A few days ago my brother and I made a trip up into the foothills to photograph the new moon hanging on the horizon shortly after sunset. With several fires burning in Northern California, I realized that if the wind cooperated, we’d also have a chance to photograph an orange ball of setting sun before the moon appeared. Not only is this a beautiful sight, the dulled sun compresses the dynamic range to a much more manageable level—definitely worth giving it a shot.
Because the horizon for my planned moonset location was too high for the sunset shoot, I picked a starting spot that would allow me to shoot the sun against distant oaks when it was much lower in the sky. The plan was to shoot the sunset, then make the ten-minute drive to my moon location. Unfortunately, the conditions didn’t cooperate as the smoke was gone and the sun the shined bright all the way down to the horizon. But since we were there, we decided to make the best of the situation.
Since my goal was a big sun, I went all-in with my 1.5 crop Sony a6300 and Tamron 150-600 lens. Shooting directly into the brilliant sun, while not something I’d recommend, is decidedly easier with a mirrorless camera because I don’t need to worry about frying my corneas with my telephoto lens. I still had to be careful to only look at the sun through my camera, but found that I could see well enough to compose if I darkened enough.
I had no illusions about turning the sun yellow while still being able to see anything else in the scene, but I at least wanted to darken the sky enough for the bright sun to stand out. That would give me, I hoped, a round sun with trees silhouetted against the sky.
Zooming my lens all the way out to 600mm (900mm full-frame equivalent), I started playing with compositions as the sun approached the horizon. Focus was a piece of cake with the a6300’s focus peaking—I just dialed my focus ring to maximized the peaking highlights, and clicked.
In-camera my images were extremely dark except for the hopelessly blown sun, but I could see that I’d captured enough detail to give me hope for recovering it later. Opening the images in Lightroom later, I was thrilled at how much I could pull out of the darkness—not just the detail in the trees, but the color in the sky. Why all the orange? That’s simply a product of the significant underexposure I needed to keep the sun round. In fact, sticking with the white balance my camera’s auto white-balance chose, I actually ended up desaturating the scene a little. Noise reduction and a slight crop for framing was about all the processing I did for this image.
When the sun disappeared we packed up and hightailed it to our moonset destination. That shoot worked out wonderfully, but that’s a story for another day….