some of the subject and highlight other parts. This photo has minimal flare, by playing with the angle of your camera/phone you can exaggerate this effect. Sun flare is a beautiful thing. It works especially well in moving pictures, films. Chase it around the frame as you move your camera.
I think my favourite way to shoot is with the sun just to the edge – or beyond the edge of the frame so the subject is back-lit. It gives the subject a kind of halo, a rim of light. Especially when its a hairy animal! Getting the exposure right can be really tricky with this kind of shot but if it come out slightly too dark (as is often the case) you can always try and fix it a little with editing. Or embrace the silhouette – more below.
4 | shadows
Shadowplay can be so atmospheric in a photo. Mid day shadows inevitably mean high contrast (as in the photo below) and golden hour shadows will be longer and lower contrast. Strong shadows work best in frames with little colour or busy-ness. I have to admit though it’s not my personal favourite way to use the light.
5 | A few things to consider
Think about the position angle at which you are holding your camera. The smallest tilts and turns can make a big difference to the look of the light in the frame. Do you want direct sun flare across your frame? Make sure your camera is tilted towards the sun. If not try and frame the shot so the sun is a little way outside of the frame. And so on. The best way to learn is to simply have a go.
Embrace the contrast. Your subject in the foreground may well be underexposed when the sky looks beautiful, embrace this too, use the silhouettes!
I use a lens hood on my ‘big camera’, it helps avoid sun flare when I don’t actually want it as it shades the lens a little, actually it’s proved really handy on many occasions.
The images in this post were taken on two cameras. The grasses, blossom and deer were taken on my Canon 7d with a 17-55mm lens. I’d love a new zoom lens but can’t really justify it at the moment and this lens is brilliant at a little of everything. The buildings were taken on my Leica d-lux. OK so I bought this instead of a lens last year as lugging my ‘big camera’ around towns is likely to induce backache. The Leica is proving to be a brilliant camera for street photos.
You can achieve many of these effects with a phone camera too. Just have a play, see what happens!