Sunlight in Photography

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The sun. Always on. Always overhead (of some part of the planet). Always free. Always a consideration for every photograph taken outside of a windowless studio or closet. The sun is nature’s free light source for photography and video. Regardless of whether you are making a landscape image, architectural photograph, portrait, macro shot, street photo, etc., sunlight, or the absence of sunlight, is a critical ingredient in the image.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

The sun.
The sun

Sol

A mean distance of approximately 93 million miles from where you are reading this, the sun is the star closest to Earth and it sits at the center of our solar system.

While the sun’s light output is relatively stable, the combination of the Earth’s orbit of the sun, the Earth’s rotation around its own axis, the tilt of the Earth’s axis, and Earth’s always-changing atmosphere means that the sunlight we use to make our photographs is always in flux.

Many of us take those light-changing factors for granted—they are a part of everyday life on this planet—but, as photographers, a basic understanding of the sun’s light can help us plan to make better images. And, if everything cooperates, capture better images as well!

Driving towards sunset.
Driving toward sunset

Solar Math

Don’t worry. We don’t need calculators here.

How do we describe the sun’s position in the sky? We already know the mean distance of the star, so that is not a variable we really consider here. What we do care about is how high the sun is in the sky and in what direction it is—azimuth and elevation.

Without seeing the sun, you can tell its azimuth and direction here
Without seeing the sun, you can tell its azimuth and direction here.

The azimuth is the angle of the sun relative to a direction—usually the direction of the North Pole or true north. If the sun is directly to the east, we say that its azimuth is 90°. The elevation of the sun is also measured in degrees with 0° being the horizon and 90° being directly overhead.

The sun…reflecting
The sun… reflecting

Why does the position of the sun matter to photographers? Even if you ditch the numbers, and you can, the azimuth and elevation of the sun directly play into the quality of the sun’s light. Also of some importance, the position of the sun over many days will decide if you are outside photographing in summer heat or bundled up in the winter cold (depending on where you live, of course).

Quality of Light

When we mention the “quality of light” from the sun (or an artificial source) we are collectively referring to its color, direction, and harshness or softness.

Harsh midday sunlight is great for making colors pop.

Solar Planning

For those of us who don’t have time to track and log the daily path of the sun overhead, there are a multitude of photo planning apps that show you the sun’s azimuth and elevation at any time, on any date, and at any location on the planet.

Apps like LightTrac, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, and PhotoPills are all excellent. (Check out this guest post on Milky Way photo planning by the PhotoPills folks.)

A screenshot of PhotoPills showing the current azimuths of the sun and moon, the azimuths of the sun and moon at rise and set, and the time ranges of daylight, golden hour, and blue hour
A screenshot of PhotoPills showing the current azimuths of the sun and moon, the azimuths of the sun and moon at rise and set, and the time ranges of daylight, golden hour, and blue hour

Atmosphere

Our fragile planet is surrounded by an equally fragile bubble of an air-filled atmosphere. When the sun is directly overhead (or near its zenith), the light from the star is traveling through the least amount of atmosphere it will travel through for that day. Unsurprisingly, the mid-day sun is brightest and sunburns are more prevalent.

Conversely, when the sun’s elevation is lower, the light is travelling through a greater amount of atmosphere and the light is not as bright. Many of us have looked directly at the sun when it is low on the horizon, but you should never do that when the star is directly overhead. As the sun nears the horizon, not only is the sunlight dimmer due to the greater amount of atmosphere it is traveling through, but the quality of the light changes.

The sky was electric this day
The sky was electric this day.

“Golden Hour”

For a period after sunrise and before sunset, the lower elevation of the sun (approximately 10°), and its associated color shift, bathes our region of the planet with a warmer toned sunlight. This is popularly known as “golden hour.” This rich, warm light is a favorite for photographers shooting landscapes, portraits, and just about any other kind of images.

Don’t take the “hour” part literally. Depending on your distance north or south of the Earth’s equator (your latitude), and the time of year, golden hour can be longer or shorter than 60 minutes.

Golden light on the bridge at golden hour
Golden light on the bridge at golden hour

“Blue Hour”

Before sunrise and after sunset, there is still light in the sky. We see the light of the rising sun before we see the sun and, at the end of the day, when the sun slips below the horizon, we still have light. Are we still experiencing sunlight? Yes. Is the sun still shining? Thankfully, yes. Is the sun below the horizon and not directly visible? Yes. What we are seeing is the sunlight continuing to illuminate the atmosphere above us.

Blue hour (again, not literally 60 minutes) is the period of soft light that transitions, in the evening, through the visible light spectrum from yellow to blue. As blue hour fades, we enter darkness until the Earth spins far enough to start the process in reverse.

Blue Hour
Blue hour

Shadows

The azimuth of the sun tells you the direction of shadows cast by objects and the elevation can tell you how long those shadows will be. Are we often planning images by precisely measuring shadow direction and length? No, but, when you think about taking photographs outdoors, it can be helpful to know what kind of shadows you should expect to see in your scene and use that to your advantage when looking for photographs.

