Winter sunsets are the best, especially here in Los Angeles, where the Instafamous (which is everyone) are sure to capture stunning snaps every evening around 5pm. I lead a photography tour in Venice Beach where we go capture shots just like this, every Friday night. One of the things every visitor wants to know is how to get that deep, dark, sun-drenched look they see in Instagram feeds like these:
To be sure, photos don’t usually look exactly like the ones you see posted, right out of the camera — there’s a bit of technique involved. And that’s why we’re here. So, let’s go get some sun:
Shooting Into The Sun
When learning photography, one of the first things you get taught is what a key light is. And you quickly come to understand that the greatest key light of all is the sun. And so, normally, you’d be using that light to light your model’s face. But for this kind of image, we’re going to do the exact opposite. Here, we shoot into the sun. This is less about how your model or location is going to be lit and more about the sun, itself.
When you face away from the sun, the only aspects of the sun that the viewer will notice are its brightness and, maybe, its color. And while it can be beautiful, we conceive it as light, not as the sun. And for these images, we want to see and feel the sun.
Sun As Subject
We often forget that the sun itself can be an element in our photos. Sure, it’s real real bright, but you can work around that with filters, small aperture settings or placing it just off to a corner or behind something, like your subject. Obviously, be extremely careful about never looking directly at the bright sun in midday — this is terrible for both you and your camera. But when the sun is lower in the sky and especially when there’s a ton of atmosphere, as there often is in the mornings, or at the beach, use the sun as a player in your scene. Nothing says bright and sunny like a big, bright ball of fire.
The Behavior of Sunlight
When looking through a camera lens at a subject placed between the sun and yourself, the immediate thought is that you’re going to get a silhouette. And sometimes that’s a great kind of shot. But you don’t have to concede all model detail to shadows when shooting into the sun, remember that most good cameras have quite a few stops of dynamic range to work with and you can probably bring up some details simply by increasing your shadows in post.
In fact, post work on these sun-drenched kinds of images (which we’ll get into more later on) is a key element of this style of shooting. Shooting for a sun-drenched image is one of the few times where I don’t pay much attention to how the photo looks on my screen. I’m far more concerned with the placement of the sun and seeing how that affects the image.
By placing the model and the sun in such a way that you can see the light as a rim light or glow is a great way to signal that there’s sun here. The light is far more dynamic this way than simply smacking the subject on the face with it, but it is also behaving in a way that we understand the sun to behave — and in ways we don’t see when we face away from it. So, as a viewer, seeing backlight is another way we comprehend that something especially sunny is happening.
But this isn’t only about rim light — shooting into the sun also offers other sun behaviors to happen, like flares and “leaks.” You’ll notice these as you move your camera lens around and your image through your viewfinder starts to play with the light coming at you. Small moves and tilts of the lens will brush in swaths of light in beautiful and artful ways. Little moves go a long way, so find a place where the light is dancing inside your lens and move in teeny increments from there to add your own spice and flavor.
Also, while the lower sun of morning and evening are certainly a help here, they are not a must. If the sun is up high, you can still position yourself low so that the sun is behind your subject. You can also diffuse it with tree leaves or with reflected light, found or created.
In this image on the left, I’ve shot toward the sun, though not directly into it. The time is around 3pm, so not morning or golden hour. And I’ve used this method of diffusing the light through trees for our sun-drenched look. But there are two pieces to this image that are added components:
First is a light off to the right, to help light the model (a bounce can be used here just as well) and the second is the atmosphere (you can use a fog machine or simply aerosol cans of water atmosphere) to bring out the rays of light. You can also use sand or stomp up some dust to see the sun streaks better. These rays are, again, the behavior of sun that we are after to sell the idea of being “sun-drenched,” and accomplished by shooting toward the sun, so that it’s one of our subjects, rather than our key light.
Color grading images in order to sell the feeling of sun-drenched is almost always an essential part of this kind of image. And, as forced as it may be, sometimes it’s a LOT of coloring. Here’s a typical before/after:
It’s up to you to decide if you think a color grade on your image is better, worse or simply just different, but just know that coloring images happens in every movie, every TV show and nearly every kind of photography. Black and white photography is a form of color grading. And in the old days, we used film types with different color profiles and a myriad of filters, so I believe there is little to be precious about with post-processing. Make it look the way you want it to look.
As for that sun-drenched look, there’s a number of ways to color an image, but it’s best to understand the principles of what you’re doing and then work from there.
I prefer to think of three types of coloring: overall color shifts (to the whole image), and the two parts of split toning: shadow tint and highlight tint. And for an image that is very intense and saturated, most photographers are affecting all three. But let’s start by looking at split toning:
We’re looking at Lightroom here for this adjustment, and you can see I’m putting yellow into the highlights and orange into the shadows. By split-toning and doing different colors for shadows and highlights, I can create a more natural look that you often lose when doing an overall color grade.
For an even more true-to-life look, I like to put a pink or purple into the shadow and keep my highlights relatively cool. This has the effect of getting my subject to feel warmed up but still keeping a sense of realism to the sky.
And here’s an image that has been much more aggressively colored:
Here, we shift our color balance far toward yellow and, depending on the shot, can do any number of shadow colors in our split tone — from orange to purple to blue. This kind of coloring takes a bit more work and is much harder to do with your phone’s own editing tools or Instagram’s. Lightroom would be my first option, but VSCO has some great capabilities here, too. On the left, I’ve put a VSCO recipe for you, that might help.
You’ll notice it doesn’t tell you what the Split Tone colors are. In this case the Highlights are yellow (+12, all the way to the top) and the shadow is blue (+3.2, just a touch — as described, the blue adds a bit more realism to the overall shading, as it’s evening and the shadows of evening can be pretty cool). But you can experiment there on your own.
And that’s how it’s done. Remember, job 1 is to shoot in a way that features the sun, whether that’s to backlight a subject or actually have the sun (or the effects of the sun) in your image. And then from there it’s about finding the right way to color it to enhance and deepen the look. I recommend keeping your recipes in whatever application you use handy. It makes it a one-click process of taking nearly any image and giving it that look.