I remember the days when Mr Kodak gave instructions with every roll of film to always place the sun at your back to produce correctly exposed images. While they may be correctly exposed, this would also produce flat and boring photos. It was suggested to never photograph into the sun because the strong light would be far too much for film to cope with. When handled correctly though, strong light can produce some amazing results.
Photography has come a long way since then and digital sensors are capable of handling 14 stops of light as opposed to 5 stops in the days of transparency film. Whilst the principles are the same, we have so much more control now. The key is to understand how to handle harsh lighting situations to create dramatic images. We’ve all heard that it’s best to photograph at either ends of the day for the best light, but don’t put your camera away when the sun is high in the sky because you’ll be missing out on so many more great photo possibilities. Using a polarising filter will help to darken the blue sky and make those clouds pop out, as well as remove glare and reflections from foliage, water and buildings thus increasing colour saturation. The bright highlights of rocky coastlines and white buildings can often run the risk of burning out in strong lighting conditions, but using a polariser will help to control the light. It’s especially useful at midday in tropical coast locations when the sun penetrates the water reflecting off a sandy ocean floor. A polariser will remove the reflections on the surface of the water allowing the turquoise colour to come through.
I often use a polariser along with a neutral density (ND) filter, especially when photographing along the coast, in order to slow the exposure down to create a misty water effect. Of course, you’ll need to mount your camera on a tripod to execute this technique. If there are any clouds present I use a long enough exposure to get some movement in them. It’s ideal when the clouds are moving towards the camera to create an explosive sky effect emanating from the centre of the frame. Which ND filter you use depends on the time of day. I use the LEE Super Stopper (15 stops) when the sun’s intensity is the strongest, enabling exposures of several minutes. I wouldn’t recommend using this at any other time or your exposures would be hours, if not days, long! The LEE Big Stopper (10 stops) is perfect for shooting when light levels are lower in the morning or afternoon depending on the length of exposure you desire. The LEE Little Stopper (6 stops) is great for low light or when you only need an exposure of a few seconds.
Silhouettes and shadows
I love photographing straight into the sun as it creates strong, graphic images. A bit of care needs to be taken though, for several reasons. First, it’s best when the sun is low in the sky. I normally try to hide the sun behind something so it’s just creeping out to create a sunburst. A wide angle focal length will work the best for this. The size of the sunburst is determined by your aperture size – f/22 will elongate the points more than, say, f/11. It’s a personal choice dependant on the effect you desire. When the sun is low in the sky, it creates strong silhouettes, but make sure your subject has a distinctive, recognisable shape and it doesn’t merge with other elements otherwise it becomes a big. The shadows cast from your subject can often be used as a compositional tool to lead the viewer into the scene, and a wide angle lens will accomplish this for the best effect. I often use this technique in forests with tree shadows, but make sure your trees are evenly separated otherwise the composition can look too cluttered. Finally, make sure you compensate for shooting into the sun by increasing your exposure by at least 1 stop, as your camera’s meter will want to underexpose the image.