Mentioned above, in the discussion on the quality of light, was “harshness” and “softness.” While those terms can seem a bit intangible, they can be clearly seen in how shadows are rendered. The harsh light of midday causes objects to cast crisp and defined shadows. Soft light, either from the sun’s low angle or from diffusion in the atmosphere, causes shadows to have softer edges.

Shadow play
Shadow play

Diffusion

Regardless of what is in the sky, the sun is always shining brightly—it is the stuff that ends up between us and the sun that reduces the amount of light reaching the Earth’s surface. Clouds, haze, fog, smoke, ash, and pollutants are, among other things, diffusers of sunlight. This natural and manmade diffusion can change the quality of the light. Smoke can redden sunlight. Fog can turn it blue. Shadows will soften.

Clouds, fog, reflections, directional sunlight
Clouds, fog, reflections, directional sunlight

Photographing through the Day

In your photographic travels, you will eventually come across a photographer, or photographers, who will tell you to avoid shooting under the mid-day sun and to focus only on golden hour excursions. The truth is that the different quality of the light throughout the day has its own pros and cons.

Approaching sunset
Approaching sunset

Sunrise/Sunset: While the physics of sunrise sunlight are identical to that of sunset when it comes to the amounts of atmosphere penetrated, sunrise and sunset light can have slightly different hues due to daily shifts in natural and manmade atmospheric diffusion. Sunrise might not be quite as red as sunset because the air is usually cleaner, and there can be different levels of moisture aloft as well. Another benefit of the lower sun (rising or setting) is the ability to front or backlight your subject. Front lighting helps emphasize your subject while backlighting can allow you to capture silhouettes.

These three photos, taken at sunrise, local apparent noon, and sunset, show that, even under overcast skies and in fog, the quality of light can change depending on the time of day.

These three photos, taken at sunrise, local apparent noon, and sunset, respectively, show that, even under overcast skies and in fog, the quality of light can change depending on the time of day.

Midday: While the mid-day sun can be unpleasant for some types of photography (portraiture can be challenging with a high sun—a diffusion panel held above the subject might be key), there are also some advantages when photographing architecture or looking for subjects that play well with vertical shadows. Most awesome, the color of the world around us pops when the sun is overhead.

 A sunny midday in Hawaii.

In-Between: Between local noon and golden hour, you can experience a mix of the longer shadows of the lower sun and the bright colors of the higher sun. Before and after the sun is at its zenith, shadows head off in predetermined directions. (Oh, by the way, the sun isn’t usually at its zenith at noon. “Local apparent noon” depends on your location and can be several minutes before or after your clock strikes 12.)

Midday color
Mid-day color

Regardless of the time of day you are taking photographs, look for color, light, and shadow and be aware of how the scene will change as the sun transits the sky above.

Many manmade structures love to be photographed in their colorful midday splendor.
Many manmade structures love to be photographed in their colorful mid-day splendor.

The Sun in the Frame

While you never want to point a camera, especially one with a telephoto lens and optical viewfinder, directly at the sun, you can certainly take photographs with the sun, even a mid-day sun, in the camera’s field of view.

Intentional lens flare
Intentional lens flare

Know that a bright sun in the frame will create exposure challenges for your camera, and the overall scene, but use the sun in the frame to your advantage as a compositional element, to create a sunburst effect, or some dramatic lens flare.

Brooklyn-henge
Brooklyn-henge

You can also mask the sun by moving to position an object between you and the star or wait for a passing cloud to cover and diffuse the light source.

Masking the sun

Sunlight

The etymology of the word “photography” shows the word comes from the Greek language meaning, basically, “to draw with light.” When we strip photography of composition and technical discussions, we are left only with light, and the sun is the world’s primary natural light source. (Before artificial light was invented, the sun was pretty much the only game in town aside from fire, phosphorescence in nature, and light from other stars.)

As a photographer, pay attention to sunlight, plan for its direction and intensity, and use the differing qualities of the sun’s light to your photographic advantage.

Do you have questions about photographing in sunlight? Do you have other important points to add to this article? Let us know in the Comments section, below! 

Midday sun is great for sailing…and sometimes photos!
Mid-day sun is great for sailing… and sometimes photos!

3 Comments

One of these days, I want to photograph Manhattan-henge as DeTyson coined it. Here's a 3 frame panorama taken by boat landing on Lake Murray, SC of the sun breaking over the trees as it was rising. I used Ektar 100 in a Canon A-1 with a 28mm lens. 

https://flic.kr/p/dRtfdP

Thanks for sharing, Ralph H! Unfortunately, our company blocks photo hosting websites, so we can't view your photograph, but we're sure it's lovely and perhaps other readers may log in and leave comments. We appreciate your engaging with us, and thanks for being a loyal reader!

Great photo, Ralph! (I was able to check it out.) Thanks for sharing!

I hope all is well on your end!

Best,

Todd

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