Positioning the sun

August 29, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

I a recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park I decided to stop at a particular location to wait for sunset. As I always do I explored the area looking for the right composition. This usually means looking for a good foreground or lead-in lines, and so forth. This bowing Joshua tree caught my attention and I got the idea to position the sun at its tip just as the sun was about to sink below the horizon:

This seems rather simple because a few steps to the left move the tree to the right in relation to the sun and a few steps to the right move the tree to the left. By changing my position I could literally move the sun exactly where I wanted it to be in relation to the tree, or should I say that I can move the tree in relation to the sun?

          The problem is that we do this sort of scouting and planning when the sun is still higher in the sky. We line the tree up to where the sun is at that point in time (still higher in the sky). We draw a straight imaginary line down from the sun to the bottom of the bowing tree and set up our tripods at the right spot and we are set. Now all we need to do is to wait for the sun to set and we will get our shot, right? Wrong!

          It is important to note that the sun does not drop down in a straight line, it drops in the shape of an arch instead. In the northern hemisphere that arch curves to the right when looking at the sun. In other words, the sun will end up to the right of its current position at sunset and not straight down from where it currently sits. The higher up the sun is the more to the right it is still going to travel before sunset. "Not a problem," you say, "I can obviously see where the sun is going and I can adjust my position during the last few seconds just before I take the shot."

          First, please do not look straight into the sun with your naked, unprotected eyes. Looking at the sun through your DSLR is no better. You will damage your eyes. If you are using a mirrorless camera you can look into the viewfinder since it is a small TV screen and not reflected light from the sun. Either way, second, the sun will be blown out, the entire area surrounding the sun will be too bright to see any definition in or to pinpoint the sun's position in relation to the tree. So we close the aperture to darken the sun, but in so doing, everything else becomes so dark that you cannot see other things properly making composition difficult. The solution is to bracket. Shoot multiple images at different exposure levels. Then review them and pick one with the best balance between bright and dark areas. Then use that image as a reference to change your position. You might ask, "why take the shot, just look at the image in the viewfinder after you get the best balance between brightness and darkness?" I take the shot each time because if I first spend time to look if the sun is in the right place, realize that it is in the right place, and then decide to take the shot, the sun has already moved to a new place. I capture the shots because then I have them. If the sun was in the right position I have it. If not, I move the tripod and repeat. You will be surprised how much of a difference it makes to an image such as this if the sun is just a little to the left or to the right - it ruins the image. The second reason why I take the shots is that I am going to need a sequence of bracketed shots (most of the time when we are shooting directly into the sun). That "balanced" exposure still has clipped areas. If you need to change exposure to expose for the sun it is too late.

          Here is how I bracket for sunsets. I always start my bracketing sequence exposed dark so that the sun is exposed right. Then I shoot the lighter ones. The reason I do it in this sequence is that the sun is moving and its position is critical to the composition. Therefore, my first shot is for the sun. Once I have that exposure I have a bit more time to get the lighter exposures because the trees and mountains are not moving and the lighter exposures are for the trees and mountains.

          You will have to work quickly because you will be surprised by how fast the sun moves both to the right and down. You will also be surprised how much of a difference moving your tripod just a small bit will make to the relative position of the tree and the sun. This process needs to be repeated until you have nailed the composition at the right time and taken your images.

          The moral of the story is that it is not that easy to predict the final position of the sun as it sets. Be ready and work quickly. Change your tripod position very slightly every time and repeat the process over and over until you get it right, hopefully at the right moment. May I challenge you to go and try positioning the sun at an exact point in your composition? You may just get a nice image out of it to boot.


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