Jim Zuckerman on Landscape Photography: Shooting into the Sun
By Jim Zuckerman
Published by SekonicPhotographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to meter and compose images that use the sun as a key element.
The sun makes a powerful element in a landscape composition. It adds a strong focal point, and at the same time, the quality of the light in the photograph becomes dynamic. When you use a telephoto lens, the sun looks disproportionately large and dominates the scene. The longer the lens, the larger the sun will appear. For example, figure 1 was taken with a 500mm lens on a full-frame sensor; thus it appears huge behind the tree. Similarly, the Taj Mahal is framed next to a very large sun in figure 2. In both shots, you can see how dramatic the sun is because of its size and its prominence in the picture.
On the other hand, using a wide-angle lens to include the sun creates a very different kind of image. Figure 3 was taken in Lone Pine, California in the early morning, and figure 4 shows a geyser in New Zealand. Both were done with the equivalent of a 24mm lens. (They were shot with a Mamiya RZ67, a medium-format film camera. I took them several years ago with a 50mm lens, which provides the same angle of view on a medium-format camera that a 24mm lens gives you on a full-frame, small-format digital camera.) The sun appears very small in the frame in this type of shot, and if you use a small lens aperture, it looks like a star with radiating points of light.
The most important issue you have to deal with when shooting the sun is exposure. Because meters are programmed to interpret medium-tone subjects, when the sun is part of the composition, the brilliant light adversely affects the reading. The meter wants to make the brilliant scene middle gray, and therefore the result is underexposure. If the sun is a very small part of the composition and it is placed away from the center of the viewfinder where most of the exposure data is taken, it will have little impact on the meter reading. This was the case in figure 5. However, if the sun is large or appears in the center of the picture, then you can be sure that the image will be underexposed.
The way around this problem is simple: Instead of taking the meter reading toward the sun, you read the light off to the side, away from the sun. Choose an area of the sky that has approximately a middle tone. If you're metering with your camera's built-in meter, press halfway down on the shutter-release button to activate the meter, and then press the AE (autoexposure) lock button. This locks the meter reading, and when you recompose the picture and shoot, you will get a correct exposure. The trick, of course, is identifying the area in your picture that has a middle tone. In figures 6 and 7, I have indicated with a red circle the areas that would give me an accurate reading. To be able to read these relatively small areas of the scene, you have to switch to a spot metering mode. That enables the camera to read 3 to 5 percent of the picture area, and if you aim it at the center of the middle-tone area, you should be able to get an exposure value that is correct.
The most precise way to read small areas of a landscape composition is with a handheld meter such as the Sekonic L-758DR. It has a 1-degree spot-mode capability, so you can zoom in on one small area of the scene. If you use a handheld meter, you set your camera to manual mode, set the shutter speed and lens aperture according to the meter reading, and shoot.
One of the techniques I use a lot is to shoot toward the sun but partially or completely hide it behind a branch, rock, flower, or tree trunk. For example, when I took a shot of a cactus at sunset (figure 8), I hid the sun behind one of the branches of the plant. I did the same thing in a cemetery in Massachusetts during autumn (9). In the desert landscape of Namibia (10), I hid the entire sun behind the tree to get that dynamic glow in the background.
A variation on the theme of shooting into the sun is shown in figure 11. In this case, I included the sun’s reflection in water. The sky had a thin cover of clouds, and I thought its texture was especially interesting. The sun adds a dynamic component to the image, and I placed it on one of the power points according to the Rule of Thirds.
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All text and images in this article are © Jim Zuckerman.