FIELD TECHNIQUE: Let the sun shine in

Story and photography by F.M. Kearney

Years ago, I opened a box of Kodacolor II film and removed a thin, folded strip of paper. It contained a set of illustrated instructions for basic photography. One illustration, in particular, still sticks out in my mind. It was a photographer standing with his back to the sun while taking a picture of a model.

Indeed, conventional wisdom tells us to always keep the sun at our backs when taking a picture. This is a pretty good rule to follow for most subjects — especially if you don’t want important details lost in deep shadows. Always following conventional wisdom, however, will usually result in conventional-looking photographs. For a change of pace, why not try shooting directly toward the sun on a bright sunny day.

Including the sun in landscape photos is nothing new. But, aside from a few cameos, the sun rarely makes an appearance in photos of flowers. This could be due to a simple matter of logistics. It’s not that easy to compose the sun in the same shot with a subject that’s low to the ground. It’s much easier if you’re shooting at dawn or dusk when the sun is low on the horizon. Personally, I prefer the morning when the ambient light is rising instead of dropping.

Sun rising behind large-cup daffodils (Narcissus) "Manon Lescaut" Amaryllidaceae New York Botanical Garden Bronx, NY

© F.M. Kearney

When shooting on a sunny day, I want it to be really sunny — not partly sunny. I look for days when the cloud coverage is going to be less than 10 percent. A day with 10-20 percent cloud coverage still might be considered sunny, but if those clouds are in front of the sun, the look I’m going for is completely lost. I shot the scene above on a brilliant, cloudless morning. To get a perfect starburst over the field of daffodils, I needed a small aperture of f/16, and an unobstructed view of the sun. Instead of being a distraction, the contrast between the shadows and the interspersed shafts of sunlight added a sense of vitality to the scene.

A flash was necessary to prevent the shadows from overtaking the flowers. I covered the head with a warming gel so that the color temperature of its artificial light would better match that of the natural, early-morning hue. I mounted the flash on my tripod and placed it far enough away from me so that it would not accidentally cast my shadow onto the scene. Since I was hand-holding my camera, I used a smaller and lighter 28mm prime lens in lieu of my 24-70mm, making the camera a lot easier to handle.

The technology in today’s digital equipment also helps to make shots like this possible. To keep from blowing out the sun, I based my exposure on the sky and shot on manual. This produced an underexposed foreground. Years ago, when I was still shooting film, I would use two flashes to light a scene like this. Despite the extra light, I would still lose all detail in the background shadows. Today, I shoot with a Nikon D-800, equipped with Active-D Lighting. This amazing feature can significantly increase the dynamic range of the camera, making it possible for the sensor to “see” more detail in the shadows and the highlights than film ever could. It has a sensitivity range from normal to extra high.

For this shot, I set the sensitivity range to extra high and was able to retain detail in all but the darkest shadows. HDR may have worked just as well, but I sometimes have difficulty getting the sun to look natural with this technique — usually opting to process the best single frame in the bunch that comes closest to the correct exposure. Also, an HDR photo would have greatly reduced the contrast in this scene and produced the exact opposite effect that I wanted.

Sun rising behind large-cup daffodils (Narcissus) "Manon Lescaut" Amaryllidaceae New York Botanical Garden Bronx, NY

The image above is another example of how the sun can be used to spice up your flower photos. For this shot, I placed the sun in a specific location. When precise placement like this is necessary, it’s helpful to keep the depth of field button depressed while taking the photo. Not only will you see the exact position and shape of the sunburst at the “taking aperture,” as opposed to seeing it with the lens wide open, you will have significantly darkened the viewfinder image, making it much safer to stare into.

As appealing as the rich, even tones and soft lighting of an overcast day can be, don’t be too quick to dismiss the harsh shadows and contrast of a sunny day. In addition to these daffodils, many flowers are in bloom at this time of year — hyacinths and tulips, for example. For a change of pace, try including the sun in a few of your photos. Sometimes, bad lighting can be a good thing.


F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with the NYPD and the FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. As an award-winning photographer, his images have been licensed on many products and published in numerous publications, as well as exhibited in galleries in the United States and abroad. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. Kearney can be contacted at starcollec@aol.com, or via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.