Lighting plays a crucial role in photography. It can draw attention to or away from a subject, and sets the tone of a photo. As photographers, we compose pictures around the light. And unless we’re in a photo studio surrounded by portable electronic mini-suns, we have to work with what Mother Nature doles out. It can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are five simple techniques for manipulating the sun in photos.
Creating a sunburst is a great way to incorporate light into photos, especially on cloudless days when the sun is high in the sky. Sunbursts can add an element of interest to landscapes, portraits and detail shots. Creating the effect is easy — it’s all in the aperture.
Imagine each aperture stop as different sized flashlight, ranging from an industrial flashlight (f/1.8) to a laser pointer (f/22). The wider the aperture is open, the more light that’s allowed through. But as the aperture widens, the light becomes more diffused — it spreads out over a larger area and creates a softer look.
The trick to creating a sunburst is to stop down the aperture until the opening is as small as it can go. With only a tiny circle of light coming through the lens, the rays of the sun will refract outward, creating a pointed, bursting effect. This technique works best when the sun is partly obscured by an object in the foreground. The more a subject obscures the sun, the smaller the burst will be.
Silhouettes are an easy way to bring attention to a subject and increase the drama of a picture. All it takes to create a silhouette is to place the subject in front of a light source — whether that be the sun in broad daylight, a colorful sky at dusk or a windowsill in the morning.
Once the subject is in front of a light, the next trick is to expose for the brightest part of the photo — in other words, don’t meter on the subject who is intended to be dark. Setting the camera meter to expose for the bright background ensures the backlit subject will be black. This is what creates the silhouette effect.
3. Soft, back lighting
This lighting technique is a favorite among portrait photographers. It gives the subject a soft, dreamy look and creates a halo effect around the subject’s head. This technique can only be achieved at dawn or dusk, during the ‘golden hour.’ This is when the sun is low on the horizon and the light is warm and soft. In order to achieve this look, place the subject in front of the rising or setting sun, ideally so that the person’s head is blocking the light. A warm ring of light will surround the subject, giving them a softer, more feminine look.
This is especially effective when paired with a shallow depth of field. Opening the aperture to f/2 or f/2.8 and focusing on the subject will blur out the rest of the foreground and background and enhance the dreamlike quality.
Incorporating shadows into photos is an easy way to add dimension to a picture, especially when shooting in the middle of the day when the sun is high and the light is flat. There are a few different ways of doing this. One is to find a tree or another subject that partly obscures the sunlight. Place the model under the tree, and see where the shadows fall. Play around with positioning the subject so that the light falls only on their eyes or face or whatever it is that is supposed to be highlighted. This brings attention to a specific part of the photo.
Shadows can be created as well. This can be done using a leaf, a lace cloth, a hand or any other object with an interesting shape. Shoot with the sun behind the photographer, and have the model or assistant hold up the object as if they were using it to shield the sun from their eyes. The object will create a shadow across the subject’s face. Try using a variety of objects from different distances to create a range of looks.
Shadows of recognizable subjects — like bikes or hands — can also add an extra level of interest to a photo.
5. High contrast
Finding a high contrast backdrop can bring attention to a subject and add symmetry to an otherwise simple photograph. This effect is easiest to achieve when the sun is still rising or setting, rather than during the middle of the day when the light is flat. Look for a wall or a sign that’s partly in the sun and partly in the shade. The placement of the subject in relation to the light will determine the tone of the photo. Subjects in the shade will make for more mysterious, somber photos, while well-lit subjects will seem more lively. When setting the camera meter, make sure to expose for the bright part of the image. That way, the shaded part will stay dark and the contrast will be more dramatic.
Another way to achieve the high contrast effect is to find a mostly dark location that’s penetrated with beams of light. Place the subject in one of those light beams and expose for the brightest part of the photo. The rest of the picture will stay black and the attention will be drawn straight to the subject.