How To Shoot Into The Sun Without Creating A Silhouette

By Jason Row / June 14, 2018

Silhouettes, they can be beautiful. They are one of the first shots we aspire to when we get into photography. Fortunately, there are many articles telling you how to shoot great silhouettes, I may have written one or two myself. However, there are often times when we want to shoot into the sun without turning our subject into a silhouette. Today we are going to tell you why and how to do that. 

Why Would You Not Want A Silhouette?

Probably the most common reason is when shooting a model. You might want the red glow of a beautiful sunset to compliment your subject. Other times you might want to get the high key effect, perhaps shooting towards the sun on a white sandy beach.

Landscapes and urban photography are other areas where you might want to keep exposure on your subject matter whilst shooting into the sun. So how do we go about that?

Backlighting is often used in outdoor portraits. By stevetulk

Nailing The Exposure

The key to keeping the subject well lit is getting the exposure right. Most cameras default to a matrix metering system. This will measure the exposure from various parts of the frame and estimate the correct exposure. Because our subject might be a very small part of the frame, the camera may well get the exposure way off. 

Almost any subject can work well backlit. Credit Pixabay

A better option is to use spot metering, or if that’s not an option, centre weighted metering. With spot metering, you can point the camera directly at your subject and lock exposure via the shutter button or EL button. Other options include shooting manually and using the histogram to keep exposure inside your sensor limits and using the exposure compensation dial. 

The key question you need to answer is how you want your background exposed. If you are happy the let the background wash out then you are good to go. Expose for the subject and let the background become bright and, however you want some detail in the background, you may well need to use some fill-in light. 

Nailing the exposure is key to a successful backlit shot. Credit Pixabay

Filling In Your Subject

It's pretty much certain that if you are shooting into the sun there will be a wide contrast range between foreground and background. If you wish to keep the background well exposed, then you will need to add light to your subject. There are a couple of ways to do this. 

The simplest, perhaps most portable is to use a small fill-in flash gun. You can balance the amount of light on your subject with the ambient light on the background. Add more flash, the background will go darker and vice-versa.

Alternatively, you can use a reflector. This might be as simple as a piece of white card or a more elaborate dedicated silver or white folding reflector. The main issue with using reflectors is, of course, the need to secure it in position.

It's not just people that benefit from fill-in flash. By Vincent van der Pas

Some Other Things To Consider

Positioning your subject relative to the sun can make a big difference to the way the image looks. You can use the subject to hide the sun, this often gives a very nice effect called rim lighting. Alternatively, position the subject to the side of the sun. 

Use objects to shield the sun. By Panoramas

Lens flare is also a very important thing to consider. A lens hood might help a little but the best option is a very clean lens and some trial and error with positioning. Use nearby objects to shield the sun such as tree branches. You can also use lens flare as a part of your image if all else fails.

Focusing can be tricky when shooting towards the light. Often it is best to switch to manual focus and use your viewfinder or screen’s visual aids to get a good focus. 

Depth of field is also an important consideration for two reasons. Firstly it lets you define how in focus you want the background to be. Your background may be cluttered in which case you would want to shoot wide aperture.

Secondly, different apertures will have a different effect on how the sun looks in the image. Depending on the lens and aperture, the sun might look large and undefined or small and sharp, perhaps with sunbursts.

Shooting into the sun is not all about the silhouette. You can get some amazing shots, particularly with people as the subject by shooting into the sun but avoiding a silhouette.

It’s challenging, it makes you think about exposure for both foreground and background. In short, it challenges you to master many aspects of photographic technique and that can only be a good thing. 


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About the author

Jason Row

Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. His images have been licensed to companies such as Cunard, Ethiad and Virgin Atlantic as well as multiple newspapers and magazines. As well as shooting stills he is now creating travel stock video in 4K. He maintains a travel stock photography site at Jason Row Photography You can also catch up with him on Instagram at Jason Row Photography

  • edmundarchibald says:

    hi Jason very well explained some good tips thank you.


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