A sunny day solution

Gary Hart Photography: Wildflowers and Mt. Hood, Columbia Hills State Park, Washington

Wildflowers and Mt. Hood, Columbia Hills State Park, Washington
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/50 second
F/20
ISO 400

For wildflower photography I prefer the diffuse light and soft shadows of a cloudy day, but when Mother Nature delivers clear skies and harsh sunlight, I look for backlight opportunities. Backlit flowers and leaves glow like they’ve been plugged in, and their brilliance allows faster shutter speeds that will compensate for a small aperture and quell a flower-waving breeze.

A frustrating downside of backlight is that the sun is more or less in the direction of your backlit subject, risking lens flare (scattered light that manifests as a contrast-robbing haze or distracting artifacts). If the sun isn’t in your frame, shading your lens will eliminate the lens flare. A lens hood helps, but I find lens hoods more trouble than they’re worth. Instead, when I encounter lens flare, I shade my lenses with my hand, a hat, or an umbrella (no camera bag should be without one). Or better yet, I do my best to position my lens in the shadow of a nearby tree.

But when the sun is in the frame, no amount of shading will work. In these situations I make the best of a bad thing by looking for sunstar opportunities. On last week’s visit to Columbia Hills State Park in southern Washington, I found a hillside awash with wildflowers—mostly yellow balsam root and violet lupine—in brilliant sunlight.

While waiting for the shade to arrive, I decided to take advantage of the backlight and look for a sunstar opportunity. The lupine were in better shape than most of the balsam root, and soon my eyes landed on a colorful group I could balance with Mt. Hood and the setting sun. I stopped down to f20, pulled out my Singh-Ray 2-stop graduated neutral density filter, and waited for the sun to drop to the horizon.

To salvage as much of my highlights as possible, I gave the scene as little exposure as I thought I could get away with. The foreground was pretty dark on my LCD, but the histogram looked okay (not perfect, but manageable)—in Lightroom I was able to pull up the shadows and subdue the highlights enough to work with. Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill tool helped me clean up the worst lens flare, but I still ended up with a little more than I like. (Oh well.)

Here’s my sunstar recipe (excerpted from a previous post):

  1. Start with a brilliant, fine point of light: The sun is the most logical candidate, but you can do it with the moon, stars, and pretty much any bright artificial light (lighthouse, headlights, and so on). The finer the light source, the more precise the star effect will be, and the less lens flare and blown highlights you’ll have. If it’s the sun you’re using, virtually all of it needs to be hidden to get the delicate, symmetrical distribution of beams that generally work best. In this image the horizon hides most of the sun, but you can use a cloud, tree, rock, or whatever.
  2. The smaller your aperture, the finer your sunstar will appear: I generally use f16 or smaller (larger f-number).
  3. Do something to control the highlights: When the sun is entering your frame, you’re invariably dealing with a sky that’s much brighter than your foreground and will need to take steps to avoid the foreground of murky shadows. If you have a foreground shape or shapes against the sky, you could turn the foreground into a silhouette. But when I want to capture foreground detail, I use graduated neutral density filters to hold back the brilliant sky. My 3-stop reverse is my go-to GND in these situations; in particularly difficult light I’ll stack it with a 2-stop hard GND. Whenever I use a GND, I find Lightroom or Photoshop dodging/burning is a great way to disguise the telltale GND transition. HDR blending of multiple images is another way to mitigate extreme sky/foreground contrast (but I don’t do HDR, so you’ll need to Google this). And Photoshop’s Content Aware Tool will help clean up lens flare.
  4. Different lenses will yield different results: Experiment with your lenses to see which one gives the most pleasing sunstar effect.
  5. Practice: You can practice sunstars any time the sun’s out. Just go outside with your camera, dial in a small aperture, and hide the sun behind whatever object is convenient (a tree, your house, etc.).

A sunstar gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

What do you think?

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