Into the light landscapes

I love autumn. It’s a great time for photography – especially landscapes, writes Andrew James. As the colours in the natural world change, those boring greens of high summer turn to russet hues and all that other stuff Keats once wrote an ode about.

One of the real benefits for photography is the fact that if you want to shoot sunrise or sunset, then the times you have to get up or stay out are suddenly more reasonable. We are already seeing the nights drawing in and when the clocks go back in the UK (October 29th) then you’ll be able to shoot a sunset before tea! In this article I want to concentrate on some tips and tricks for shooting landscapes where you have included the sun in the frame. You can call it ‘shooting into the light’ or to give it a posh (French) moniker, contrejour.

In days gone by, shooting into the light was considered an absolute non-non. That’s a ‘no-no’ for the non-French speakers out there 😉  This was mainly because film was rubbish for shooting into the light whereas with digital, not only is it often better with capturing a wider dynamic range of tones, it’s also easier to tweak that image post-capture. This means, contrejour rules!

Why shoot into the light? For me, it’s all about character. When you shoot directly at a light source or at least include that light source in the frame, you are going to get flare, and flare can literally breathe fire into your photo. It’s also a bit unpredictable, which I love. This is the honest truth; because you can’t predict exactly what will happen when you shoot into the light. But you can help to ‘control’ it to some degree, so the result you get is interesting and atmospheric.

Shooting directly into the setting sun means you need to control the flare. Check out the advice below to find out how to do this.

Protect your eyes
First of all, a word of warning. Be careful if you are looking through a viewfinder directly at the sun. I know it’s ‘blinking’ obvious and you are all adults, but the fact is it can damage your eyes, so take care. I’d actually recommend using Live View for this type of photography. Not only will Live View give you a real-time presentation of what you are going to get, but it also acts as a buffer zone between your eyes and that golden orb. Admittedly, Live View isn’t always easy to see in certain light conditions, so adapt and overcome. Alternatively buy a loop that fits over your LCD to screen out the stray light that affects visibility.

How I work when shooting into the light

Wherever possible I will shoot handheld. Obviously if the light is getting very low and the shutter speed (even after pushing ISO up) is too slow, then I will use a tripod but as a general rule of thumb, it’s handheld for me simply because I need to be able to move the camera around a lot to find the best angle to shoot from. This is because even slight changes in angle of shooting can make quite a bit of difference to the flare you get, whether that’s too much, not enough or just right – a bit like Goldilocks and three flares!

When I shoot landscapes into the light I almost always have my metering mode set to Evaluative. This is Canon’s version of Matrix or Multi-Zone metering. This is because it will take an average reading across various parts of the scene and it is better than, for example, Spot or Partial, that might read from an intensely bright or very dark area and completely confuse things. However, even with your metering mode on Evaluative there is no simple way to get the exposure right. It all depends on how large the ‘hotspot’ light source is, how intense it is, and so on. There are many, many unpredictable factors here so my tip is to bracket.

It’s up to you whether you bracket three or five images. I’d suggest if you bracket three, then you set up to take them at -2, 0, +2, whereas with five you can go to -2 and +2 with one-stop intervals. Set up your camera to shoot the bracketed frames one after the other with just one press of the shutter and that will make things a lot easier. This is effectively how I explained I was working from the ship in Greenland in the article High ISO landscapes. If, like me, you want to shoot handheld, then keep as still as you can because this will mean you have the option of merging the pictures as an HDR image later. It may be that one of the bracketed images is perfect (or will be perfect with a bit of post-processing) but HDR as a viable option is always there. Incidentally, shooting into the light is one occasion when the Histogram is less important to you. If you have the sun and flare you are going to have some areas of burned-out detail whatever you do, like in the image below. It’s just part of the scene.

This is a single frame and not an HDR merge and there are unavoidable blown highlights. Sometimes that's just the reality of shooting into the light, but as long as the atmosphere is there, it doesn't matter.

You MUST, I repeat MUST shoot raw. Nothing wrong with shooting Fine JPEG when exposure is reasonably predictable but it isn’t in this case, so I’d recommend raw files every time.

Lens choice is entirely down to you. The thing I’d remind you of is that using a zoom lens will often mean greater flare because there are more glass elements inside the lens for the light to bounce around on and this will manifest itself as bright circles on the image. This can be good, if used creatively. You can use filters, such as a polariser or a Graduated ND over the sky (and sun) to help control the exposure, but be aware that these are another element that can increase the amount of flare that appears on the image.

Aperture choice is important. If you shoot into the light with the lens aperture wide open, you have very little control over the light flooding onto the sensor. As I am talking about landscapes specifically here, you will want a small aperture anyway for lots of sharpness. This small aperture will also help to control the way the flare appears – often as a kind of starburst. The smaller the light source, the tighter that starburst may be. I’d suggest using f/11 or f/16 for most of your shots. It was f/16 for the shot below and even though the sun was relatively high in the sky, it has created a nice, tight starburst effect. But look at all those flare circles caused by the elements inside the wide-angle zoom – they’re actively contributing to the mood of the shot.

I used f/16 to control the flare in this image.

If the sun is lower in the sky as it will be when shooting a sunrise or sunset, then you can also use something to partially obscure it – a ‘blocker’ for want of a better term. That will help you control the light. For example, I’m talking about the sun partially hidden below the horizon, a building or trees. This is another reason why handholding your shots allows for precise placement of the sun.

This shot doesn't have the starburst effect even at f/11 because it was taken on a 100-400mm telephoto lens at 400mm, but I did use part of the mountain to mask the setting sun and reduce its intensity. It was shot from the deck of a moving ship in Antarctica.

Lastly, it’s unlikely your into-the-light shot is going to be perfect straight out of the camera, so be aware you will need to process that raw file. I’ve already mentioned HDR, and if you are bracketing that is a very good option for a perfect result. It’s also possible that a single shot in that bracketed sequence is all you are going to need. The look you want is entirely up to your creative vision – it may be a brighter, high-key appearance you like, or perhaps you want something more low-key, but with a brighter hotspot adding a focal point. There are no rules here – it’s personal choice, folks! Typically, you will need to add some extra contrast to a contrejour photo, as the area of flare will result in a wash of light that reduces this important aspect of any image. I’d suggest the Dehaze slider in Lightroom or ACR, as it’s a very useful tool for post-production purposes.

Before and After

Before: The sun is just out of the frame but it's angled into the camera and this naturally washes out the contrast. After: With a little bit of editing that included a Dehaze boost and brightening the corner flare, this is the atmospheric result.

I can’t stress enough that the important thing when shooting into the light like this is that you don’t fight the flare – you embrace it. There may be times when flare is absolutely not what you want, in which case using your lens hood, careful angling of the lens in relation to the light and shielding the lens with additional items such as your hand, a cap, a filter holder or a piece of card, will help you to avoid it. But my advice this autumn is to add some excitement into your images by having fun with flare. So next time the sun is out and you have a camera in your hand, get to it!

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