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Shooting into the sun

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Shooting into the Sun

Starred-out suns make for more dramatic and stunning images.  Once you learn the basics, it's fairly easy to capture great images with a starred sun. 

First off, a brief explanation of why the sun stars out at certain settings is key to understanding how to capture it.  When the aperture is small, the light seeps through the edges of the lens blades creating a star effect.  Depending on how many blades are in your specific lens, you will have a star with more or less points.  The best stars typically come from lenses with more blades, though this is a personal preference.

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The rule for shooting into the sun is called the "Sunny 16 Rule".  What this means is that if you shoot around f/16 or smaller, you will get a great looking starred out sun.  You can go a little more open, but f/16 is typically where the most desirable results will occur.  Because you are shooting at such a tiny aperture, you're going to have to over-expose to make your subject light up if you don't have a flash and are not going for a silhouette.

These shots are easy to create if you shoot at f/16 in Aperture Priority mode.  This way the camera is calculating what will work best.  I also  over-expose the image by about 2 stops to make sure the athlete is well lit.   When you choose these settings you'll have a dramatic drop in your shutter speed, to a point where it would blur the action!  This is where your ISO is key.  Typically something around 640 or 800 should be enough to deliver plenty of light on your subject.  Try taking a few test shots and find a sweet spot where the shutter speed is plenty fast, and the athlete will still be lit.

A couple of very important tips for shooting into the sun:

-Shooting in sand, snow, water (any reflective surface) will help create that beautiful wrap-around light on the athlete.  If it's not reflective enough (dirt, mud) you may want to consider using a flash to light up the athlete, or going for a silhouette image.

-Remember: keep your time looking through the lens to a minimum when shooting into the sun, it can be dangerous for your eyes.  Try instead to use live view mode and save your vision.

-If there are ANY CLOUDS AT ALL very close to, or over the sun, no matter how small, the star may not come out.  Try only to shoot into the sun when the immediate area around it is completely clear.

 

Sunny 16 images are some of my favorites to create and look at.  The sun makes the image much more dynamic and cheerful.  Keep a solid composition, combined with a great athlete, and create some of your best images ever!

Update:

One of our readers( Johan flickr.com/photos/iceman2058/  [email protected] ) added another piece of valuable info:

Because aperture is set relative to focal length, a longer focal length means a physically larger opening at the same aperture setting. To make sunstars we need the aperture to be physically tiny. So to get a good sunstar, set a small aperture but also go as wide as you can (if you are zoomed in even at 50-60mm you will most likely be getting a big burned out blob instead of a lovely sunstar…).

10 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Connor, great site, great info!
    There is a tiny mis-info here though. F/16 might be a really good aperture for sun-stars, but the “sunny 16 rule” is normally refering to something quite different. In short it is a rule-of-thumb for exposure. On a sunny day you can shoot at f/16, set your iso to x and shutter speed to 1/x and have an exposure that will be in the ballpark. This rule came in very handy in the days before built-in metering.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunny_16_rule

  2. Not sure what I am doing wrong. I setup my 1D markiv at f16, iso 640 and put it in apertue mode. I was using my 24-70 f2.8 lens and a 8-15 f4 lens. The sun still showed up as a blown out spot. I had to drop down a couple of stops on exposure compensation before I could get anything close and then the entire image was almost black. What am I missing here? Thanks for any help you can give me.

    • Hi Zack,
      Was the sky hazy or were there any light clouds around the sun, and was it late in the day or early in the morning? This can drastically affect the photo and your sun will never star correctly if it has clouds over it at all, or haze in the sky. Also, you may just want to shoot in manual mode and test/adjust until it looks right. Hope that helps.

    • Wow, thanks for the quick response. I am so glad I found your website. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. When I tried this, it was about 1pm and there wasn’t any clouds even close to the sun and I don’t remember any haze. I did try in manual and once I got even close to getting the star, the rest of the image was so dark I didn’t have any chance at seeing my subject without a flash and I couldn’t get that to look right either with a 580exii. Sorry, I know I must be missing something simple. I still have a lot to learn. I would appreciate any extra tips to try next time like wht is the best time of day?

      I do have a different topic I want to ask about. I mainly shoot motocross and I spent the second moto this last weekend shooting with the canon 8-15 f4 and triggering a 580exii and a 430exii using the new PW mini and flex’s. I was looking at buying an Alien Bee 800 but I am not sure what power to get. Is this enough or do I need the 1600? Is one enough? Basically, what setup would you recommend? :). I am new to using off camera flash and such, but the main issue I ran into was recycle time. I shoot images of all the riders so i dont get much time between shots. Thanks again!

    • Hi Zack,

      We are glad you found our website as well! As for the sun star picture, try raising your ISO more. It’s always seemed to work well for me around ISO 800 or so. It’s tough under certain conditions, with dirt the light is not reflected very well and it can be more difficult to star the sun while still having enough light on the athlete. Add flashes into the mix and that will work much better! You’ll definitely have to test to find the right balance with ambient. You can also open up the aperture a bit more, say f/13 and that will get a little more light in but the star won’t be quite as perfect.

      As for your second question, you may want to post that in the forum as well since it’s less specific to the post. We will be more than happy to answer anything there! There’s a link on every page at the top.

      I would say to go with the B1600, one is enough for most situations especially broad daylight, but 2 is always nice to have the extra option and create more 3-dimensional lighting. How quick of a recycle time will you need? You may want to check out the elinchrom lights if you need a faster time, but the bees seem to do really well for the price and in most situations.

  3. I have been trying to achieve this effect as well and the problem I run into is similar to Zack’s. I like to have the background a little bit underexposed. This really brings out the sun star and it brings the focus to the athlete (I shoot long distance running races) as long as he or she is well lit. Even with a 580ex II on 1/1 power, I cannot seem to find a good balance between getting a good sun star and enough lighting on the athlete. The flash distance scale indicates the flash is only good for 1 foot of distance. Runners are varying distances from the flash and camera each time. Also, if I shoot in 1/1 power, I can get close to what I am looking for, however, the flash takes too long to recycle to be ready for the next runner.

    Any additional thoughts? You can see some examples here:
    http://www.sandiegorunner.com/photogalleries/2012lakehodges5k/content/IMG_6118_large.html Some are better than others.

    Also, a heads up to other photogs trying this … MAKE SURE YOUR LENS IS CLEAN FIRST! Shooting into the sun with a small aperture really shows every little speck of dust on the front element. Lesson learned.

  4. One more piece of information you need to paint the full picture on sunstars: because aperture is set relative to focal length, a longer focal length means a physically larger opening at the same aperture setting. To make sunstars we need the aperture to be physically tiny. So to get a good sunstar, set a small aperture but also go as wide as you can (if you are zoomed in even at 50-60mm you will most likely be getting a big burned out blob instead of a lovely sunstar…).

    Also do not underestimate how useful it will be to shoot these types of pictures in RAW, to then recover shadows/underexposed areas in your favorite RAW processor – which should be Lightroom 4.2 BTW… 🙂

  5. Thank you for this! I'm a novice with my Canon camera and my sun photos look awful. I'll definitely be checking out these settings to see if I can mimic them on my camera and also seeing what type of lens I have (I'm pretty sure it is whatever came with it so it is 5-6 years old). 

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