Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to meter to control exposure and tonal range when the sun is low in the sky.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of thirteen books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his newsletter, read our interview with him and visit his website.
Photographs © Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
Shooting into the sun presents a problem. The sun is so brilliant that built-in meters will give false readings because in trying to make the shot middle-toned, they underexpose everything. The sun doesn’t have any detail that can be seen from Earth (except if you use an expensive telescope), and it’s going to be white no matter what you do. Clouds can obscure the sun, of course, but the disc will be featureless no matter what exposure values you use. Therefore, it makes sense to completely ignore the sun in taking a reading of the sky.
And that’s exactly what you do. When I photographed a sunrise in East Africa, in image 1, I took a spot reading on the sky to the left of the sun. The reason the sun is huge in the frame is that I used a long telephoto—a 500mm plus a 2x teleconverter, giving me 1000mm of focal length. For the typical in-camera meter, the fact that the sun was so large would compound the exposure challenge. The problem is easily solved, though, by reading a middle-toned part of the sky away from the sun. The camera must be taken off automatic exposure, of course, and used in manual mode so you can physically choose the correct settings determined by the spot reading.
If the sun is not exaggerated in size, the same technique should be used. For the exposure in the sunrise shot in Poland, image 2, I used the same procedure. I identified the portion of the sky that should be middle toned, and I took the precise reading from that spot. By doing that, I made all of the other tonal values fall into place correctly: The shadows are dark and the highlights are light.
Even after sunset or before sunrise, when the ball of the sun can’t be seen, I still take the reading on a middle-toned portion of the sky. The silhouette of the toucan in a tree that I shot in Costa Rica, image 3, was backlit by an incredible sky. I took a spot meter reading on a middle-toned area of the sky near to the top of the frame, and that produced a perfect exposure. Of course, all detail in the tree and the bird was lost, but that was to be expected. When the discrepancy between the highlights and shadows is very large and you correctly expose for the highlights, the shadows always go black, even though you may be able to see details in the shadows with your eyes. The sensitivity of a digital sensor doesn’t come close to what we can perceive with our eye/brain combination.
Wide-angle compositions such as the picture at Jerusalem Rocks in Montana, image 4, make the sun very small in the frame. This means it affects the in-camera meter to a lesser degree, but it doesn’t suggest that you can rely on the reading from a built-in meter. It’s hard to predict how far off the mark the meter will be when the sun is so small in the shot, but it won’t be as accurate as you want it to be.
With the sun at your back, it’s a different scenario. Now you have front lighting, as in the landscape photo of the Eastern Sierras in California, image 5, and there are two options when using a handheld meter. You can take a spot reading on a middle-toned part of the picture, or you can use the incident meter function and read the ambient light falling on the scene. Both would produce accurate exposures. The same is true for the picture of the lilac-breasted roller, image 6. In this case, because the bird could have taken flight at any moment, it was easier and faster to read the sky. The portion of the sky far away from the sun acts like a gray card, and spot meter readings from it are accurate providing the air isn’t hazy or smoggy.
When the sun is close to the horizon, shadows are an important part of the exposure equation. For example, in the shot of the leopard, image 7, the low-angled sunlight was streaming through the vegetation, and the tree as well as some of the grasses and bushes created shadows. A built-in meter can only guess at this kind of exposure. It’s an "educated," programmed guess, and many times it gives you a good exposure. But with such a wonderful and rare moment, who would want to take a chance? It was too important to get it right. Therefore, as I was watching the cat move through the vegetation, I took a spot reading on its nose. When it assumed the dynamic pose you see in the photo, my lens aperture and shutter speed were already selected, and the exposure turned out to be perfect.
The beautiful lighting I captured in the 15th century Jewish cemetery in Prague, image 8, was taken about an hour before sunset. I was drawn to this shot because of the texture created by sidelighting. I liked how the sunlight streamed through the trees and how it skimmed the surface of the ancient stonework. When I looked at the wall as I was shooting it, I didn’t see the kind of contrast we can see in the photo. The digital sensor doesn’t have the kind of dynamic range that our eyes do, but I used this to my advantage. I think the contrast of light and dark is what makes it a striking image, and in exposing for it I chose a middle-toned area of the image for the light reading.
One of the techniques I use when I shoot directly into the sun is to partially or fully block the sun with some element in the picture. I did that in the sunrise shot through fog, image 9, in which I placed some leaves of the foreground tree in front of the sun. I used a similar type of framing when I photographed Samburu tribesmen in Kenya, image 10. The brilliant glow from the sun adds a dynamic quality to the picture, but it was easier on my eyes as I composed the picture to have one of the subjects block the sun. This also eliminated lens flare.