Published Jul 5. 2013 - 10 years ago
Updated or edited Oct 19. 2019

Shooting the sun

Even though I consider sunrises and in particular sunsets as subjects more suitable for teenage bedroom posters than for fishing pictures, I have to admit that I have shot my fair part of them

Ethereal light - The very bright stripe made by the sun in the water makes the light flare or ghost in the lens, giving an almost ethereal quality to the light
Ethereal light
Martin Joergensen

Even though I consider sunrises and in particular sunsets as subjects more suitable for teenage bedroom posters than for fishing pictures, I have to admit that I have shot my fair part of them and have seen even more - a lot of which were actually very good.
Sure the subject is one of the largest cliches around and sure it's like: seen one, seen 'em all. But sunsets and in particular sunrises manage to surprise me and mesmerize me again and again, and like most people I can't help pointing my camera at the rising or setting sun to try to capture the beauty.
So I - like most other photographers - need to tune my exposure and composition to get the most of the situation.
OK, I'm shooting the sun. That's the idea. Utilizing the magic light found when the sun is low is covered in another article called Glorious light. This article is about the sun itself. The disc. Or at least reflections of the disc, as we see it in the water or another reflective surface.
Most sunsets are beautiful when seen with the bare eye. Some are spectacular and some are simply out of this world. As is the case with many phenomenons in nature, it's not easy to catch what the eyes see. Our eyes and the brain have a fantastic ability to adapt and present things in ways that are hard to get into the camera.

Evening fishing - The angler stands as a silhouette against the setting sun. It\'s a cliche, but it can look really nice
Zooming in - Using a zoom or a telephoto lens lets you depict the sun larger and more dominant
Dominant, yet discrete - The sun is almost in the center of the image, but still plays a smaller role compared to the plants in the foreground
A centerpiece - The bird makes this image of the setting sun much more interesting
Underexposing - This was not how it looked, but the camera underexposed the scene due to the bright light from the direct sun, leaving the image darker and much more orange than the scene actually was
Teenage bedroom posters
Martin Joergensen
It\'s there... - ...but the it isn\'t anyway. The sun is obscured by a veil of thin clouds
A boat with a view - The wideangle lens used here makes the sun less dominant
Wideangle - By using a wideangle lens, the sun becomes less dominant (\"smaller\") and even though it\'s bright daylight it still doesn\'t steal the picture completely
Clouds add drama - A partial cloud cover can add some real drama to an image of the sun
White light - Not all sunsets and sunrises are orange
Bright light
Martin Joergensen

When shooting into the sun, we need to take a few things into consideration:


When on the sky or just a few degrees above the horizon, the sun is extremely bright. It's hard to expose for its actual brightness, but if you try, you will most likely get a yellowish red circle and everything else will be very dark. If you on the other hand overexpose to get the surroundings visible, the sun itself and the area around it, will become a white, burned out spot in your image.
There's a huge difference from day to day or even hour to hour. Sometimes the sunlight is war and orange while it's brightly white and almost cold at other times. Haze, cloud cover and other factors have a huge influence, and you never know exactly how the sun will look in your picture. A bright sun in a deep blue sky can be fantastic or boring, bright or dull, white or orangy.
Luckily the rising and setting sun is not quite as bright, although it's still very bright. As long as it's just in the horizon or hidden behind a few clouds or a bit of fog, it's much easier to get exposed in a way that makes it look good. In those instances the sun and the light it emits is in balance, and the disc won't overpower everything else.

So you either need shoot when the light from the sun and the sun itself is in balance. That can be a question of minutes. It's there and then gone. Alternatively you can underexpose to get an expression, which is not natural but has a lot of visual effect. Using underexposure you can get some extreme teenage bedroom poster looks, but also something that can be quite pleasing.

Just a circle

All other things considered, the sun is actually a pretty boring subject, and an image of the sun alone will not thrill. You need something else in there - something to contrast or enhance.
Silhouettes are obvious: a tree, an angler, a boat or what you have. Shot against the bright disc, you can get some really nice effects.
Clouds are another obvious contender. Clouds will almost inevitably make a sun more interesting, and the most astonishing shots of the sun almost always have clouds in them.
Since we're at the water, utilizing reflections is another way to give some counterbalance to the sun itself, and shooting the reflections alone can sometimes be a very good alternative to putting the sun in the frame.

Extremely vulgar - This sunset was really extreme, but it has been enhanced even further by using a telephoto lens and zooming in on the ship, sun and smokestack.
Soft light - Even though it\'s shot straight into the sun, the evening haze still softened the light to give a very delicate set of tones
Size matters
Martin Joergensen


The sun itself has the size it always has. Our eyes and brain tend to zoom a bit and mentally we perceive the sun as larger when it's close to the horizon. It isn't, but our minds trick us to think so. The phenomenon is actually called the moon illusion.
But for sunsets and sunrises to look more dazzling we can zoom with our cameras to make the disc itself more dominant in the image. Simply use a telephoto lens. A 200mm will give a very pronounced effect, and with a 400 or a 600mm lens, we can get a very dominant sun, which fills a large part of the frame.

If you on the other hand use a wideangle lens, you can make the sun smaller and much less dominant, and have the very bright daylight sun placed in the middle of an image without it dominating very much.

In the stripe - Even though the sun is still fairly high over the horizon, the feeling of sunset is there
In the reflection - You don\'t need the disc itself in the picture to show that the sun is there
Foreground - Something in the foreground will make most sunsets and sunrises more interesting
Right behind the angler - Letting the angler cover the disc itself will often allow you to expose a bit more for the actual light rather than for the bright sun
Trails - The sun is barely visible, and what makes this interesting is the airplane trails and the reflections
The sun as a backdrop - This fly image uses the setting sun as a backdrop. A fill flash makes the fly visible rather than a silhouette
Foreground, clouds, patterns
Martin Joergensen
No sun, just light - The reflections alone make a nice, almost abstract image
Martin Joergensen


Beautiful photos!...

Beautiful photos!


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