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Shooting into the Sun

Published: 03/05/2019

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Laura in Brisbane, Australia writes:

"I recently did a morning shoot that was timed in such a way that I was pretty much shooting into the sun for the main exterior shot for the listing. I simply didn’t know how to handle it. So I just guessed that I had to use a smaller aperture. The shot came out okay but I feel it was just dumb luck. How can I deal with this issue better for next time?"

With all the remarkable advances in sensor technology and processing software--especially Camera Raw--it's become significantly easier to capture great exterior shots. Shooting into the sun though, requires special consideration. Yes, we try to schedule our shoots at the most preferable times of day of course, but invariably, we get the odd instance when, despite our best efforts, we end up taking at least one exterior shot shooting into the sun, like Laura describes.

Generally, there are a few go-to items that I think many shooters rely on and I’m hoping others will offer their own suggestions and experience to boot. Here goes:

  1. As Linda did, I think using a narrower aperture is the best starting point to tackle a situation when we’re forced to shoot into the sun.
  2. I may be in the minority on this but I don’t use UV / Haze filters. The way I see it, I’ve paid a lot of hard-earned money investing in great lenses, so I don’t feel inclined to put what is often a less-than-stellar piece of glass in front them.
  3. I've also learned (the hard way!) that polarizing filters tend to work best when the sun is coming across our lens, rather than straight into the lens.
  4. That said, a graduated neutral density filter is very helpful. Given that the top half of the filter is darkened by a couple of stops (at least) and the bottom half of the glass is clear, we can target the sky and not affect the foreground so much. Even if this doesn’t take care of all of the brightness, it will often allow us to get a better handle on it when we get home to do our editing.
  5. Finally, the de-haze slider in PS/LR is great to put finishing touches on things.

What others tips/tricks/techniques can you suggest to Linda?


Tony Colangelo

14 comments on “Shooting into the Sun”

  1. Avoid shooting into the sun at all costs. Under expose by 1 or 2 stops, so you have some room to recover in post. Shoot bracketed 7 pictures, plus or minus 3 stop setting. Combine in PS. Shoot RAW. Use a polarizer. Don't buy cheap polarizers or ND's.

  2. The first step is to establish a relationship with your clients that lets you dictate scheduling whenever possible. It's in their best interest that the main front exterior photo is as good as it can be and that means having the best light. As far as technical fixes, one approach can be to shade the lens with a notepad to exclude the sun and expose for the house. Take another exposure with the smaller aperture for the sky and do a sky swap in Photoshop. In the house exposure, you don't care if the notepad is in the frame as long as you don't cover up anything you want to keep and have a little margin for a clean selection.

    The easiest workarounds are making the exterior images at a different time. If the job has to be scheduled when the sun is in a bad place, see if you will be in the area a day or three in advance or the day after. It could even be the same day if there is time to visit the home again later in the day or stop by early in the morning on your way to another appointment. I find that preferable to fiddling around in PS with sky swaps and all sorts of manipulation. I can make a couple of exterior photos that are nearly done in camera in just a couple of minutes if the lighting is good. That could make a 10-15 minute detour worth the time spent.

    I always push my better customers to let me know when they have a booking they want me to shoot even if it will be a few days or a week before it's ready for photos. If the exterior is good, I can often make those images in advance and then I don't have as much concern with the time of day for the interiors. The extreme case is where I need the sun on one side of the home for a few photos and need it on the other side for others.

  3. I love shooting into the sun. Stopping the lens way down will often result in great flares that look dramatic - clients seem to love it. I don't even own a filter for my still cameras, a hand across the lens or held to the side works just great: Stop it down and use brackets 🙂

  4. If the sun is high enough I hold my camera in one hand and a small umbrella in the other hand and lower/tip the umbrella until it puts the camera in shadow while still being out of frame.

  5. Re: Don’t forget the old standby of putting your hand over the sun and then editing it out in post.

    A couple of days ago I wanted to capture a sunset. Got most frustrated and tried everything (well almost) forgetting the most obvious above.
    Sometimes we photographers think too technical - what did they do in the good old days?

    Finally. Laura's comment about UV and haze filters. I have paid around €2k for lenses and certainly will not spoil them with, compared to the lens an inferior piece of glass screwed onto them.

  6. Aren't we pretty much always having to shoot into the sun on a property shoot? That is if we shoot the front and the back and the sun is not shining from one side or ther other. We may have the sun where we want it (sort of behind us) for the front, but when we go around the back, the house will be back lit unless we come back to shoot it in the afternoon - always my choice. But we don't always get to have a choice.

    But there are degrees of shooting into the sun. If the sun is low then it is shining right down the barrel of the lens. Now that is impossible to deal with. So I shoot the back and the interiors first and leave the front until the sun is either higher in the sky or moved around in its arc so it is no longer quite such a problem.

    Then there is the simply back lit situation where the sun is higher and as most of the others here have already said, you can drop anything down to gobo off the sun even it it enters the shot but does not cover essential features of the house and fix the sky in post. Or if there is a handy tree, let it create some shade and use the trunk or limbs to block the sun. In fact sometimes given a great tree, I do this shot on purpose with the shadows reaching out towards you. Especially useful if you have some sun lasted asphalt blinding the viewer in the foreground. With a house right on the street, trees on the other side of the street are very useful for an early morning shot in that they throw their shadows over all that road surface.

