Probably my earliest memory of photographic instruction was, “Don’t shoot into the sun!”. Now while this is a handy tip when getting started, especially if good, direct light on your subject is what you’re looking for, the reality is if you stick to it too closely, you end up missing out on a lot of creative potential. So today we’re going to try and do away with the lie. Some of the best photos you will take will be straight towards the sun!
The advent of digital cameras and the power of post-processing has meant that things like light-meters and an advanced understanding of what camera settings the conditions dictate have fallen away to some extent, but the beauty of it is that photography has become far more accessible as a pastime, or even a profession. A fairly basic setup of body and lens can see you taking great shots in no time, and shooting in digital means that you can take picture after picture without having to worry about the cost of development.
Come to think of it, it was this development cost that probably contributed strongly to the don’t shoot-into-the-sun advice being thrown around in the first place. As an amateur photographer, taking risks on the lighting and experimenting with settings may well have proved expensive if you weren’t getting it right, so you would want to bank some shots, which meant going the safe route and shooting away from the sun. Harsh shadows wouldn’t have been such an issue, and if you were out taking pictures at the right time of day, the lighting would have been lovely and soft.
Fortunately, these days we can snap away, trying out different settings and adjusting exposure levels without worrying about the 400 photos you took in the sighting costing you an arm and a leg. I doubt professional photographers in the the film and slide era ever burnt through that many photos in a sighting; it would have had to have been a very unique situation to necessitate that.
Going back to the not-shooting-into-the-sun thing… I thought we could simply go through a few photos that can demonstrate when it can work for you…
Male Kudus can be pretty impressive animals, but there’s not often a lot of action around them. One might find them clashing over females once in awhile, but you have to be quite lucky to do so. The older males have long and beautiful manes that hang from their necks, which most likely play a role in accentuating their size to impress rivals. By simply photographing this bull from the other side, his mane wouldn’t have stood out so clearly, but by deliberately positioning the vehicle to shoot into the sun, the backlighting effect makes the mane glow and directs attention towards it.
One of my favourite into-the-sun photographs. This is of the Dudley Riverbank female, reclining on a Jackalberry branch. Her cub (now the Ndzanzeni female) was in the tree above her, feeding on a duiker kill. By shooting into the sun here, the glow on the left side of the leopard’s face helped accentuate the general warmth of the scene. This was significantly aided by the orange, red and yellow colours, but for me it’s that small patch of sun on the leopard’s head and ear that makes the photo.
One can still see the remains of this giraffe calf’s umbilical cord on its belly. Very young still, it chooses to remain in the open while its mother feeds nearby. We just happened to be driving past, responding to the alarm barks of nyalas in the distance, when we saw the calf down the slope from us, the rising sun giving it this warm, backlit effect. The far slope was still in shadow and the calf just happened to be in a spot where the sun was starting to hit, making it appear as though the sun was singling it out. Much like in the kudu photo above, the fur around the calf’s neck is highlighted (an effect known as rim lighting).
Wild Dogs on the run. Sometimes you just have to shoot from the hip and hope it works out. With the pack trotting through a particularly thick area, it was impossible to loop around ahead of them, so we had to make do with the lighting conditions we had, which involved facing directly towards the setting sun. By underexposing, we hoped that the rim lighting effect would emphasise just how big the ears of this species are, which we got lucky with in this photo.
Don’t overlook the chance for a silhouette. I was aided in this instance by the clouds, which softened the light and spread the colours a bit more evenly. Without them the light around the sun would have most likely been a lot harsher and lacking in vibrancy. By simply underexposing by a stop or two, one can easily achieve the silhouette effect.
One usually has to make the decision whether you want to expose for the sky or expose for the subject. To capture an even exposure across the photograph is tough, and to get the full dynamic range of a scene will usually involve a technique known as bracketing. Having said that, with a single image and only a minor amount of post-processing, one can still capture a beautiful scene while facing the sun, as ranger Guy Brunskill demonstrates with this shot of a giraffe feeding on a knobthorn tree.
A rhino bull sniffs out another member of his species at sunrise. This wasn’t the best example I could find, but backlighting from shooting towards the sun can really emphasise things like dust, grass stems, water (from a hippo’s snort), which in turn helps emphasise movement or action.
The above examples are just a few that I found from a quick scan through the archives. It was the giraffe calf photo that got me thinking about this subject, as for some reason when taking that shot I heard the old adage of never shooting into the sun come into my head, and it got me wondering just how many people might be missing opportunities simply because they have heard what they should and shouldn’t do.
When it comes to digital photography, there really isn’t such a thing as should or shouldn’t. There’s simply you, your camera, and your imagination.
I guess knowing the rules so you know how to break them would be the best approach you could take.