Caution: Never look directly into the sun, Never meter on the sun, Never point your camera directly at the sun, Never!
HDR has opened up a lot of shooting possibilities; one of those is shooting in the direction of the sun and not having to settle for a silhouette. But what about shooting the sun itself? Well that is a little harder.
The first problem is; the dynamic range of the sun to a shadow is beyond even what the human eye can do in one glance. We would (BUT WE SHOULD’T) look at the sun and then our eyes would need to adjust for dark subject area. The human eye is capable in one glance of seeing a Dynamic range of about 10,000:1 the sun would be about 100 times that. (For reference, a good LCD monitor DR is about 1,000:1, a print much less than that) The sun is too bright for even the human eye to see.
And what would the sun look like, to our eyes, even if we did look at it. Would it be a perfect round white ball? Not really, since our eyes really can’t see something that bright a mid day sun would appear as a large diffuse white object in the sky with no clear delineation.
As the sun is close to the horizon upon rising or setting, because of the atmosphere, diffusion and particles (water and dust) in the air, the brightness of the sun becomes much less, while the dynamic range may still be high the sun itself is closer to being viewable and we are able to capture more definition to the edges of that “Circle”.
So are we able to “Shoot” the sun? Yes it would be possible to shoot it but we need to use some special means such as using Neutral Density filters because even at our camera’s maximum (f/22 ISO 100 1/8000) that may not get us the “Ball” of the sun. But again is that what we truly want since that would not be “As the eye sees” In fact it may be actually odd
Sunsets themselves are not hard to do and can be an easy capture. Midday shots will be the tough ones.
What kind of sun do YOU want?
We can capture the sun Midday one of two ways, as a large blob or with a star effect. And even though “blob” may not sound that good, it may be in images with a ceratin look, be the right choice. But it is a choice you need to make before shooting because your camera settings will depend on that choice.
Now you may say; Well a Star effect really isn’t how we see the sun. True but it is how we visualize a bright object if even in our mind. After all, when we drew the sun as a kid we always drew those Points around it, we never just drew a circle. This is because it is an effect we can get when viewing any point source light that may not be as bright as the sun. sSuch as stars (which of course are just as bright as the sun just farther away, or even things like white Christmas light, street lights, headlights etc, when we view them at night
To get a Star effect we can do it one of two ways; the easy way of buying a Star filter. They are available with 4, 6 and 8 points in many filter sizes. The nice part about these is you can use them with any aperture but the aperture may dictate how long the star points are. Or, we could do it the hard way, which of course, I always choose. We can do it with aperture.
To get a star pattern on ANY point source light we need to use a very small or tight aperture. Now I wanted to show you some examples of that shooting the sun at different apertures. But of course today in “Sunny”Southern California, it is completely cloud covered. So I will instead use a point source light, a Halogen Lamp, since this effect will happen with any point source light. So for today we will call our hHalogen light Happy Mr. Sunshine.
To givet a star pattern to a point source light we want to use the smallest aperture available on our lens which in most cases is f/22 (some telephotos go to f/32- f/35)
Let’s look at the different effects that aperture have on this. Same light same Exposure, just changing Aperture
Now let’s look at what the effect of exposure is on the star, as we go from underexposure to over exposure, the size of the star increases. We also see as we underexpose the overall scene enough we loose the star effect completely, another reason we may not want to get a “Perfect “exposure on the sun itself
OK so now let’s go real world and a real example.
Shooting for a Star Effect
The effectiveness will depend entirely on atmospheric conditions the day you shoot. If it is a clear blue sky you will have much better definition, add and haze or light cloud cover and you may not get this effect at all.
I’m going to make it easy for you because I really don’t want you looking into the sun trying to figure this out.
For you initial exposure in your series of exposures for HDR, You first exposure should be f/22 1/400 ISO 100 (If your low ISO on your camera is ISO 200, use 1/800) you could use 1/800 for a tighter pattern if you would like. But a good rule of thumb is to have your sun exposure 3 – 4 stops lower than the Ambient light. This 3- 4 stops lower will work in the middle of the day as well as for sunsets when the sun becomes less bright because so does the ambient light.
