Ultrarunner Rory Bosio explores an ice cave in Iceland; Photograph by Tim Kemple

Ultrarunner Rory Bosio explores an ice cave in Iceland; Photograph by Tim Kemple

See Tim Kemple’s previous photography tips >>

Beginner and amateur photographers ask me often for photography tips. As image creators, we are always learning, but there is one piece of advice I always come back to. The biggest mistake I see amateur photographers make is photographing with the sun behind their backs.

Gasp … I know you thought I was going to share something uber-secret and surprising. But in a lot of ways this is a HUGE trade secret. The truth is that the quality of light itself is only part of the equation in creating great photographs. The other half is your position relative to the sun (or light source). When I am on commercial assignments I am shooting into the sun or with the sun 90 degrees to my subject the majority of the time.

Think of it this way: When you are shooting with the sun behind you—be it morning, noon, or night—your entire frame is filled with direct light. If it helps, picture the sun as a bright on-camera flash. You see very little shape or definition in the landscape because there is a distinct lack of shadows, just as when you have a flash mounted right on top of your camera. But when you move that light away from the lens, the environment takes on shape because you now have a combination of both light and shadow. That’s the trick to the best landscape and environmental photographs, the perfect balance of light and shadow.

Some tips for shooting into the sun:

  • Learn your camera system so you can shoot as under exposed as possible while still keeping visible information in your shadows.
  • Keep your lenses clean of dust and dirt because it’s more likely to be visible in the photograph with this type of lighting.
  • Use the lowest ISO possible on your camera to maximize dynamic range (the range of information between pure black and pure white). The more the better!
  • Use the sun flare to add depth to the image.
  • Experiment with fixed lenses that have fewer elements and are less susceptible to lens flare.

Getting the Shot

In this photo of ultratrail runner Rory Bosio in a glacial cave in Thorsmork, Iceland, the sun was setting off in the distance behind us as we approached the glacier. We had spent a soggy day looking for hiking locations to photograph and the arrival of the sun had us excited. The light was beautiful, but when I pulled out my camera it looked very flat and ordinary. It’s amazing how different a scene can look in person compared to on a camera. After some test shots scrambling around outside the mouth of the cave, I realized that what the images were lacking was definition and shape. I needed shadows—so I needed to move my position relative to the setting sun.

Now, it’s not the safest thing, nor would I recommend it, but my search for shadows led me inside the glacier. As I came around and looked out the mouth of the cave I saw a completely new scene than I had moments before. The rocks, the water, and Rory were all clearly defined by the backlight that was bouncing in the cave from the setting sun.

The environment around us was exciting and dangerous at the same time. I could tell I was in a place I didn’t want to be for long–the creaking sounds, running water all around and the warmth of the sun didn’t seem like a good combination. I positioned the camera just above the raging stream to get as much depth in the foreground as possible and placed Rory on the side of the frame so that she stood out from the background. As I dialed in my settings I imagined the whole cave crashing down on top of me. I thought to myself, “At least when they find me, they can say my last photograph was a good one!”

The camera loved the balance of light and shadow in the frame as I exposed for the highlights (knowing I would have to lighten up the image in post-production) and quickly captured the shot. After only two frames I felt like we had taken enough risk and we hurried out of the cave. I knew we had a great shot in the bag and no rescue was necessary.

While it may go against traditional thinking, shooting into the sun or with the sun at an angle into the camera creates immense depth and shape when capturing outdoor photographs. With some practice you learn the best conditions and settings for your equipment, but it doesn’t require anything overly fancy. This image of Rory was captured with a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot camera proving that knowledge of light and shadow doesn’t discriminate.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis photo was taken with the Olympus Tough TG-2 iHS camera.

 

Comments

  1. Russell Gonsalves
    Canada
    June 19, 2013, 9:48 am

    Okay, now you’re just making people like me, who think equipment makes all the difference, feel like idiots.

  2. Ian Faulds
    Bellingham, Washington, USA
    June 28, 2013, 11:57 am

    I love taking pictures into the sun, I’ve found that they almost always come out better. Thanks for the great advise.

    Ian
    http://ianfaulds.com

  3. Maria-Angelica Rivadeneira
    Chile
    June 28, 2013, 11:04 pm

    Interesting shot! Thanks for the tips.
    Good photography is like good painting, the ‘eye and hand’ behind the final product, with the right light and composition, makes the difference. As you hinted, the media used at that point, is almost irrelevant.

  4. S R NAIR
    India
    July 11, 2013, 7:09 am

    Your photograph is excellent. It goes to show that there are no hard and fast rules in photography. Rules are meant to be broken sensibly, if you have an intuition that by doing so you will be able to click a better picture.

  5. Jim
    USA
    July 11, 2013, 9:40 am

    OK, so when I place people in the photo, shooting into the sun, their faces (fronts) always are underexposed. At that point I need a fill flash. Or do you have another solution?

  6. Fred Brown
    monterey, CA
    July 11, 2013, 9:58 am

    Tim, what were the settings for your photo, and the lens?

  7. AlexG
    July 12, 2013, 9:02 am

    ha.ha.ha.

    The Equipment is just a tool…imagine a general contractor without a hammer! imagine a car mechanic without a jack..and so on…To expect “the camera” to take great photos without your eyes, or your brain is like giving a cat a guitar, and expect it to turn into Slash!!! Good luck!

    DO yourselves a favor and join KelbyTraining.com or lynda.com rather than ask bits and pieces all over the net! You are wasting your time, and won’t make any progress with your photography.

    Buy a book, read the manual…Digital Photography was never meant to be only used in Auto!

  8. John Cameron
    Salt Spring Island, BC
    July 12, 2013, 3:12 pm

    Fred, the EXIF data looks like this:
    Auto exposure, Aperture-priority AE, 1/20 sec, f/2, ISO 200

  9. LoganM
    Oregon
    July 19, 2013, 1:10 am

    Great article. Adventure photography is what a Google/NatGeo photographer and I are trying to do with our current Kickstarter project: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1406985449/caracol

  10. Outdoor Rugged Camera
    August 29, 2013, 2:00 am

    [...] Photographer Tim Kemple’s Shooting TIps: The Pros’ Secret – Shoot Into the Sun (2 … (adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com) [...]

  11. Gala
    October 11, 2013, 1:50 am

    Hello! I’ve been doing this for some time now.. nice to know it’s a tip from a pro!! i accidentally discovered this.. i also do this not just with the sun but with other light sources as well.. sometimes people think i used a lens flare filter, but i tell them it’s “natural light”. Plus, when you do this, your blemishes naturally disappear!! Hehe. The whole pic, especially with people, looks stunning and almost surreal, you just have to “balance” or find the right angle of the camera to create a dramatic shot with the perfect balance of light and shadow :)