Are you struggling to take photos with the sun behind your subject? Do you want to know how you can shoot against the sun without getting annoyingly dark, silhouette-type images?
That’s what this article is all about.
I’m going to share with you the exact steps you need to take if you want to capture beautiful photos when shooting against the sun.
Once you’re finished, you’ll be able to consistently capture results like this:
Let’s dive right in.
Shooting Against the Sun: What Happens?
If you’ve ever tried to take photos against the sun, you’ll frequently end up with a result like this:
Notice how the main subject is very dark (we refer to this as underexposed), while the background is very bright (also known as overexposed).
Obviously, this is not ideal.
But why do you keep getting photos like that?
It has to do with a key camera characteristic:
What Is Dynamic Range, and Why Does It Matter?
Your camera has a limit to how much tonal information it can capture in a photo. It cannot capture a very bright area and a very dimly lit area of a scene in the same shot, without making one area look far darker than the other.
This has an important practical consequence:
The bright parts of your scene are rendered as very light.
And the dark parts of your scene are rendered as very dark.
In some ways, this is very good. If cameras could capture unlimited tonal range, from pitch darkness to the bright sun, then you would end up with images that were just flat, boring, neutral colors.
And your camera can handle most scenes pretty well, giving you a nice gradation of tones without making anything too dark or too bright.
But you start to have problems once you introduce a very bright light source, such as the sun (or the sky around the sun).
And you position it near a dimly lit subject (such as a person in shade, or a person with the sun behind them).
Your camera sees the very bright sun and the dark subject, and it does the best that it can, setting the exposure somewhere in the middle.
Which is what results in the problem that we’re discussing: a dark subject and a bright background.
(Which doesn’t look especially interesting or artistic.)
This is extremely common, and if you continue to let your camera do its thing, then you’ll get the same problem, over and over again.
Fortunately, there are some easy ways to prevent such an unpleasant result.
And in a minute, I’m going to share them with you.
But first, I want to make sure that you understand a few additional problems that come from shooting directly at the sun:
Additional Problems to Overcome When Shooting Into the Sun
If you’re photographing against the sun, then you’re going to encounter a number of issues, beyond the overexposure-underexposure problem I talked about earlier.
Which is why it pays to anticipate these in advance, and make changes before they ruin your images.
While shooting into the sun often results in a dark subject and a bright background, you’ll occasionally end up with something different:
Complete overexposure, with a bright subject and an even brighter background, like in the photo below.
While this can be a cool effect, it may not be what you want–which is why you’re going to want to use one of the approaches I discuss below to avoid this type of issue completely.
This is the opposite of complete overexposure:
Complete underexposure, where your subject is dark, and your background is dark.
Now, this is what photographers generally aim for when they’re shooting silhouettes, because it can look very dramatic.
But it can also be a problem, especially if you’re aiming to get a subject where you want to show all of their features (such as in a family photoshoot).
So make sure you read on to discover how you can prevent this issue from happening.
Flare refers to spots of light in your photos, like this:
And while flare can be utilized for artistic effect, it’s often just a nuisance. For one thing, it can obscure important details. It can also reduce contrast in your scene, which generally looks bad.
Note that flare is caused from light bouncing around in your lens…
…so the less you exposure your lens to direct sunlight, the better.
In other words:
To reduce sun flare, you have to figure out a way to block the sun from entering your lens directly. One option is to use a lens hood (and it’s one of the reasons why lens hoods even exist in the first place!).
But if you have the sun directly behind your subject, a lens hood won’t be enough.
So what do you do?
You have two options:
First, you can position yourself so that the sun doesn’t actually appear in the frame. For instance, you can step to one side, or you can get down low or up high to force the sun out of the image.
However, you can also try something else:
You can block the sun with your main subject (or with some other large object, like a building or a tree), so that you don’t actually include the sun in the shot, even though it’s technically there.
That way, you won’t get the direct sunlight and the flare that comes with it, but you’ll still have the sun at your subject’s back.
Four Simple Approaches for Dealing With Sun in Your Photography
Now that you’re familiar with all the key issues that come from shooting into the sun, it’s time to discover how they can be avoided.
So if you’re ready to never have issues with the sun in your photos again…
…then read on!
Use Exposure Compensation to Brighten Up Your Subject or Darken the Background
The first approach to taking photos with the sun behind your subject requires basic knowledge of your camera settings.
You see, your camera is set to Auto mode by default–but, if you switch it to Aperture Priority mode (generally indicated by an Av or an A on your camera), you’ll be able to brighten or darken photos before taking them, with the help of something called exposure compensation.
Basically, exposure compensation just lets you tell the camera, in advance, whether you want a brighter shot or a darker shot.
If you add positive exposure compensation, you’ll get a brighter image.
If you add negative exposure compensation, you’ll get a darker image.
While the mechanism for adjusting exposure compensation depends on your camera model, just note that it’s often represented by a +/- icon.
Now, this approach–the exposure compensation approach–will allow you to brighten up the scene to gain detail on your main subject. Or it’ll allow you to darken the scene to gain detail on the background.
But it won’t allow you to do both of these things at once, which means that you’ll have to resign yourself to a well-exposed subject but an overexposed background, or an underexposed subject but a well-exposed background.
Personally, I prefer a well-exposed subject and an underexposed background, because it allows you to keep detail where it matters.
But it’s really up to you, and can depend on your artistic preferences.
So hhere’s how you can use exposure compensation to adjust brightness levels when shooting into the sun:
First, take a test shot, and check the result on your LCD. Decide whether you want to brighten the scene or darken it.
