10 Tips for Shooting Into the Sun for Dramatic Images

People are often surprised when they ask me, “where did you go to school to learn photo and film?” – then I respond by explaining I’m 100% self taught. Trial by fire. Here’s the thing though, there’s a reason I didn’t go to school to learn tricks of the trade. Shooting into the sun was the biggest reason. Let me explain.

When I began entertaining the idea of a career in photo and film I started looking into school. I spoke to some profs. I looked at some course outlines. Something caught my eye. “Using natural light and avoid shooting into the sun”. This made no sense to me.

I hadn’t been shooting long at the time but I knew that the images I loved most were almost always backlit (the key light is directly behind the subject). It was one factor among many, but I just knew school wouldn’t be for me after I learned more about it. I’ve never looked back, and some of my favourite photos are still shot right into the sun. Here’s how to do it right. (Not according to traditional schools).

1. Make Blue Bird Days More Interesting.

Shooting into the sun is a great way to make an otherwise high contrast and harshly lit photo into a more interesting and dynamic photo.

Queen Mary Basecamp in Kluane National Park, Yukon. by Ryan Richardson

2. Create Silhouettes by Exposing to the Sky in Low Light.

Silhouettes are dramatic and timeless. Exposing to the brightest part of your composition will under expose your subject when backlit by the sun.

Shot in the remote Highlands of Iceland during Crossing Iceland Expedition. By Ryan Richardson

3. Create a “Sun Burst” Effect by Closing Your Aperture.

Closing your aperture to F/11 – F/16 will create a sun burst effect giving the sun in your photo more shape and definition. Don’t forget to position the sun against something like a rock, tree, horizon, person, etc. The sun burst will look more dramatic if you have it “breaking” against an object or subject in your image.

Taken by Ryan Richardson in remote Utah during a recreational trail run.

4. Try Under Exposing and Pulling Shadows Out in Post.

Even if you’re not creating a silhouette, try under exposing a little and then pulling out your shadows in post. There’s more information in lowlight than highlights. That means you can still have a lot of detail in your shot even after pulling your shadows and the sky looks totally natural just as you shot it.

Cross-country skiing in Milton, ON shot by Ryan Richardson

5. Using Shallow Depth of Field for Real Lens Flares.

Tasteful sometimes in Hollywood, but almost never done well in photography is lens flares. Make sure your lens is spotless, and your aperture is wide open. For best results you want a fast lens like a 2.8 or 1.8.

Product shoot for Wuxly Movement shot by Ryan Richardson

6. Applying Other Rules to Your Composition.

Don’t forget to still consider rules like “leading lines”, or “rule of thirds”. Including traditional rules while intentionally breaking other traditional rules is a recipe for interesting photos.

ACMG Yamnuska Mountain Guide demonstrates ice climbing during the Southern Ontario Ice Festival on assignment for Arc’teryx in Northern Ontario. Photo by Ryan Richardson.

7. Shoot Into the Sun After the Sun Sets.

Using leftover available light it a great way to create dramatic photos. Try exposing to subject and blowing out the highlights a little bit. This technique looks great in the winter when you can see a person’s breath, or ice particles in the air.

Athlete portrait shoot in Milton ON.

8. Celebrate Over Exposing Subjects.

This is of course the exact opposite of under exposing your subject like previously mentioned. Obviously variety is the key. Try a little bit of everything.

Shot on assignment by Ryan Richardson during Trans Namibia Expedition. Namibia, Africa.

9. Pay Attention to the Way the Sun-Light Wraps Around Other Elements in Your Photo.

Watching the sun interact with other elements like people, and foreground is the coolest thing for me. I just love watching the way the sun makes interest shapes and colours around the environment as it sets behind the horizon.

Shot on assignment in remote Africa. Photo by Ryan Richardson.

10. “Paint” Your Subjects in Post.

When you expose to the sky you’ll be under exposing your subjects. Know your camera and it’s capabilities in post. The more megapixels the better in this case. Make local shadow adjustments by painting your subjects to your desired exposure. In this photo I pulled the shadows on Hailey and I and lifted the exposure.

Couple hiking on coast Georgian Bay on the Bruce Trail.
Shot on a multi-day hike on the Bruce Peninsula in northern Ontario.

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