Shooting with Flare: Photographing into the Sun

In photography, light equals life. Sometimes it also equals lens flare. Flare refers to light scattered within the lens that reduces contrast and creates bright streaks on the image. Photographers used to think of it as an amateur mistake. These days, it’s earned its place as an artistic technique, but a lot of people are uncertain how to do it. Maybe that’s why, in our shop, we really don’t see a lot of flare photography. It’s a pleasant surprise when customers share it with us:

Photography with Sun Flare

Courtesy Sherri Pendley Nicholas

We’d love to help more people succeed at flare photography, so let’s talk about the type achieved using sunlight. Obviously, shooting with your camera pointed at the sun can lead to silhouetting, high contrast, blown-out highlights, or overly saturated colors. The workarounds aren’t all that complicated:

  • Use manual mode so you can compensate for the backlight and avoid silhouettes. If a person is your subject, try setting the exposure for their skin.
  • It’s easier on your back, knees, retinas, and camera if you shoot early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the sun is positioned lower in the sky and not at its most intense.
  • If you do shoot mid-day, position yourself low to the ground and/or use a wide-angle lens and dial down the aperture to f/8. A lens hood is advisable.
  • To better show off bursts of sun rays and spots, position the sun in a corner of the frame or coming in from the side instead of the center.
  • Focusing is a big challenge when photographing into the sun. Try auto-focusing on your subject with them blocking the sun, locking that focus in, and then moving yourself until you have the shot composed to your liking before you take it. Another trick is to use a higher aperture, which gives you some latitude if your focus isn’t perfect.
  • Preserve your retinas! To be on the safe side, try putting the camera on a tripod, pointing it in the general direction you want to shoot, taking a shot, and then viewing the results on your camera’s LCD screen—then make adjustments and keep snapping pictures this way until you get what you want. If you have a digital SLR camera, try using Live View to compose the shot.

In addition to worrying about their retinas, many people worry that shooting into the sun will ruin a camera’s sensor. The manuals that accompany many cameras do explicitly recommend not pointing your lens directly at a high-intensity light source, but the general consensus among photographers is that you have to work pretty hard to damage your sensor. And unless you are taking ridiculously long exposures directly into the sun, you should be fine. If you’re concerned about the risks, or if you just want a simple workaround, there are apps and software that can pretty decently simulate flare. Try LensFlare, an app for iPhone and iPad—not as satisfying as mastering the technique in real time, but they’ll do in a pinch.

So, what do you say? Ready to tame the sun to do your bidding? We hope you’ll share your results, as well as any additional insights that might help others master this technique!

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