Sunrises and sunsets are beautiful. Solar eclipses are intriguing. Sun stealing a glance through clouds can create drama. However when can sun be included in the photograph is a big question that many people face. Should it be a part of the frame or not? How about the damage that it can cause to the camera?
(Bright sun in a photograph can also look extremely bright and even disturbing, but don’t worry. It does not damage the eyes. Staring at it can play tricks with retina leaving an after-image but the effect is temporary.)
Sun can be harmful
Sun is very very powerful. Do you remember burning a piece of paper using a convex lens by focusing sun rays to a spot? Imagine the damage the same sun can cause. Looking at the sun focuses its rays on to the central part of our retina (the photosensitive part of our eyes). The retina as a result gets damaged. This is a medically recognized condition and is called ‘solar retinopathy’. This happens when the sun is uncomfortable to look at. However at sun-rise and sunsets, there is a good amount of air and atmospheric dust between the sun and our eyes. So the sun is not uncomfortable to look at. At these times there is practically no damage to our eyes.
Placing a camera in front of the eye and then looking at the sun is equally harmful and if the lens is a fast tele, the damage can be worse. The UV filters provide no protection from the sun related damage. What if there is an electronic interface and an electronic viewfinder or liveview? Here the image is captured by the sensor and observing the sun through this leads to focusing of the sun’s rays onto the sensor. The eyes are safe but the sensor is not. This can permanently damage the sensor.
Even with film cameras, the damage from sun was not uncommon. I have actually seen a film roll which got burnt from being focused and exposed to the sun for long.
(Sunrise on a foggy morning – image would have been incomplete without the sun)
Do not directly focus at the sun in the day time when it is even a little bit uncomfortable to look at it. Avoiding the sun in the frame is the first thing to prevent damage to the eyes and camera. As an intuition, no photographer captures the day time sun in photographs. Most of us avoid it. The photographs are mostly around us and sometimes even below us. Very rarely do they occur above us on a sunny day.
Sometimes, it may be necessary to focus at the sun when it is high up in the sky. The recent solar eclipse was one such occasion. When this is planned, get a proper solar filter. An inexpensive option used to be a stack of UV Filter, IR-blocking Filter and a medium darkness ND Filter. No, just using ND filter(s) is harmful for the eyes and can also cause ugly color shifts. Another option are solar filters which go between the mount and the lens. I am not a big fan of these but if these are the only ones available in your region, then got for it. After mounting the filter, photograph using electronic view-finder or live-view. Do not use the optical view finder and risk damaging your eyes. Cameras can be replaced but our retinas can’t. If your camera does not have live view option, then focus the camera to infinity and use a medium aperture. Use manual mode and tweak the exposure based on histogram preview (Understanding Histograms).
(Sunset behind the pines. Photographed in Kumaon)
Technical Aspects to Photographing Sun
Now that you have all the basic information about the sun and how to prevent damage, next comes how to capture it.
Minimal filters / Reduce flare – For all sunrise and sunset shots, remove the clear filter / UV filter if you have it on your lens (To use a clear filter or not?). These filters are an added source of flare.
Metering? Use evaluative metering mode (Metering Modes). Center-weighted metering mode can lead to overly dark photographs and spot metering can blow out the sky. Even after using evaluative metering mode, preview the histogram.
Sensor Heat – The sun, apart from being bright, also causes the sensor to heat up. Yes, there is an IR filter before the sensor, to protect it, but still the sensor heats up. This causes the neighboring ‘pits’ of the sensor to also heat up even though the sun’s image is not being projected on them. These hot ‘pits’ also show up as bright areas and blur the outline of the sun and any other key elements that you might be planning to include just next to the sun. So, underexpose a little if this is the case.
There is always a single plane of focus – If the entire frame has elements which are located at infinity, then focus at infinity (more about definition of infinity when it comes to lenses, later on). Do not focus a little less than infinity and then use small aperture. The photography gurus have got this wrong. There is always just one perfect plane in focus even if the aperture used is small with good depth of field. If the subject is at infinity then let this focus plane be set at infinity. Do reduce the aperture a little to do away with minor errors in focusing and to get the best out of your lens.
Hyperfocal distance – If there are any foreground objects then use the hyperfocal distance method for focusing (Staying Focused). Measure the distance to the nearest object and then focus at a distance which divides the foreground to the background distance into three equal parts, focus on the junction of first and second segment (yes, both foreground and the background will be blurred in the view-finder) and then stop down the aperture (high F-number).
An after-thought – why did the camera manufacturers stop printing hyperfocal scale on the lenses? Search for it on internet if you are new to photography and see how a simple etching on lens bodies used to help old-timers like me.
Another catch – when photographing sun and a foreground, please do not calculate hyperfocal distance using actual distance of sun, instead use an approximation of infinity used by lens makers. Multiply focal length in mm by 1000. The answer would be your distance to be used for infinity for calculating the hyperfocal distance. For example infinity for a 50mm lens is about 50 meter!
Graduated ND – Another challenge is with the bright sky. Some of the methods to get good amount of information in the sky without darkening the foreground is to use graduated ND filters (Neutral Density Filters), exposure bracketing and then creating HDR or even clicking raw and recovering details in post-processing. I’ll write about HDR some other time.
This point is specifically for solar eclipses – At the height of complete solar eclipse, when the sun is completely in shadow, the dark solar filter might have to be removed to capture the sun’s corona or bright region encircling the sun. This lasts a brief moment and the filter will be required as soon as the sun starts to re-appear from the eclipse. Do this only if you are confident of what you are doing. Also, buy a solar filter which is not too dark. An extremely dark solar filter may reduce the shutter speed drastically leading to motion blur (see this article for details – Star Trails)
Use a tripod when the focal length is long or when the intention is to create HDR.
For creating star like effect, close down the aperture (use high f-number). The light rays tend to bend from the edges of the aperture blades and create a star like pattern. This is easier to achieve with apertures that have fewer number of blades and the edges are not rounded. (Similar effect can also be had from the so called star effect filters which have scratched surface causing streaks of light. I do not recommend these filters since these end up softening the image, much more than the softening that happens with extremely small apertures)
(Against the sun but with the sun just out of the frame)
Now comes the most important question. Should the sun be a part of the photograph or should it be kept out of the frame? My reply to the question also happens to be a question- Is the presence of sun in the frame adding something to the overall composition? If it is adding something to the composition then keep it in the frame. If it is not adding any value to the composition, then it can be safely ignored.
Presence of sun in the frame adds a very over-powering element, especially if it is bright (not like the way it appears just before sunset). Such an overpowering element can also be a cause of tension in the image which many sensitive viewers might find disturbing to look at.
A lot of sunset photographs are made long after the sun has actually disappeared, during the time which we fondly refer to as the golden hour.
So decide based on how the sun strengthens your composition. There are no rules to suggest including it or excluding it from the frame. Do what your heart says is the best for the photograph.
(The presence of sun in this composition makes the overall photograph full of tension. The print however looks very well balanced. Is there something to what our elders have been always saying about the digital displays being bad for our eyes?)
There’s a fancy French word for those of you wanting to impress others. Shooting against the light is called ‘Contre-Jour’ in French. (Playing with Words)