Shooting Into the Sun

Nikon D800E, Nikon 16-35mm f/4 at f/22, ISO 100, 1/2s. Singh-Ray 2 stop reverse ND filter.
Nikon D800E, Nikon 16-35mm f/4 at f/22, ISO 100, 1/2s. Singh-Ray 2 stop reverse ND filter.

I would bet that practically every passionate landscape photographer embraces the opportunity (and good fortune) to shoot into a just setting or rising sun.  It’s those few minutes when the sun is barely over the horizon line which casts beautifully dramatic light over a scene.  Every sunrise or sunset has its own fingerprint…no two ever share the same exact light.

Here’s how I usually approach shooting landscapes with a just setting or rising sun as part of the scene:

Most of the time I shoot at a relatively high f-stop (small aperture) in this environment, and set the camera to underexpose by 2/3 of a stop in Aperture Priority (my D810 has a tendency to overexpose a little).  Not only does the high f-stop increase your depth of field, but it can also help create attractive starburst rays.  Also, I use the lowest possible ISO (more on that later).


What I look for in the final exposure is the best possible balance between the dark foreground and the bright horizon/skyline.  Since I’m shooting directly into the sun, I’ll usually spot meter for the sun itself (or near the sun)…ensuring the sun and/or horizon won’t be blown out in the photograph.  The foreground and/or parts of the landscape which aren’t illuminated by the sun will be underexposed, but I can deal with that later in post.

Whenever in doubt, I usually underexpose a little.  Darker shadows can be corrected in Photoshop (as long as they aren’t too dark), but I have a heck of a time trying to recover blown out highlights.

For our example image, I’ll use one of my favorites of Annapolis, MD. It was taken a few years ago, during a boat race.

Here’s the digital negative (RAW image), converted to jpeg.  There is no discernible difference in appearance between this compressed (but unedited) jpeg and the original RAW file:

sail1 Nikon D800E, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 70mm, f/8, ISO 400, 1/250s.

Clearly I have some work to do here…but that’s expected.  In this image, you can see that the sun and areas surrounding it are in pretty good exposure (I spot metered for the sun, which was nicely diffused by the boat’s sail), but the foreground is underexposed.  This is pretty much what I wanted out of the RAW image.

After uploading the photo into my Lightroom library, the first few steps I take toward properly exposing the image are done in Lightroom’s “Develop” module.

Once in the “Develop” module, I begin by adjusting the “Highlights” slider, which pulls back the highly exposed portions of the image, adding more definition to those areas (in this case the sky and horizon).  How much I bring down the highlights depends on how bright the horizon initially appears:

“Highlights” slider adjusted to -75.

The only change I made in the image directly above was to move the Highlights slider to -75.  If you closely compare the above image to the unedited photo, you can see the horizon and sky dimmed somewhat from the previous image. There is a little more detail and clarity in the clouds, and maybe a touch of deeper color around the sun.

That’s pretty much all there is to developing the horizon and sky.  Now we begin to work on the foreground…

The next step is to bring out the shadows by using, you guessed it, the “Shadows” slider:

sail3 “Shadows” slider adjusted to +100.

In the image above, I moved the “Shadows” slider all the way to +100…as far as it goes.  This brings out more light, color and texture in the shadows/foregound.

At this point, if the photo isn’t finished, I head over to Photoshop for more specific editing.  The foreground needs some extra attention…it’s still too dark…so into Photoshop we go…

In this particular image, I want to further expose the boats and shore, while leaving the horizon and sky alone. To select only the portion of the photograph I want to work with, I highlight the boats and shore with marching ants.  Then, I select the “Exposure” button and adjust the slider to give the shadows a boost:


You can see the highlighted area with marching ants... You can see the highlighted area with marching ants…

After adjusting exposure, I adjust the “Feather” slider to soften the harsh boundary between the highlighted area and the horizon.  You can access the “Feather” slider by clicking the “Mask” button, which is located next to the “Exposure” button in the “Properties” tab.  See the image below for the example:


Now that our foreground is adequately exposed, I head back into Lightroom for the final step of the process…

One unfortunate consequence of bringing out the underdeveloped areas of a photograph in post is the introduction of grain and noise into those areas.  There are three main variables which determine how much noise you get: 1) How heavily underexposed the areas were to start (the darker the areas are, the more noise you will get when you bring out those shadows), 2) What ISO you used (the higher the ISO, the more noise your sensor will pick up), and 3) How bright you decide to make the underdeveloped areas (the brighter you make them, the easier it will be to see any noise that the sensor absorbed).

This is why using the lowest possible ISO is important when shooting into the sun, or, really, whenever you are going to be working with underexposed areas.  In the image we are working with here, I shot at ISO 400.

As long as the noise/grain isn’t too noticeable in the photograph, I can fix it in Lightroom by using the “Luminance” slider.  For more intensive editing of noise, I use Photoshop.  In the photograph we are working with here, I adjusted the “Luminance” slider to +20, and we are left with the final product:


The entire process shouldn’t take more than about 5 minutes, depending on how underdeveloped the digital negative is.  If I find myself still working on an image after 10 or so minutes, that’s a sign that I either didn’t do such a hot job getting the photograph out in the field, or that there is some other issue with the photograph that needed work (i.e. cloning).


Happy Shooting!!


3 thoughts on “Shooting Into the Sun

  1. Very helpful tutorial, based on a great photo.


    1. Thank you Victor. I enjoyed looking through your website. Fantastic work…very inspiring!


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