For those of you that want to know, the Ambient light during the day would work out to f/16, 1/100, ISO 100 so the above f/22, 1/400 ISO 100 works out to 3 stops less exposure.
For my example shoot I shot this series
6 Images, 1 stop apart. I knew the sun exposure and just needed to get a reading of the shadow area which I spot read and got f/22 1/13 ISO 100. So I just had to work between those two in 1 stop increments. You need to shoot enough to cover the dynamics of the scene and 1 stop apart which is important in this case. We are going to have a tough enough time processing this image in the first place we don’t want to have to worry about posterization or banding around the sun due to too large of steps in between exposures on those areas.
One word of note; Shooting under these condition are ripe for lens flare. So we can choose to try to minimize it or celebrate it. If you want to minimize it try changing your angle to the sun and also remove any filters form your lens as low quality ones can compound the problem. In this case lens hoods won’t do anything to help lens flare since what we normally would be shading (the sun) is included in the frame)
Now comes the tough part; Processing in Photomatix Pro 4.1. The biggest problem any HDR Processing programs have is areas of extreme contrast (This is why we get halos around edges of building to sky) and areas of white (It’s why we get gray clouds that should be white). So here we are throwing both problems at it at once.
So we have to do some things that normally we may not normally do or want to do. Those of you that like Grunge or Painterly effects I will tell you right off that you will have a hard time with your normal work flow. Because as much as the normal settings for Lighting Effects and strength are what give you the effect you like, they will do what they normally do and attempt to make everything a midtone and it will cause a lot of graying on your sun and the sky that surrounds it.
Why this is a difficult process is because of two things, we want to try to keep a tight center for the sun and distinct star points. If we get that look right the overall image is dark. As we try to lighten the image we loose the tight center to the sun and its distinct points.
In this case we use some extreme things that we normally would do; well I guess I should say, I never do. In this case I used the Surreal Lighting effect button, something that I normally never use. And I brought the strength back to 50. This kept our sun’s circle tight but didn’t cause the rest of the image to get super dark which even if we took out into Photoshop would be tough to correct for.
There was a little haloing around the Hopper and a little graying of the area around the sun but noting I couldn’t fix in Post.
Here are the compete settings for this image’
Detail Contrast 0
Lighting Effect Surreal
Smooth Highlight 0
White point .250%
Black Point 0
You may want to try a little Highlights Smoothing in these cases moving the slider towards the middle to get the look you may want.
And that’s it for Photomatix Pro.
I then took the image into Photoshop and touched it up with a levels layer and some dodging and burning. I burned the edge of the Hopper with a Midtone Burn tool set to 10% to take care of some of the haloing and then dodge the highlights and burned the shadows a bit on the hopper body itself.
Then I sharpened the image just a bit using Nik Sharpner Pro 3.0 and I was done…well except for one more timy trick.
There still was a little graying in the rays of the sun, that I just wasn’t happy with. So I added another blank layer on the image and I grabbed a soft paint brush set to 20% Opacity , 20% fill and then I sampled the blue sky next to the sun and just painted over the gray area till it became a little more blue. Not super necessary but it just bothered me a bit.
This is the final image
As you notice the image contains a lot of sun flare and I even cloned out one in the grass area but I am fine with them in this instance.
Here are a few other examples of shooting the sun
In this one, I used f/8 and went for the blob look. I wanted the sun to look more oppresive in a harsh environment of the Salton Sea
These two don’t show the difficulty of shooting mid-day but rather using the Star Effect on sunset suns
I’ll leave you with one little bit of trivia. The number of points on your star effect tell you if you have a even or odd nuber of aperture blades in your lens and how many blades.
If you have an even number of blades say 8 as you will see eight points to the star. 16 points are actually produced but the over lap each other and look like 8. If you have 7 blades you will see 14 points because on odd numbers they don’t overlap. (Generally the more blades the better the lens, better bokeh)
Hope that helps,