Nature

Photographing the sun

Written by Deb Tappan

Learn how to photograph the beauty of a morning sunrise or an evening sunset so colors are warm, rich and vibrant.

Sunset over Cook Inlet, Deb Tappen

Sunset over Cook Inlet, Deb Tappan

Taking photos of sunrises and sunsets can be especially rewarding. At these times of day when the sun is lower in the sky, sunlight travels through more atmosphere to reach the earth.

Protect your eyes

When photographing the sun, take every effort to protect your eyes and your camera! The very worst time of day to take photos of the sun is when it is at its strongest: near or at mid-day.

It’s vital when photographing the sun not to stare at it too long through the lens. You can damage your eyes as well as your camera. When it comes to photographing the sun, the most prudent route to take is to treat your camera lens and sensor in the same manner as you treat your own eyes.

Sunrise at Jupiter Island Beach by Gail Bjork

Sunrise at Hobe Sound Beach, Gail Bjork

Many digital cameras have a sunrise/sunset scene mode which is quite effective. However, if you want more control over the outcome of your image, follow these steps:

    • Exposure: use matrix or center-weighted metering. Select a small aperture for maximizing your depth-of-field.Meter for the sky, or near the perimeter of the sun, but don’t include the sun itself. This helps prevent white, blown-out areas, which lack detail (though some blow-out may be unavoidable). This method also helps the rest of the scene from becoming underexposed.
    • Sensitivity: Use the lowest ISO as possible to prevent noise in an image (eg. ISO 50, 80 or 100)
    • Use Exposure Compensation (also known as Bracketing): compensate up to one full stop in both directions (+ and -).
  • White Balance: set white balance to daylight or sunny day
  • Tripod: use a tripod with either a timed shutter release (use the self-timer) or a shutter release cable or remote. This will prevent blur resulting from camera shake and slow shutter speeds.
  • Composition: include the ground horizon or other ground and foreground elements. These will become silhouetted and stand out beautifully against a colorful sunset or sunrise. Applying the Rule of Thirds is great for this type of photography.
  • Horizon line: don’t forget to keep the horizon line straight. A slanted horizon line can be very distracting and is one of the primary visual errors many photographers overlook!
  • The Golden Hour*: optimal shooting is between 1/2 hour before sunset to 1/2 hour after sunset. Don’t forget about “afterglow” and remember to look behind you to notice what the sky is doing there as well.
  • Keep Shooting: don’t just take one shot, take a bunch of them. You’ll never know what you might capture.
  • Flare: watch out for lens flare (don’t shoot directly into the sun) and keep your lens surface and lens filters clean.

*To learn when the golden hour begins in your region, use The Golden Hour Calculator.

About the author

Deb Tappan

Natural history photographer Deb Tappan, a native of Indiana, received concurrent degrees from Indiana University in both Telecommunications and Environmental Studies before eventually calling Tennessee home with husband Paul and dog Utah.
Involved with newspaper production for many years, she "retired" from the University of Tennessee where she had served for 15 years. Deb now is dynamically engaged in her other life's passions.

For more than a decade, Deb has hiked in and
explored many of our national parklands. Through her photography, she has attempted to "transport" the magnificent topography, life forms, and natural history from wherever she finds them.

"Invariably the uniqueness and beauty of wild lands
always manage to move me. I'm awestruck by their diversity of texture and essence. It brings me great joy to be able to share those sights in this way and to, hopefully, nurture the same sense of awe and devotion to their protection and
preservation."

Deb's interest in photography was kindled when she was quite young. "It is a gift from my Dad. He was the one who introduced me to photography and black and white printing. Using the furnace room of our house as the darkroom and
an old movie projector as an enlarger he showed me the magic of print making and capturing those moments of time."

Deb's photographic skills have continued to evolve. She maintained a wet darkroom (in a closet) initially and now has moved into
the digital age. A digital SLR rounds out her equipment. Not foregoing film, she uses a high end film/slide scanner.

In the spring of 2003, Deb launched her site and store which showcase her photographic work. Currently, her photographs hang
in residences and offices across the country.

In addition to her photography, Deb is involved with the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other academic pursuits and environmental causes.

"Life
isn't static."

Thumbnails are of photos by Deb Tappan - used with permission. Copyright Deborah Siminski Tappan. All rights reserved

31 Comments

  • Justin, light during the golden hour is rarely harsh. Maybe you got there too late? Yes, try at sunset; you’ll know the direction from the direction of light. Check out this Golden Hour calculator for information about times in your areas. Does your camera have automatic exposure bracketing or an HDR setting? If so, try both to get the best exposure. Check your camera manual for specifics about either or both of these settings.

  • I’m trying to get natural lighting in my shot of myself (back to camera) as the subject, with a city scape background atop a mountain. I don’t want to use any reflectors or anything to shield or block some of the light. My first trial runs, the image blew out in the background because of the harsh lighting at 8am to the east. Should I take photos when the sun sets around the west, northwest?

  • Tan, we’ve pointed out in articles that you can damage your eyes by looking directly in the sun. But only a medical person, such as an ophthalmologist, can answer your question for sure. Suggest getting your eye checked.

  • I took two pictures of the sun through the viewfinder on my Canon 600D…. i looked at the sun directly for like 2 seconds…… any chance that I would have damaged my right eye??????? Please respond!!

  • Adrian, while the bar of light will not show in photos, it will be permanently recorded in movies. This happens wen the scene you’re shooting is too bright. When shooting video and the light appears on the LCD, the only thing you can do is change your shooting angle until the light no longer appears on the screen. There is more information about the phenomena in this article.

