Having the sun in your shot when shooting sunrise or sunset landscapes adds a lot to the impact of your photos. But how do you deal with unwanted smudges and glare?
Although landscape photography can be done at any time of the day, it is undoubtedly more common to photograph landscapes during the golden hour, especially the minutes closest to sunrise or sunset. The golden hour is not just a time when the colors of the sky are brighter and the light becomes relatively softer. Due to the direction in which the sunlight hits the clouds in the sky and the ground, the light can better emphasize the separation of several layers in the shot. This can apply to many cloud layers in the sky that would be hit by light in different ways, and it can also apply to foreground elements that are lit from the side.
Meanwhile, it’s also an obvious option to include the sun in your shot, especially when your foreground position is in the same direction as the sun sets or rises. The sun can be seen in different forms during this period and it all depends on its cloud cover. On a fairly cloudy day, the sun may appear as a faint ball of light, and it may be the easiest to photograph. However, on a clear day, or with just enough cloud cover to have enough clear windows, more intense sunshine can be seen, which is perfect for capturing gusty sunshine.
Factors considered for sunburn
To successfully include sunburn in your landscape photography composition, you need to consider a few factors. Knowing these factors will help you better anticipate challenges both during shooting and post-processing and ultimately resolve these issues for a cleaner execution of the shot you have in mind.
Sunburn is visible in your photos when the sun shines directly on your camera with intense light. Two factors contribute to light burst, namely the aperture blades of your lens and other objects that may partially and minimally obstruct sunlight. Examples of the latter are thin clouds, mountain tops, buildings, and other foreground elements that you can place between your camera and the sun. The general rule for aperture is that since you put more aperture blades in the light’s path as you lower your aperture (and increase the f-number), it also results in more rays hitting your sunburns. However, it’s important to know your lens’ sweet spot for sunburn, which is essentially the aperture value that gives the longest or just the most attractive shots.
For the second factor, anticipation is essential. When deciding your composition for a specific shot, you can already predict which visual elements are likely to obstruct your view of the sun as it sets or rises. This way you can plan a few minutes in advance so that the angle you are shooting from gets a partially obstructed view of the sun and gives you attractive sun flares. This is the easiest part of this process. The biggest challenge is dealing with the other visual artifacts resulting from direct sunlight photography.
Flares are generally unavoidable when shooting with the sun in the frame. However, they can be manageable, requiring only one simple condition, which is to have a perfectly clean glass. This not only affects the layers of glass in your lens, but also every layer of filters you use to shoot landscapes. When all layers are free of moisture, dust, water spots or oil from your hands, and anything else that could degrade clarity, the resulting lens flare can be as simple as a single point if you have the sun in the middle of the frame. Having the sun away from the center would result in a few extra points as the reflection is separated between the different layers of glass, but should generally be manageable when all layers are clean.
Another artifact that can occur that looks like lens flare is the reflection of marks (usually white) on the non-glass front side of the lens. These markings often indicate the focal range and characteristics of the lens and the size of the filter thread. Whenever these marks reflect light, even to a lesser extent, the reflections bounce off the layers of the filters we use, causing them to reflect off the glass and onto the sensor itself. The easiest way to deal with them is to hide them. You can do this by using matte black tape to cover the white marks or if you want a more permanent solution, painting over it can also work.
Dust and stains
In the same way that anything that gets in the way of the sensor will cause light to reflect between layers of glass, direct sunlight hitting small specks of dust will behave the same way. Dust on your lens or filters is usually inconspicuous unless cropped and zoomed in drastically. However, direct sunlight intensifies their effect on the image, making them more pronounced. This is even clearer when the dust particles are close to the sun’s rays, which is why it is crucial to pay special attention to this area.
Cope with glare and dust spots
The easiest but most tedious way to deal with both lens flare artifacts and dust spots in your images is obviously to remove them manually during post-processing. This can be done in Lightroom, Photoshop, or almost any post-processing software available. There are a variety of tools available that can remove these unwanted spots like using Spot Healing Tool, Clone Stamp, etc. They all offer unique ways to remove a spot from the image by sampling a cleaner part of the image to replace the area and blending that sample there. The most important thing to remember when doing this is to use the smallest brush size possible that will only cover the stain so you don’t change the necessary detail.
Another way is to use time blending to capture a version of the shot without direct sunlight. This means taking another exposure before or after the sun is in the frame with the exact same camera angle and blending those parts into the affected parts of the image. It may also mean having to adjust the exposure and color temperature of the flare-free exposure to blend in well with the main image.
The last option is commonly referred to as the “finger method”, which involves using a finger or other object (such as a pen, stick, etc.) to cover the sun in a single exposure to obtain a version of the photo without the stray light and accentuated dust spots and, in the same way, by blending clean areas into the main image. This way you have a sharp version of the photo with the same color temperature which is easier to blend into the main image with the sunbeam.