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Fantastic Tips for Shooting Bravely in the Sun

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Every two weeks, we revisit some of our reader favorite posts from throughout the history of Phototuts+. This tutorial was first published in January of 2010.

The first rule I ever learned about taking photos was to take them with the sun to my back so it lit the subject and didn't cause what I came to know as 'backlighting'. This presents a few problems - primarily that if your subject is a person, he/she will be squinting into the bright sun.

Sometimes, shooting with the sun at your back can offer a perfectly acceptable solution. I love photographing people with the sunset behind me, lighting their faces with a beautiful golden glow. So let's get 'stuck in' and discuss the various issues surrounding photographing in the sun.


1. The Golden Hour

The 'golden hour' happens twice a day. It is the one hour just after sunrise and before sunset. Shadows are longer, the color is warmer and the light is softer. When photographing people, especially an engagement session (or any session without children who will be cranky and ready for bed) I love suggesting a time two hours before sun down. The first hour is spent getting into the 'groove' and, once they're comfortable, I try to catch the best images using those last few rays of warm sunlight.


2. Make Shade

Shade can come in many various forms - trees, buildings, crouching down next to a car. If you need shade, but have none, make some! This is where having an extra pair of hands comes in handy. Make shade with an umbrella or even a piece of foam board. In the reflector family of accessories, there are translucent panels which can filter the sun to tone it down a notch.


3. Make Good Choices

In the above photo, the sun was so blinding that I chose to cut out the faces altogether. I loved the warmth and the strong shadows so I made the split second decision to recompose my shot.


4. Editing Methods

I have found that the photos I feel require the most careful post production work are those which I shot in the sun. See the before/after below. The before (completely untouched) is dark and muddy. The after actually makes my heart skip a beat. I feel like she is actually staring right into my soul.

One of the methods I have found the most rewarding in the editing process is to consider the option of black and white for the image. I feel this adds such a subtle mystery. People expect images shot in the sun to be colourful or bright, but altering the colours in a way that causes the viewer to stop to contemplate your image ("was that actually taken in the bright sun?") represents a real achievement.

These images aren't actually black and white - they have a mocha hue to take advantage of the warmth offered by the sun. I used the free Coffee Bar Lightroom Presets from Coffee Shop.


5. Use a Flash

I'm a pretty simple girl at times - using a flash in the sun completely blew my mind when I realized it could be done. So not only am I a crazed momarazza chasing my children around on the beach with a ginormous camera, it also has a massive speedlite attached!

I love placing a subject with the sun to their back using a flash. The light just wraps around them. And I love that in this photo of my son, the flash can be seen in his glasses. That wasn't done on purpose, but was a sweet little surprise when I was going through the photos - take your flash out in the sun and just let the magic happen.


6. Camera Settings

ISO

The ISO level needs to be higher in low light situations, but luckily with the type we're talking about today, noise won't be a problem for you as it is with lower light photography. Set it as low as possible (mine goes down to 100). As with all camera settings, don't forget to check them before shooting. Imagine if you set your quality to low to take eBay pics and then forgot to reset it to RAW for a wedding the next day. Check, check and recheck that your settings are as they should be before shooting.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is like blinking your eye. While aperture dictates how much light enters your camera, shutter speed dictates for how long the eye is open. Higher levels of light mean that your shutter need not be open very long to let that light flood in. Shooting at higher shutter speeds is required for sports, and is great for photographing fast-moving children.

White Balance

When shooting manual, you have the option of setting your white balance which controls the colour temperature. Experiment with settings which you might not normally use for that situation. In the sun, especially on an autumn day, I love using the shade or cloudy settings because it warms the colours up.

You can also use Lightroom develop module to select other white balance settings later on - particularly if you shoot in RAW.

Aperture

Like I just said above, aperture is like the pupil of your eye. When shooting in manual mode, you have to tell the pupil how wide to open. The lower the number in f/stops, the wider the opening and the more light being let in to hit the camera's sensor. Be careful, though, because lower f/stops (wider apertures) create more shallow depth of field (DOF) and can result in most of the image being blurry apart from a bit of sharpness in the foreground. But since we're talking sunny, wide open apertures aren't necessary because you aren't in low light conditions.


7. Sunny 16

"Sunny 16" is the rule that says to set your aperture to 16 (using AV mode on your camera) in bright sun-lit situations. If you're in full manual mode, remember ISO should be at 100. And for shutter speed, try 1/100 or 1/125. For faster shutter speeds, you may find it helpful to bump up the ISO to 200.

A variation of Sunny 16 is to set your shutter speed nearest to the reciprocal of the ISO speed and the aperture accordingly. The following table from the Wikipedia Sunny 16 entry should help:

Aperture Lighting Conditions Shadow Detail
f/16 Sunny Distinct
f/11 Slight Overcast Soft around edges
f/8 Overcast Barely visible
f/5.6 Heavy Overcast No shadows

8. Reflectors

Reflectors are my all time favorite accessory for shooting outdoors. Whether purchased or home made, they can make a huge difference to the quality of your images. Reflectors do exactly what they say on the box: reflect light. They are used to aim light into the dark spots on a subject to fill them with light and diffuse unwanted shadows.

As I've already established previously, we can get stunning results when we position models back-to-the-sun and place ourselves facing the sun. I mentioned the option of using a flash to light the subject from the front, but you also have the option of using a reflector. The result is a subject beautifully lit by the sun from both the front and the back.

There are a very wide range of reflectors available for purchase, coming in many different shapes, sizes and colours as well as ones with handles or even stands so you don't need an assistant to hold it. Here is a basic rundown of the colours available and their effect on the colour and light quality on your subject.

  • Gold – Creates warm tones and makes your subject's skin appear a little more tanned.
  • White  - Neutral colour effect. Gathers the existing light and softly fills in shadows to light your subject. Great for brides because they don't alter the white of the dress.
  • Blue – Cool tones.
  • Silver – Neutral in colour although brighter than white.
  • Translucent - There are translucent panels in this accessory family which can be used to filter harsh rays beautifully like a thin layer of clouds in the sky.

Another advantage to using reflectors is the catchlights they can produce. Catchlights are when the light source is visible in your subject's eyes (look closely at the image above to see the catchlights resulting from the use of the reflector). Catchlights can add life and sparkle to the eyes. Unlike using flash to fill the shadows, using a reflector gives you control of the catchlights as you can direct your assistant who will be holding the reflector for you.


9. Lens Hoods

Lens hoods are devices which attach to the end of your lens to block streams of sunlight from causing unwanted glare and lens flare. If you're like me, you'll find they're also useful for protecting your glass when you forget to put your lens cap back on.


10. If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em

Then there's always the option of chilling out and letting the sun do it's own thing. Go wild - take the lens hood off and allow the sun flare. You may be very pleasantly surprised.


11. Safety

When the sun is concerned, there are safety measures which should always be taken. Always use appropriate sun protection (although it is difficult to wear sunglasses while looking through a viewfinder) and never ever look at the sun, not even through your lens. The camera may feel like a safety measure, but looking at the sun through the camera is just as dangerous.


12. Finally

Finally, the sun can be your greatest ally or a pain in the neck. Anyone can hide from the sun but it takes guts to boldly stand out and say, 'you don't scare me!'

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