    If there is not a tree in the right place, cut off a small branch and dangle that over the lens and go ahead and include it in the shot. It can shade the lens as well as frame the shot nicely.

    Since I use HDR for exteriors as well as interiors, I certainly bracket the hell out of the shot. If you don't use HDR, you can layer the proper exposure for the house over the darker exposure for the sky and erase the bad sky letting the darker one come through in PS and I imagine LR works the same way. It was a Godsend when PS introduced layers!

    If all this fails, then just come back later if you can and explain to the client that despite all your brilliance and today's incredible equipment, good light is best to describe the property and bad light makes it look lousy and wouldn't they prefer the property to look great at the cost of just a few hours delay? Most of my assignments are close enought to home that I can pop back when the light is best for the front. But if it's a challenge with a DSLR or Mirrorless, it's a lot more difficult with a drone. Fewer options.

    Personally I would avoid using a graduated or half ND filter especially in this situation since the sun's light will bounce around badly enough between the lens elements but add another bit of glass and it gets even worse. I seldom use filters over my lenses at any time for that reason. But I do store my lenses with the front caps securely in place.

    The other aspect to this is that your subject matter, the front of the house, is going to be obscured since it will be in shade whlle everything around it will be sunlit. Not the best choice of lighting. So do make sure you get at least one exposure that is correct for the shadows. Another option is not to shoot the house straight on but move to both sides and get 45 degree views. That can help with the sun shining directly into the lens issue and can be a different view of the house, and depending on the house and it's property, can be more interesting. Although a street view is almost mandatory, it is not always the most interesting view of a house.

    So welcome to the joys of real estate photography. It's all about problem solving.

  7. Take control of the situation and use an app like Lighttrac to give you the optimal time to shoot. Tell the client that that's the best time to shoot the outside so that's when you'll be there. You're the pro. If it's East/West facing then arrive at a time to shoot one elevation, move to indoors then shoot the other elevation at the session end. If it's at a time of the year when it's always going to be difficult then choose a slightly overcast day and pop in a blue sky afterwards. For best results, if the customer doesn't play ball, get them to pay for you to return when the lighting is right - or build that into your initial pricing. If you're lucky, you'll get everything in one trip.

  8. While the front shot is typically the "money" shot, advanced schedule planning really focuses on that but you are shooting into the sun with the rear. Additionally, for some houses - those where front faces north, shooting south (reversed for Australia) always shooting into the sun and the shadow never leaves the front of the house all day. The sun still rises in the east (schedule east facing houses) and sets in the west (schedule west facing houses) but the sun arcs across the southern sky during the day so south facing houses can be any time of day, but look at tree shadows. So for 1/4 of the homes (north facing) you are shooting into the sun all day and have to be prepared to deal with it because no scheduling will get you out of it. This is particularly acute during the winter months when the sun has a much lower arc from east to west. In addition to dealing with the sun, also have to deal with the shadow across the front - the polar opposites of exposure. Usually a combination of 1) waiting for a cloud to cover the sun, 2) fill flash and/or dynamic range pull, 3) graduated filter, or 4) full sky replacement with a partly cloudy sky.

  9. @Larry Gray

    North facing homes (Up over) are mostly about managing the worst time of day to be shooting. Google Streetview is a good scouting tool to figure out what composition might work best and then you can use The Photographer's Ephemeris or a similar tool to figure out if there is a time of day you won't be looking straight into the sun. Winter is the worst since the sun is lower and in summer you could be ok midday with a suitable focal length that lets you get back and zoom in so the sun isn't shining on the front element of the lens or straight down the barrel. If all else fails, maybe you just get the agent to be ok with a less than stellar front exterior and upsell a nice twilight as the lead image. Out here in the desert, waiting for clouds could be a tough proposition. Trying to compensate with flash would be a big project for a basic RE session. 10,000Ws of distributed light? I'm guesstimating from movie set ups. A lot will depend on how close you can put the lighting. That old inverse square law.

    @John Durrant

    You really want the customer to understand that your time suggestions are in their best interest, but if you cross the line into dictating to them when you'll be there, you may have retention problems. The agent may have been handed a schedule by the owner on when photos can be made. Hopefully you are working with an agent that will persuade the owner to allow photos to be made at the best time, but there will be occasions when that isn't possible. The only thing you can do then is try for a time when the light isn't at it's worst and then down to some sort of technique that lets you deliver an acceptable image without too much work in the computer compositing and blending into the wee hours. If you can tack on some extra editing fees, that could be an option. I hate to promise heroics as part of my basic fee.

  10. The sun is always moving so try to get the other shots done first giving the sun time to move out of the way more. If you have no choice, then stand in any shade you can find and or use an umbrella to keep the lens out of the direct sun. Using your hand over the lens can help alleviate lens flare which can be tough to get rid of in post. Also knowing the direction the house is facing beforehand can aid in determining what time to book the shoot.

  11. The first thing I would encourage is to embrace the backlight. I believe backlight is, in a general sense, much more dramatic, especially when comparing it to things lit directly behind the camera.

    Have fun with it. Maybe there is a way to position the light behind some foliage or something.

    Another thing I like to do is composite out the haze by getting a frame with the sun covered. And the keeping in mind the first point, after you have corrected the sun in whatever way you see fit, go ahead and add a dramatic digital flare. You can make your own sets of digital flare files and overlay them onto your photos on "screen" or "add" blend modes. Now you have a backlit feel, but it is controlled and a much more dramatic and compelling photo.

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