Then simply activate exposure compensation, and add +1 EV to brighten the shot, or -1 EV to darken the shot.
Take another test image.
If things are significantly better, then you’re golden. But if you still need to make changes, go ahead and push the exposure compensation to +2 EV or -2 EV.
Then continue the process, making adjustments until you get the result you’re after!
But be careful, because it’s very easy to overdo it and end up with complete underexposure or complete overexposure, as I’ve discussed above.
By the way, note that exposure compensation is a great way to deal with either complete underexposure or complete overexposure, because it allows you to quickly brighten or darken the entire scene.
If you take a test shot and find your photo is completely underexposed, then add some positive exposure compensation.
And if you take a test shot and find your photo is completely overexposed, just do the opposite!
Take Two Separate Photos and Merge Them Together
This solution is a more comprehensive one, but it can be tricky to pull off (and sometimes impossible).
However, if you’re dead-set on getting a well-exposed subject and a well-exposed background, it’s a good technique to try, and it’s often used by professionals that shoot scenes with a lot of tonal range.
Here’s how it works:
First, set your camera up on a tripod, so that it’s completely still.
Frame the shot, making sure that your subject doesn’t move.
Then take a test image, and check to make sure that your subject is well-exposed. Note that this shot is all about the subject, so the background brightness doesn’t matter.
If your subject comes out too dark or too light, then make the exposure compensation adjustments described in the previous section.
Next, while keeping your camera framed up in the exact same way, and while ensuring your subject doesn’t move, add in some negative exposure compensation.
The particular amount of exposure compensation depends on your scene–but start with -2 EV, then make adjustments until you have a well-exposed background.
At this point, you should have a photo of a well-exposed subject, and you should have a photo of a well-exposed background.
Take these two photos, import them into a program such as Lightroom, Photoshop, or Aurora HDR, and then merge them together using the high dynamic range function.
(The specifics of the merging process are beyond the scope of this article, but you can read more about it here.)
Generally, you’ll end up with a very well-exposed subject, a very well-exposed background, and a photo that just looks really nice.
But, as I said above, this technique can be difficult–or impossible–to pull off.
It all has to do with movement and photo alignment.
Basically, both images have to be identical, except for one thing:
As long as this remains true, your post-processing program can easily line up the two images and merge them together seamlessly.
However, if something changes between the two photos–for instance, if your subject moves or your camera shifts–then your post-processing program will struggle to get things right.
Sure, it might work, but it also might not, which is why you should strive for as little change between scenes as possible.
Use Post-Processing to Brighten Up Your Subject and Darken the Background
These days, post-processing programs are very powerful, and cameras offer a lot of tonal range to work with.
What does this mean?
It means that you can take a photo with a very bright background and a very dark subject, and you can selectively adjust different parts until the subject is bright and the background is dark.
While there are complex ways of pulling this off, the simplest options is to open your photo in a program such as Lightroom, then boost the shadow slider as far as it goes while dropping the highlights slider completely.
That way, you’ll brighten the subject while darkening the foreground.
However, you should be aware one big caveat:
Cameras do not offer unlimited tonal range to work with.
So you need to do what you can to maintain as much tonal range as possible when you’re taking your photo; this will ensure that you have plenty of range to work with in post-processing.
How do you maintain a broad tonal range?
First, shoot in RAW, not JPEG. RAW retains all data from your initial capture, including information from very bright or very dark areas. And it’s this information–from the bright and dark areas–that allows you to adjust your photo dramatically in post-processing.
Second, deliberately underexpose your image. You see, modern cameras are much better at retaining detail in the shadows than the highlights, which means that it’s generally better to get a too-dark image than a too-bright image.
So if you want to maximize the chances of recovering detail, try using a bit of negative exposure compensation to keep your photo dark–then boost the exposure once you’ve brought the image into your favorite post-processing program.
Embrace the Dark Subject, Light Background Effect
Here’s one more method for shooting into the sun:
Use the effect for artistic purposes.
You see, you don’t have to have a well-exposed subject and a well-exposed background. It’s okay to keep the subject very dark and the background very bright, so that you end up with a gorgeous silhouette, like this:
In fact, this is a technique that I highly recommend, and one that works especially well when you have some color in the sky (thanks to a rising or setting sun).
Note that you may need to use a bit of exposure compensation to get the results you want, so be ready to experiment with different options.
In the end, it’ll be worth it!
Shooting into the Sun: Conclusion
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should know all about capturing photos with the sun behind your subject.
And you should never be plagued by a too-dark subject and a too-bright background again, thanks to the tips and strategies I’ve shared.
So don’t be intimidated by the sun.
Instead, recognize it for what it offers:
A lot of creative potential!
If you’re shooting into the sun and getting flare, it’s simply because stray light is entering your lens. You can get rid of this by shading the lens (via a lens hood or your hand). You can also reframe the shot so that the sun is behind your subject or another object in the scene; that way, there’s no stray sunlight to get into the lens.
You have a few options. Exposure compensation will allow you to brighten up your subject in advance. You can also try taking two shots (one of a nicely-exposed subject and one of a nicely-exposed background) and merging them together in post-processing. A third option is to use post-processing to bring out the details in your subject (by lifting the shadows).
I do recommend it, though it’s not absolutely necessary. It’s possible to get decent exposures in camera, especially if you’re precise with your exposure compensation. It also depends on the look you’re aiming to capture; if you don’t mind a more dramatic, artistic shot, or a silhouette, then post-processing is less necessary. But if you want a shot with a well-exposed subject and a well-exposed background, then you’re going to struggle without a bit of basic post-processing work.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.