Most conventional wisdom talks about not clicking into the Sun except for sunrises and sunsets. Even then it’s a hard choice to focus on the Sun and get just a lot of chromatic aberration or get all those colors in the sky. There is no one right answer, but what I have learned along the way is to be more deliberate about what you choose. Planning usually helps, though my favorite sunrise pic was clicked with near-zero preparation. There will always be a lot of contrasts in front of you when you click the Sun, so it’s most important to understand how to bring that out in its full spirit. A second big question is about the lenses and then filters. Finally, it is also important in most situations to find a good foreground to bring the photo to life.
Firstly a confession. I clicked one of my best sunrises about eight years ago and didn’t process it well. Only recently I reprocessed it and realized what I had been missing. This was completely an accident, though I did go to one of the most amazing places to see this Sunrise. It was one of those wide-angle lens shots were as long as you got the exposure right, there wasn’t much else to be done. Ironically one of my favorite sunsets was also clicked similarly – ISO ~1600, F8.0 with shutter anything faster than 1/50. In neither of the shots the Sun is visible, its effect is.
Once the Sun itself comes into the picture, the technique becomes more important to manage that strong contrast. The other key challenge clicking the Sun directly can be ‘flares’, but that’s usually not a problem at sunrise or sunset. It is a fine balance to create such that the whole sky is not over-exposed while the rest of the pic is not under-exposed. It’s typically better to focus on the sky and get it right if the Sun is still bright while it is better to focus on the remaining picture if it’s dark around. It can also help to use some object as a natural barrier to a harsh Sun.
The next thing to learn was to get objects and foreground in the picture. This isn’t always easy as the Sun won’t move. I remember a time I waited for the Sun to rise enough to cover a pigeon sitting on an arch around Qutub Minar. I waited 20 minutes and just when the Sun was getting to the right spot, the pigeon flew away. Luck sometimes works the other way as well, you just have to be patient. Interestingly while most of the Sun-facing shots are taken by wide-angle lenses, a zoom can sometimes make a shot far deeper. In the shot on the left, I wish I had an ultra zoom.
It was after a lot of missed shots that I started getting just plain old straight Sun shots right. They are far harder to compose and even more technical to set up. You need to manage the contrast and still be able to capture a foreground that tells a story. When done right, they can be beautiful. Slightly off, they are just a patch of an overexposed screen. Of course, this is best done just before sunset or a little after sunrise. Click the sun slightly underexposed and then raise the shadows to showcase the foreground. Make sure you are using a lens hood and pointing the camera at the Sun directly, else you risk a flare.
One of the most artistic Sun shots is when you let the Sun play around with the surroundings and create some fantastic light effects. A lot of these shots are luckier than driven by much planning though they still need to be clicked right. If the Sun itself is not visible, the light needs to be balanced using the next brightest element in the sky. That can get a little technical too where I learned to meter light based on the one point that I choose, lock it and then compose and click.
Finally, I moved on to understand the components of sunlight and how they shine differently during different phases of sunrise and sunset. So a beautiful sunset doesn’t have to be on a beach – it can be anywhere that you can see a little bit into the distance. Enough light needs to flow into the camera that you can play with these colors in post-processing. Different colors pop out in different phases of the sunrise and sunset and multiple clicks will allow you to pick the shades you want…