Chasing the Sun: How to predict the sun’s position to improve composition

Jun 8, 2023

Aleksandar Beserminji

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Chasing the Sun: How to predict the sun’s position to improve composition

Jun 8, 2023

Aleksandar Beserminji

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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Recently, I posted a photo to my Instagram account. Unexpectedly, some media shared the photo, and soon enough, it went viral. Well, maybe better to say “locally viral”. But at the same speed, comments like “it’s fake” and “it’s photoshopped” arrived. To be honest, I didn’t care much. There was something in that feeling of having my own 5 minutes of fame that made me want to enjoy the moment, and not get into disputes with those who doubted. But at the same time, I understood them. I also couldn’t believe my own eyes when I saw that yellow blob on the back screen of my camera.

Anyway, what I want to share here, is the process I went through before I made this shot. And it starts way before I clicked the shutter button for the pic below.

Intro

Last autumn, I decided to challenge myself and improve my photography. For two weeks, every morning before work, I was wandering around the city, looking for inspiration. A couple of days into explorations and I figured out that it was the period of the year, perfect for foggy mornings, so I focused my exploration on the areas around the water.

But not every location “behaved” the same way, so I started thinking more about where exactly the sun will rise, what are the weather conditions, the temperature in the morning, etc. I made some shots I was happy about, and then the winter came. My beautiful mornings with a golden sunrise were over, but the experience of searching for a perfect location stayed.

Searching for a location

This part is about finding a potential spot for making a nice morning photo. It also applies to shooting a sunset, though.

The sun does not rise exactly in the East. Tools like suncalc.org or the Android app Golden Hour can show where exactly (azimuth value) the sun is rising (and setting) on a given date relative to some point on the map. You can use this info to visualize the scenery if you are familiar with it or to make some predictions, at least if you are not.

For example, if I want to shoot the famous “house on the Drina river“ using the mentioned tools, I can at least have an idea how what the resulting photo will look like, and that, if I want to see the sun setting down behind the house, I need to be there probably in January.

Having the above in my mind, somewhere at the beginning of the year, I did my homework and “scanned” the city I live in (Novi Sad, Serbia) for the sun alignments with some landmarks, streets, buildings, etc… I am familiar with the surroundings, so it was easy for me to visualize the result. One boulevard I found pretty interesting is straight for one kilometer, ends with a bridge, and at some point, the sun will rise just “behind” that bridge. That seemed cool in my head, and I noted that date. It was April 2nd.

Exploring the location

I went to check the location about a month before, and it wasn’t anything special. Here’s the proof below, made later, though. I was also disappointed because the bridge was invisible due to the distance. Lucky me, I had a Nikon 200-500mm collecting dust, and considering that, the idea seemed feasible.

While exploring the location, I thought about where I wanted to “put the sun” in my photo. I thought it would be cool to put it “on top of the bridge”. But to be very precise and to have the sun “click” at the top, you need to have it at the exact altitude. Apps like Dioptra can give you an approximate value, but there is an error. Mostly due to sensor imperfections in your phone.

For example, the altitude value above is 1.8°, but the sun’s altitude on April 2 when I took the photo was 0.2°. The azimuth value (66°) also differs from the one in the Golden Hour application or Suncalc.org (82.2°). So take these values with caution. If you are able to do some math on paper, based on the altitude of the object where you want to “place” the sun; and calculate the distance. The simple arctan function will do.

Before D-day, check the weather

On some other occasions, I was waking up really early, driving couple of hours to get to the location, just to see clouds. So check what the local weather prediction is saying.

D-day, be there early and setup your equipment

You want to be there at least half an hour early. You will need some time to unpack your gear, set up the tripod, and take test shots. Check different framings, and change positions. You don’t want someone else to take your perfect spot.

Set correct exposure, ISO, and aperture. Keep in mind that as the sun goes up (or down), the amount of light changes drastically, and you need to update your settings accordingly. But at least have some initial settings set.

Try to decide what you want to achieve. My reasoning was that I will be shooting right into the sun, so I was afraid of having too dark and too bright areas on the photo. I was bracketing with +/-2 exp for that reason. Also, there was traffic going around, and I thought about the post-processing, so I made multiple shots, just so I had material to erase a car that I didn’t like later.

Wait for the right moment

It’s easy to say. As I was shooting straight to the sun, I was watching the frame in live view mode (if you are shooting directly into the sun, with 500mm, you probably don’t want to look through the viewfinder). When I actually saw with my bare eyes this big yellow blob “moving” on an LCD (totally unexpected), I lost my mind a little bit. At that point, the sun was still to the left of the bridge and quite below, but it was the impression. I started shooting way before the right moment, in fear that I would miss something.

Take that shot

When the sun parked between the light poles on the bridge, I knew I had the shot. But I continued shooting more material (for the purpose of removing cars if needed).

Go home, and take some more sleep probably..

At this point, this tutorial ends.

Bonus: Photo ‘aftermath’ for the suspicious

As I already said, I had no idea that the sun is going to be that big. I was amazed! People who didn’t witness this scene are suspicious. And I understand them. Sun is very big and looks like a clipart. So here is a bit of math just to prove the dimensions on the photo.

For this purpose, I used a lens calculator and Google.

I took a photo on Nikon D7200 with Nikon 200-500mm, at 500mm, f8.0.
Using google maps I measured my distance from the bridge and the bridge width. It might be a bit imprecise, but it will do.

Distance from photographer to the bridge top = 1000m
Focal length = 500mm
Nikon crop sensor

If you enter these data into the lens calculator, you get the following result for the vertical angle of view:

Vertical FoV = 31.2m

I shot a photo in portrait orientation, so vertical and horizontal axes are swapped basically.

Using a bridge width (14.2m) measured on google maps, and the result from previous step, we can calculate the ratio of the bridge width on the photo like this:

Ratio = 14.2m / 31.2m = 0.45512

If we multiply the ratio with the photo width (original, not cropped), we get the expected bridge width in pixels on the photo

0.45512 * 4000px = 1820.48

Cool, now let’s measure the bridge in the photo. At first, I was measuring from fence to fence, and I got a result that differs by about 90px from the calculated value. It could be a measurement error, but then I figured that light poles on the bridge actually go behind the fence. Doing another measurement, between the tops of the light poles, I got a result of 1818px. And that’s, as expected, quite close to the calculated value.

Now let’s use the values for the sun. Google the sun diameter and earth to sun distance, update the values in the lens calculator, and update the formula:

Sun distance fom Earth = 150.91 million km
Sun diameter = 1.3927 million km

Vertical FoV = 4.71 million km

Ratio = 1.3927 / 4.71 = 0.29569

Expected sun diameter in px = 0.29569 * 4000px = 1182.76
Measured sun diameter = 1171px

It’s about a 10px error. Nobody would bother to photoshop a sun just 10px larger. So there you have it. Math proof!

About the Author

Aleksandar Beserminji is a programmer driven by a deep passion for photography. He is based in Novi Sad, Serbia, but you’ll more often find him somewhere in nature, hiking, cycling, and camping, always with his camera with him. Make sure to check out more of Aleksandar’s work on his website, Instagram, and 500px. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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