  • Hello.A have this digital camera (Olympus vg-130) and when i point this directly to the sun  a big vertical black/blue line appears splitting the sun down the middle and going all the way from bottom to top.When i try to record movies the line is there(only when i record the sun –all the time was by mistake) but when i try to make some photos ..after i make it …the line disapear.

  • Thanks to Gail & Deb for your help on sun photos and filters. Now what is a really good filter sparing no expense.
    Thanks Sandie

  • Hi there, yes, as Gail mentioned, you will most likely prefer the “better filters”. The very inexpensive ones can impart a poor color cast to your images. Neutral density filters are also a great way to enable you to shoot at slower speeds allowing for those smooth, dreamy water effects you see of waterfalls, shore waves, etc.

  • Sandie, Here is a summary of metering modes. As to a filter for photographing the sun, get a decent Polarizing or Neutral Density filter. A polarizer will enrich the colors and contrast of the scene. Neutral Density filters, described in this article, are useful in bright light conditions to help prevent overexposure. Neither will protect your eyes from the sun, so follow the suggested safety precautions. Better filters are multi-coated. They cost more but are worth the expense.

  • Hi
    I am an amature photographer. 3 questions what is center weighted metering , matrix and what is a really good sun filter for me to use on my  Canon50D?
    Oh and this site is very helpful.
    Thanks Sandie

  • Thanks for the kind words. Sunsets (and sunrises) are lovely and dynamic … colors constantly transform. Don’t forget to stick around for twilight. Then, the colors are shifting to cooler tones and are equally stunning. 🙂

  • Deb..Thank you so much for this article. It is absolutely the best one I have found anywhere. I tried to shoot sunrises this morning and ended up with either a red sky with a little red ball in it ..or a lot of  lens flare, or even what looks to be a double sun. Can’t wait to try again using your instructions.  I am a beginner and still learning and even I could understand your instructions.

  • Julie, Photographing the sun could ruin your camera sensor and your eyes if you stare at for a prolonged period of time. This article gives safety tips about photographing the sun including best times of day to take photos of the sun. You will be able to tell if you’ve damaged your camera when images don’t appear normal. As to polarizing filters, here are two articles that should provide the information you need about them: Benefits of polarizing filters and Types of polarizing filters.

  • I just purchased a new digital camera Cannon Rebel and took 10-20 photo’s of the sunset as it was setting. Then I was told this could damage the camera and my eyes, so I purchased a polarized filter.
    How do you know if a digital camera has been damaged by the sun?
    Is a filter helpful and if yes, which one would you recommend.
    Thanks for your time.

  • First, keep the ISO as low as possible. You can shoot in a variety of modes with the s1800. If you use P or a semi-automatic mode use minus-exposure compensation. If you don’t want to fuss with settings, give the Sunset scene mode a try. The s1800 works like most other digital cameras so follow the suggestions in the article.

  • Hi there, great article! My question to you : What type of setting would you reccommend I put my camera to (its a Fujifilm Finepix S1800). Thanks!

  • Hi there, if you are looking through the viewfinder while you shoot an intense sun, you risk burning your retina. Definitely a no-no.

  • Jin, if it was only a matter of a few seconds, I doubt your camera sensor was harmed. The only way to know for is to check your photos. It’s not wise to shoot directly into the sun, most certainly when it’s very intense. I’d worry more about harming your eyes than your camera.

  • I took some pictures with my Canon 50D D-SLR directly to the sun at 2 o’clock on a very sunny day. like 5 to 6 photos total. I didn’t know it was harmful to the camera. my question is would camera be ruined by what I did? If so, how can i find out?

    thanks

  • If your digital camera has the setting, adjust Exposure Compensation to the minus side. EC, in my opinion, is one of the most useful settings and it really pays off to take time learning about it. Take a look at this article about EC, then scroll down the page to the Related Articles section for additional information.

  • I have experienced on my last trip, even though i set my ISO to 100 and the Aperture to its lowest as possible which is F22 i still got over exposed image. Anything else that i can do about it? I am using Matrix Metering and Im shooting ocean.

  • Forgot to mention: Yes, your sunglasses can give some protection to your lens. They may also work as a filter to help improve color and contrast in bright light. If your glasses are polarized, they can work like a polarizing filter.

  • It’s not the ideal time of day to take photos because the sun is close to or directly overhead. It can leave harsh shadows, depending on the subject. If there our clouds overhead, and you shoot when a cloud covers the sun, it will produce more pleasant results. One of the best times of day to photograph the moon is during a time known among photographers at the Golden Hour. We offer a free Golden Hour slideshow here.>

  • It’s about 1:30 PM, and I am planning to go out and take some pictures. Is this a bad time of day?
    Also, yesterday I put my sunglasses lense over my Kodaks lense, and I got an amazing picture. Is this a safe way to protect my camera?

    -Katie.

  • It’s not unusual to see a big vertical line when photographing bright light like the sun. Question is, does the line show in your photos? They usually do not, though they will most likely be present in videos. If the lines don’t appear in your photos, you’re okay. If they do, call the camera manufacturer. It may be a sensor problem. If it’s a sensor problem, ask if repair work is covered under a service advisory for your camera.

  • I took some pictures of the sunrise (40 maybe) and now whenever I point even close to the sun a big vertical blue line appears splitting the sun down the middle and going all the way from bottom to top. Is this normal or did I ruin my camera by shooting too many sunrises? (never more than 15 to 20 minutes after sunrise)