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How to Take Big Suns in Photography
Sure, these pictures may border on cliches, but they are cliches that never fail to grab us. We're all suckers for that frame-filling drama of Ol' Sol looming large on the horizon.
And we all know how to get those shots of big suns - just shoot the horizon with that fabulously expensive, super-speed, extralow-dispersion glass, apochromatic tele, right?
Wrong. You need a long lens, sure, but it needn't be a budget buster. Some very good 500mm mirror lenses come in under $200, store price. There are all-glass 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm designs from major independents that sell for $300-500. And you can make an existing tele longer by using a teleconverter. That fine 300mm f/4 you bought for nature work, for example, can be converted to a 600mm f/8 with a 2X converter. That's a pretty good focal length for big suns. Using a 3X converter will make a 900mm f/12, and so on.
Besides a tele, you need a sturdy tripod - flimsy travel models need not apply. For one thing, focusing and framing through a long tele is far easier if the rig is well supported. For another thing, even a little shake can blur a long-tele shot.
A spot or limited-area meter helps, although it is not essential. An overall meter reading with an SLR will generally be far too high, resulting in a shot that's too dark - even if the desired effect is a silhouette. Most big-sun shooters use the strategy of spotmetering an area of the sky near but not immediately adjacent to the sun - an area in which some sky tone appears. This will give you a silhouette reading that will still maintain a little shadow detail.
And how do you focus and compose with that big burning disk staring you right in the eye? First, if everything in your frame is a long distance from the camera, setting the lens to infinity is the easiest way to focus without being dazzled. Otherwise, you may prefocuse the camera with the sun just out of the frame. You can often recompose the scene by holding your eye a little away from the finder to avoid being temporarily blinded by the sun.
The best big-sun shots are the ones that don't rely solely on the sun; the big sun, in fact, is best used as a background. The landscape, the harbor scene, the city skyline - each picture should stand on its own for it to work with a big sun behind it.
There is a pitfall here, though. Even with objects at a far distance, they can still be out of the plane of focus of the sun, due to the effective shallow depth of long lenses. Generally, the sun can stand to be a little soft, so try focusing on the nearest large object in the composition. Also, use small apertures and check the depth-of-field preview.
Big-sun shots can, on occasion, be surprisingly colorless; the sky around the sun can range from blank white to dull gray. A filter is called for here, from the standard warming (81A and similar) for a warm sky tone, to amber for richer color, to full orange for an exaggerated effect.
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