My obsession with “giant sun” sunsets started 3 years ago while traveling in Australia. I had a Canon 300mm f/4 lens with me for long-distance portraits (in another life, I traveled with that lens for bird photography). One night, contemporary dancer Kim Henry and I were shooting at the beach and by using that telephoto lens, I realized that the sky turned totally orange and the sun was looking very big.
I did my homework and started reading about the subject. What’s happening here is the appearance of compression. It’s not a photoshop trick, but rather an optical one having to do with subject-to-camera distance. And the longer the lens, the greater the effect appears. This also referred to as “compression distortion”. The sun isn’t actually getting bigger because of a lens. Long lenses heighten this distorted perspective, changing the apparent relative size of the subject to their background.
This concept has haunted my mind for many months and I finally got the opportunity to experiment with this on a flat beach in Holbox, Mexico. I used the same 300mm lens but this time I added a Canon EF 1.4x extender, giving me a 420mm focal length. And what a difference!
These pictures are quite easy to create as long as you can get enough distance from your subject and be on the same level.
I’ve been lucky enough to experiment in different environments and come up with interesting visuals, including a few in the sand dunes. This image below was created near Dubai using the same 300mm and 1.4x extender combo.
The trick here was to find a dune where I would be aligned with Kim and the sun while keeping the right level. A few more months passed and I couldn’t stop thinking about making the sun even bigger.
We left on another trip with a Canon EF 2x extender this time, giving me 600mm. One step at a time! Now things got quite serious but super complicated at the same time. Kim was now so far away from me and, with the noise from the waves, we couldn’t communicate at all. We had to rely on telepathy, a skill that we have developed over time since we work together so much! Here’s the result:
The longer the lens, the more difficult it gets for many reasons. You need such a long, flat stretch between you and the model that you can hardly communicate and it gets super hard to focus and frame – plus you get very little time with the sun in any one position as everything gets so tight in the framing. On these shots, I was lying in the ocean with the lens hanging about one inch above the water. A very scary setup!
All of the pictures above were shot with a Canon 5D Mark III using just the regular viewfinder and autofocus. But it didn’t end there. A few weeks ago, we made an impulsive decision to go to the salt flats of Uyuni, or Salar de Uyuni, in Boliva.
This is by far the best place on earth for these kinds of pictures. When flooded, this salt desert becomes a giant mirror. It is so big that it can be seen from space.
This time we brought a Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens and a Canon EF 2x extender and did some of our hardest shooting ever. We know that a picture makes everything look as though the temperature was comfortable but it was actually extremely cold and windy. With a focal length of 800mm, we were about 820 feet apart.
I upgraded to the Canon 5D Mark IV for this trip but I had one additional thing that made this shooting more complicated. At 800mm, if you’re not using a higher-end camera it can be difficult to use autofocus. But at that distance, precision is required. But I had such a hard time doing manual focus. For the first time I used Live View to shoot, which is especially good on the 5D Mark IV. The trick for me also was to set the camera on a high-speed shooting mode.
6 Steps For Great Giant Sun Effects
• Practice with a telephoto lens and compare with a super-telephoto, which you can rent, once you start getting good.
• Get your gear as low as you can to the ground (it smooths out your foreground).
• Try to be on the same level as your subject.
• Shoot in RAW mode for maximum dynamic range control in post-production.
• Plan ahead so that you can practice while the sun is going down (and it disappears much faster than you’d expect).
• Prepare to have to increase ISO or decrease you shutter speed as the environment gets darker.
This is a really fun way to explore the compression effects by tinkering with subject-to-camera distance along with long lenses. It’s a great way to pair a dramatic background with a compelling subject. Also, always be safe when shooting into the sun (stick to sunrises and sunsets).