Photographing A Perfect Sunburst
Tips and techniques for how, when, and where to get the best possible sunburst shot underwater
By Todd Winner
Including elements of the sun can have a huge impact on your wide-angle images. If you thumb through your favorite dive magazines or table books I bet you'll find yourself drawn to these kinds of images. Even though digital cameras have greatly improved over the years, they still can create difficulties when it comes to reproducing very bright highlights. I would love to tell you to use a certain technique and that it will give you the perfect results each time, but I can't. One of the most important things I've learned over the years is sometimes you just need to be at the right place at the right time. That being said, there are a number of things you can do to greatly improve your chances of coming away with a “wow” sunburst image.
Canon 7D, EF 8-15mm @ 10mm, 1/320, f11, ISO 100
One of the most important things you can keep in mind is not to overexpose. If you include the actual sunburst in your image, it's almost impossible not to burn out some pixels. That is to say, the pixels have become pure white and there is no way to recover any detail information from them. You can usually get away with a small number of overexposed pixels, but go too far and there is no saving the image. An easy solution for this is to put something between the hottest part of the sun and your image. This can be achieved with a silhouette or with a subject that you plan to light with your strobes.
Things You Need To Know
- Use low ISO: Using low ISO settings, around 100, will help prevent overexposure from the sun.
- Use small f-stops: Because you are shooting into the sun, you are usually at very small apertures of f11, f16 and even f22, so getting close to your subject and having powerful strobes, like the Sea & Sea YS-D1 or Ikelite SD-160, can make the difference between a “wow” image and one for the trash bin.
Canon 7D, EF 8-15mm @ 10mm, 1/250, f11, iso 100
- Shoot at a fast shutter speed: This is going to be around 1/200 to 1/320 for most dSLR shooters, but the faster you can sync, the better chance you have of freezing the light rays from the sun.
- Get shallow: I've taken what I consider to be usable sunburst images at almost every depth, but my favorites tend to be those from shallow depths. Shooting shallow allows me to maintain the fast shutter speed, small aperture and low ISO.
- Shoot early or late in the day: One of my favorite times for light rays is the hour or so before sunset. You can get similar results directly after sunrise, but I personally don't like to get up that early. At these times of the day the sun is too low to include the actual sunburst itself, but what you get are some of the most dramatic and golden rays of light I have ever seen underwater. Many photographers refer to this as 'dappled light.'
Nikon D2X, Tokina 10-17mm @ 10mm, 1/160, f8, iso 100 Late in the day dappled light.
- Use a current RAW converter: The simple act of upgrading from Lightroom 3 to Lightroom 4 improved my sunbursts immensely. The new Adobe converter does a much better job of handling highlights and it is also better at recovering lost detail.
Canon 7D, EF 8-15mm @ 15mm, 1/125, f9, iso 100 Late in the day dapple light
If you try some of these techniques, I'm sure you will see vast improvements in your sunbursts. Like I said in the beginning, sometimes you just need to be in the right place at the right time, so don't beat yourself up if it's just not your day. Sometimes there are just enough particles in the water to reflect back beautiful beams and the next day it may be gone. If you can see it, you can shoot it, so don't let a great opportunity pass you by.
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