Backlighting: tips and tricks for photographing into the sun
Shooting into the sun is awesome.
It makes your scene pop, and your subject flattering.
People are far too scared about shooting into the sun.
In this post I’m going to explain in five reasons why you should add shooting into the sun to your ‘to-do’ list, and give you eight important tips and tricks for nailing the shot.
Firstly: some credentials. Anybody can write anything online so it helps to know where this is coming from. I’m a professional photographer. I’ve been shooting for 15 years. Don’t believe me? See my work at oliversmithphoto.com and on instagram.
Why you should experiment with backlight
Phew. OK. Here is my list of why shooting into the sun is amazing:
- Pop: Whatever your subject is (people, buildings, trees, mountains), a backlit scene makes a subject pop out of the background.
- 3D: It amplifies the three-dimensional nature of the scene. If you can describe photographs in one line it is this: taking a three dimensional scene and compressing it into two dimensions. Backlight helps reduce the effect of compression.
- Atmosphere: It adds atmosphere. It can make the photograph look more organic by introducing more dramatic elements into the scene. The sun and the lens flare can be used as a subject to introduce complexity into what would otherwise be a bland scene.
- Shadow boost: You can use the lens flare to boost the shadows in the right spots to add detail to a scene (this is tricky and may require you to walk around to get the right composition).
- Amplification and isolation: You can use back-light to amplify and isolate only one part of a scene (the main subject).
Tips and tricks
Shooting into the sun can be a bit more challenging than other lighting options. Here are 8 tips on how to improve your chances of getting the best shot.
1. Clean your lens
This is step 1. If it could be step 0, it would be. When you shoot into the sun, particularly if you are going to include the sun in the scene, your lens needs to be squeaky clean or it will mess with the flare.
Lens flare is caused by light scattering or refracting off the glass elements. If you add dust, moisture or imperfections onto the surface of the lens, it will throw the light in strange directions and your flare will look inconsistent. **Sometimes that’s actually a good thing (see below), but use with caution!
2. Equipment can make a difference
Equipment doesn’t matter if the light is exploding all around you and everything is coming together at the right moment, and all you have is an iPhone.
Take the shot.
We are lucky to have technology at our fingertips that transcends the technical challenges of photography and puts it at anyone’s fingertips.
But cameras, and particularly lenses, react very differently when pointed at the sun.
An iPhone can flare in a very unflattering way. The lens is tiny and it gets very confused when all the light starts bouncing around in the tiny lens elements. Not always a good look.
Cheaper lenses (glass), to a lesser degree, can do the same.
I shoot a lot of landscapes, and my preference for many years has been Carl Zeiss Distagon lenses. They have very tidy lens flare characteristics because of their complex aspheric lens elements and a 9-blade curved aperture (I will be posting a guide on what this all means next week).
In short, when I point my lens at the sun, I know it can handle it. It maintains beautiful contrast and when I step the aperture down to f10 or higher, it will create perfectly formed sun rays (see image 1 for an example).
This doesn’t mean you can’t use cheaper glass — just be aware that it can react quite differently and you need to be able to manage that through positioning, exposure, and time of day.
One trick for managing unflattering lens flares is putting the sun in one corner, just outside of the frame. Which brings me on to my first in-field tip….
3. For sun haze, put the sun at the edge or outside of the frame
When shooting into the sun, one of the best effects you can create is a beautiful atmospheric ‘sun haze’.
To do this, put the sun just outside the frame, and take your lens hood off. This will allow the sun to filter into the edge of the lens glass and reduce the contrast of the scene, giving it a really atmospheric look.
For really thick haze, keep the aperture wide open (see below).
4. For sun stars, stop down the aperture
This one’s pretty straightforward. If you shoot into the sun wide open, you will get a big, overexposed blob where the sun is.
Wide open means a lens is at its lowest “f-stop” number (e.g. f2.8).
Stepping down, paradoxically, means bumping the “f-stop” number up. I usually recommend about f10 for good sun stars.
f10 is also where most lenses perform best in terms of distortion, vignetting and edge softness (which are generally all bad things, particularly for landscapes). So it’s a win-win!
What happens when you stop down the aperture is that tiny little blades in the lens close inwards to reduce the light hitting the sensor (hence the exposure is reduced).
The sun filters through the edges of the aperture blades, creating a sun star effect. If you have a 6-blade aperture, you will get 12 sun rays. If you have 9, you will get 18 rays.
The more you stop down (higher f-stop), the more thin and pronounced the rays get.
Be careful going all the way down to f22, because it will begin to reintroduce heavy vignetting, and edge softness. It will also show up any tiny speckles of dust on your sensor.
5. Hide the sun behind something in the scene
If the sun is overpowering the scene, you can always hide it behind something.
This may require you to move around and position yourself so that there is something between you and the sun.
6. Use Afternoon light to pop your subjects out of a darker background
This requires the right scene. You need the sun to be high enough so it’s still quite strong (afternoon light), and you need to find a darker scene to position your subject in front of.
As you can see above, the back-light gives the image a more three-dimensional appearance and, in addition to the dark background, helps isolate the subject from the background.
7. Expose for the subject, not the background
A general rule, particularly if you are shooting people, is to expose for the subject, not the background.
The camera will get horribly confused when you point into the sun. It won’t know where to focus, and won’t know how to expose for the scene.
Switch to manual mode, and carefully find a clear spot to focus on (the subject), before recomposing for the shot you want.
Nowadays, cameras are SO GOOD that you can actually slightly underexpose the subject to save extra details in the overexposed background.
Then, once you are in post, bring the exposure back up slightly and you will keep some of the details in the background.
Don’t go too crazy with this because sometimes part of the benefit of exposing for the subject is to get rid of distracting background elements by ‘drowning them out’ with light.
8. Experiment, take lots of photos with different exposures and in different spots
This goes without saying, but when you have an opportunity to shoot back-lit, play around with it.
Duck behind a tree and bring down the ambient light, get your subject to stand in front of the sun to create a halo effect around them, step down the aperture to get the sun rays, and open back up and take your lens hood off to get the sun haze.
And that’s it! I could go on forever but that’s a basic summary of some reasons and tips to shooting a back-lit scene.