Photo Tips: Getting an Angle on the Sun

On Sunday, I was at my gallery, working on the essay you’re reading now. A visitor came in. He looked at the photographs surrounding him, and then turned toward me. Smiling, he said, “It’s all about the light, isn’t it?” I felt he was reading my mind, and agreed, “Exactly… nothing is more important… You know, I was just writing about that.”  When he left, I reflected on just how essential the sun’s angle is to the effectiveness of our photographs.

The challenge we have is how to portray our 3-dimensional world with a 2-dimensional medium. Blessed with two eyes we have true stereoscopic, 3-D vision. The camera records all with just one eye and so we must help it by using light to our advantage. To help create the feeling of depth, you must adjust the direction you point your camera in relationship to the angle of the sun on your subject. By picking an effective angle, you’ll include the all-important shadows needed to create a sense of depth in your image. Position your camera toward your subject so that sun is either cross-lighting or back-lighting it. Then, textures will be revealed and depth will become apparent. Without shadows, visual separators and indicators of the light’s direction, you’re left with flat, unexciting photographs.

Next time you’re thinking of making a photograph, make sure the sun is NOT directly behind you. Flood light where your own shadow points at your subject is the worse light to render your subject dimensionally.  I have many photos to prove this, mostly ones my dad took of the family where we all are squinting toward the camera (and the sun!), our faces, flattened moons of light.  By the way, this is as true for the landscape as it is for people or objects.

If you can’t position your camera and the sun with a favorable cross or backlight to the  object or landscape of your desire, than consider coming back at a different hour and/or season. When I’m confronted with disappointing light on my intended subject I look around to see what  else is being beautifully lit. I photograph that. I call this “taking what is given.”   Believe me, your photographs will start looking a lot better if you pay attention to where the good light is coming from. Later at your computer you’ll have far fewer images to delete.

Below are three photographs I made of my wife Jean and our dog Lily. Each is labelled according to the sun angle chosen when I made the image. Pay close attention not only to my main subjects, but also to the grass and backgrounds which are also being effected by the lighting. I use these images in my workshops to help photographers understand and see the effects that the sun angle can have their own photographs. I think you’ll notice dramatic differences in the dimensionality of the different approaches.Front Lighting Jean & Lily

Side Lighting Jean & Lily

Back Lighting Jean & Lily

I coach individuals and teach small group classes how to recognize and use light to make more expressive photographs. I’ve just announced several half-day classes taking place on Saturday afternoons in Point Reyes. Sign up or read more about these here:
Saturday Photo Walk with Review

6 comments on “Photo Tips: Getting an Angle on the Sun

  1. Hi Marty – I’m enjoying your blog. Your points are key. Outdoor lighting on people is often an issue an issue when I am doing event photography and do not always have the opportunity to be selective on timing and location. I tend to add some defused flash to minimize facial shadows and add frontal lighting. Even with flash is it still important to follow your guideance

    • Terry – Thanks for writing. It’s true, especially for portraits where a single light source can be unflattering, too harsh and contrasty. In events, as you say, the soft flash is the most convenient. When doing a planned portrait or series, a simple bounce card, and/or the use of collapsible diffusers can be an elegant option. In all cases, paying some attention to the sun’s angle when time allows, makes a huge difference.

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