The Sun: A Photographer’s Ultimate Lighting Source

The Sun: A Photographer’s Ultimate Lighting Source

Our sun is the ultimate lighting source for photographers but many of us don’t realize it. We become so enamored with the gadgetry of photo equipment that we tend to forget about the simplicity of discovering something that’s right above us. Photographers simply love the beauty of technology, machined metal to thousands-of-an-inch tolerances, and touch screen displays. I am not saying grabbing a set of Profotos, like the popular B1 and B2 location kits, or mastering the use of TTL flash for a project isn’t the way to go, but I think photographers in general, myself included, have a knack for making something like lighting a subject more complex than it really needs to be.

Not only is the sun a great resource, it’s absolutely free to use. Every day, the sun will rise and the sun will set at very specific times. It won’t get lost in the mail. It doesn’t need a tracking number. And a careless so-and-so won’t break it. So, how do we use it to its fullest potential?

The Sun is All About Light

We all know that without light there isn’t going to be a photograph. There are many different qualities of light and different directions to light, all of which can be accessed with the sun as our source. Every photographer strives to create imagery with the most dramatic and vivid light. This occurs naturally near sunrise and sunset but many of us forget about additional aspects of the sun that we can use to our advantage.

Let’s think about how we can use the sun to activate a mood or spark an emotion in our photographs. We are going to begin by analyzing the different directions of light and how you can use the direction of light from the sun to highlight or hide varying elements in your photograph.

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The sun rises through the clouds at Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Frontlight is when sun is shining from directly behind you. It lights up whatever you are looking at. It typically lights up everything with few shadows being seen because those shadows are falling behind the layers of what’s in front of you. The image above highlights Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park at sunrise. Notice that where the sun is shining there is little to no shadow information. This is also a great direction of light to use when illuminating a subject’s eyes.

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The sun rises over the desert southwest during a brief rainstorm in Utah.

Sidelight occurs when the sun is not just illuminating your subject from the side, but could also be shining directly down on your subject from above (downlighting) or could be lighting your subject from below in the form of uplighting. Regardless, all three of these lighting directions are considered “sidelight” – which is when only part of your subject is being lit by the light. This type of lighting creates extremely dramatic shadow and highlight contrasts. We could rotate the illustration above in any direction and the lighting form would still cast part of the subject matter in shadow. The key to sidelight is the drama that it creates within a scene.

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Backlit Guanaco (Lama guanicoe) Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile.

Backlight happens when the sun is directly behind your subject. In the example photo above, notice how the sun is in the frame. By choosing to include it, there is another really cool effect in play here: fringe light. Also look at how the fur on the guanacos is outlining, brighter, and thus better illustrating the form of the animals. Because the fringe of the animal fur is less dense than the body, that fur takes on this fringe effect. If the sun were below the horizon, the fringe effect would not occur and at that point we would have a straight silhouette.

Quality of Light from the Sun

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Silhouette of Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) at sunset, Joshua Tree National Park, California USA.

The photo above highlights the optimal light available to any photographer in any situation – post sunset in Joshua Tree National Park in California. So that’s a great start but have you thought about other types of lighting situations we can use from the sun? How about overcast light? Overcast light can make your fall foliage imagery pop with a color saturation that can’t be seen when the sun is casting shadows across those locations. If we are shooting out in mid-day light, we can always look for subject matters in the shade or grab a diffuser to create our own shade. This is a great time to explore macro compositions as well. If shade is not available to us during mid-day hours, what about taking a photo and using that strong contrast to convert the image to black and white? And finally, don’t forget to head out in bad weather when it rains as well; foggy, misty, and wet conditions add saturation and drama.

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The sun breaks through clouds in late afternoon over the sagebrush of Eagle Colorado.

What is Optimal Sunlight?

Optimal light is the best, most spectacular light in existence. You cannot get any better. While many photographers think it is a hard lighting scenario to photograph, it is actually the easiest. You do not have to search for your subject because it is right there, lit up in your face. The main issue is that optimal light doesn’t always occur and it doesn’t really happen when the atmosphere is devoid of clouds or moisture either. This all means that you won’t get this opportunity as often as you like no matter how many sunrises you wakeup early for.

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Trees in the forest along the Blue Ridge Parkway explode in vibrant autumn colors near Asheville North Carolina.

Many beginners believe that overcast light should be avoided. However, overcast days allow for hours of shooting with very balanced and even shadows. This in turn allows colors to pop. I love overcast days in autumn. Combine this quality of light with a polarizer to remove the shine on leaves and your images just jump right off of the page. Learn more about this technique in Inspiring Words and Fall Images from 18 Working Photographers.

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A macro of thorny plant against rocks in Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile.

What do you do on a cloudless day when your stomach is grumbling for food at high noon and you believe that there are no subjects in the vicinity? Nope, you are not heading to lunch. You are heading to the shaded areas of our environment. Shade essentially gives us overcast light on a much smaller scale. You can grab your macro lens (or add diopters and extension tubes, like the Canon Extension Tube EF 25 II, to your lens) to get in close to your subject matter. Even though the above image makes the foliage look like huge, it easily would fit into a single square foot area. I just managed to discover it at my feet, when everything else was less than inspiring as I was yearning for food. Again, don’t forget to create shade using a diffuser.

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The midday heat of summer builds thunderstorm clouds along the Teton mountain range in Wyoming.

The next option to help forget those afternoon hunger pains is a “chance encounter” scenario. This scenario tends to happen most summer days in the western mountain states of the U.S. in the form of thunderstorms. When this effect occurs we get the ability to shoot high-contrast shadow-and-highlight scenes. My personal opinion is that these images look best when rendered into black and white, but you can make up your own mind on how to process them.

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A forest of trees stand in mist and fog along the Pacific Coast on Second Beach in La Push, Washington.

It’s time to grab some protective gear, like an Aquatech All Weather Shield, to cover your lens and camera body. How many of you are afraid of heading out with your camera in the rain? Weather can create an even greater drama than our optimal lighting conditions, especially in the fall or winter. In autumn, we have mist and fog that builds amazing layering effects in photos. In winter, we have the component of wind-driven snow and the occasional blizzard to add to the drama of an image. All you have to do is cover up your body and camera and head out to shoot when many do not. See Cold Weather Shooting Tips for great winter photography advice.

Final Thoughts

When using the sun as your main lighting source, you can discover some amazing photographic opportunities. The key is to focus on what is happening within your environment in regards to the direction and quality of light the sun is producing. Find detailed tips on how to do this in 6 Easy Summer Photography Shooting Tips with Big Results. The more you practice, the more finite details you will discover when using the sun as your main lighting source for your photography. If you’re shooting once the sun goes down, make sure you take a peek at our guide on the best camera for low light and assure your shots stay consistent.

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Jay Goodrich

Jay Goodrich is an internationally published adventure photojournalist living in Jackson, Wyoming. He started his professional career as a formally-trained architect. There was something about the corporate world within architecture that just didn’t work for Jay. Instead of complaining or continually living a life that didn’t satisfy, he built a business that opened doors to the world and is focused on the foundations of design and art that he learned while studying architecture in college. Find out more about Jay on his website.

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