Shoot into the sun for better portraits

Break this rule to capture more-intriguing portraits

The photography rule is hammered into young photographers: Always shoot with the sun to your back so the light is hitting the subject. But the fact is that breaking that rule is the first step to capturing incredible images — especially when shooting portraits.

And with modern digital photography gear, it’s easier than ever to pull off.

top 5 portrait tips

By ignoring traditional rules of photography, the sun added a great element to what otherwise would have been a standard portrait of this angler.

The tools necessary to capture better portraits are pretty elementary: A quality DSLR and a flash. My current camera is a Nikon D300s (although I’m salivating over the new D810), but really any of the current offerings should suffice. For a flash, I prefer an off-camera flash (like the Nikon SB-910), even though the D300s has a pop-up flash because the off-camera version 1) meters much better and 2) I can remove it from the camera and shoot at different angles (more on this later).

So, how does it work? Again, it’s fairly simple, as long as you understand exposures and how to work your flash. So here we go:

1) Shoot manual mode — You cannot allow your camera to determine whether or not the flash goes off — you should never allow the camera to make that decision. In this instance, particularly, because your camera lens will be facing the sun, the camera’s sensor will be flooded with light, and it’s a guarantee that it will not want to fire the flash. So, never use the Program mode (which normally will turn off the flash if there’s a lot of light); instead, turn your camera mode to Manual, Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority. My preference is Manual because it allows me to control every facet of the exposure.

2) Turn on your flash — That’s it, unless you find that you need to make some adjustments in how much light is hitting the subject. I always start with my off-camera flash attached to the hot shoe, so if you are using the pop-up flash you should be good to go (as long as it can pump out enough light to equalize the exposure).

3) Expose for the background — OK, so this is why I love to shoot manual. The key to capturing this image is to have the background exposed correctly. NOTE: Don’t point the camera directly at the sun, unless you want to go blind. Just point the camera at the sky, trees in the background or whatever and adjust your exposure by using your f-stop and shutter-speed dials. You’re looking to zero out the exposure (and then you can play with over and under exposures).

4) Compose the image to include the subject — Yeah, the person you’re shooting will probably be in silhouette. Don’t worry: It’ll turn out great.

top portrait tips

This technique also works at sunset: Expose for the background and let your camera tell your flash how much light is needed.

5) Focus and shoot — That’s it. The flash should go off, and the camera will tell it to send out enough light to balance the exposure.

This works if the sun is directly behind a subject or at a 45-degree angle. If you chimp the shot and see the subject received either too much or not enough light, just make adjust the flash output appropriately.

And to darkening the sky and get that nice, rich blue just underexpose the background one f/stop.

Want the sun to flare? That’s done by closing down the aperture: I usually close it down to f/16. Just make sure you’re exposure meter is where you want it to be. Then when you take the shot, the sun will look like a star (hint: the number of flares is dictated by aperture size – the smaller the aperture, the more flares will result).

Now, remember I mentioned removing the flash? Here’s why I think that is so important: The pop-up flash often is so hot that it’s hard to get close-up images (like the image of the angler with the flounder), and that can even be a problem with off-camera flashes attached to the hot shoe.

So, I can remove the flash and shoot it remotely. Not all cameras can do this, so check your model. But if your camera cannot fire the flash via a commander mode, then you can always use triggers such as PocketWizards (which I simply love). If your camera has a commander mode (look in the flash menu), the pop-up flash will be used to tell the off-camera flash to fire – just be sure the sensor on the off-camera flash is not covered or pointing at the sun (the sensor picks up the pop-up flash’s light, which tells it to fire). NOTE: If you use remote triggers, be sure your triggers are set on automatic and not manual – this allows trigger to equalize the exposure.

But having the flash farther away from the subject allows the light to spread out a bit before it hits the subject, and I think it gives me more control over the finished product.

So if you want to up your game and capture better portraits, turn the subject away from the sun and try this trick out. You’ll not be disappointed.


About Andy Crawford

Andy Crawford has been a photographer and writer for more than 20 years, with thousands of images and articles published in magazines and newspapers around the country. He now focuses on Louisiana photography, landscapes, HDR photography, urban prints and other fine art photography. He also is a portrait photographer.