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Dive Photo Guide

Shooting Sunbursts

By Aaron Wong

There is something therapeutic about looking at the sun from beneath the waves. Since my very first dive many years back, I’ve always been captivated by this constant source of light. The way it dances, the way it fades into the depth in every shade of blue imaginable. From my very first underwater camera, I’ve spent countless rolls / CF cards trying to capture it in all it’s beauty.

It has been is a true case of trial and error. More error than anything else if I may add!

The advancement of digital photography in recent years of course made it a lot easier on the pocket. But even with the latest sensors, digital cameras still fail to capture a sunburst like  good ’ol film used to be able to. This is particularly true of compact point and shoot cameras. In fact, with point and shoot cameras you will find that it is often best to leave most, if not all, of the sun outside of the frame or behind your subject  to avoid blowing out the details altogether.

 

Underwater Photograph of a suburst by Aaron Wong
Under exposing your shot helps to reduce the burn out and makes the rays more defined against the darker blue.

Even wit a DSLR, more often than not, you end up with over exposed hotspots, patchy graduations, or even worse, not getting a single sunray at all.  Capturing a good sunburst digitally is easier said than done!

Of course there are some tricks up my digital sleeves that can help you get a good shot.

Most importantly, a good sunburst  is one that is not over exposed, with smooth graduation of shades (not too patchy), captures the rays of the sun.

There are 4 key factors in capturing a good sunburst.

 

  • Depth: Generally, shallow water works better (5m to 10m). This is because the light is simply too defused at depth. You would probably end up with a hotspot and a slow graduation of blue hues. Though nice, it’s hardly the kind of sunburst we are talking about. So go shallow if you can and give the rays a chance to reach you.
     
  • Time of day: A good sunburst is almost impossible in a mid day sun. It is simply too strong and direct. I find a low and strong sun works the best. The rays are much longer and more intense. With that said, I always call the time from 4-6pm the ‘golden hours’. This timing produces long and defined sunrays that are easily captured by the camera. Of course the depth still plays an important role - go shallow if you can. Experiment with the time of day and the depth. These two factors work hand in hand.
     
  • Shutter Speed: Faster shutter speeds can help to “freeze” the rays of the sun. Ordinarily, the faster the shutter speed, the more defined the sun rays will be. Use your aperture to balance exposure.
     
  • Visibility: Though murky water will defuse the light even more at depth, and can ruin a dive, it actually helps define the rays in shallow waters, much like how a misty morning captures the sunrays better through the forest. The low sun produces long rays that are captured through the mist, or in our case, murky water. Of course if the visibility is really bad, don’t even bother.
     
If you having trouble not overexposing the sun there are a few tips that can help.
 
  • Try under exposing your shots, as much as 2 stops under. This would prevent burning out the sun in your shot and make the sunrays more visible against the darker blue.
     
  • If you simply can’t avoid burning out the sun, either block the hotspot with the reef or your subject, or position the sun just outside the frame of your image. You can leave just enough of the sun to see the rays coming into your frame without showing the hotspot itself. My theory to photography is, “if it’s not nice, don’t include it!’
     
So try putting all these factors together and give your dream sunburst shot another go. Good luck and safe diving!
 
 
Murky water sunburst underwater photograph
Murky water can bring out the sun rays even more in the shallows.
 
underwater photograph of a sea turlte blocking the sun
Use your subject to block the hotspot.

 
Jackfish and sunburst underwater photograph
The reef can also be used to block the hotspot.
 
Diver and sunburst underwater photograph
 Shallow water and a low sun produce long and defined sunrays.
 
sunrays in shallow water
3 key factors (shallow water, low sun and murky water) can produce a great sunburst shot.
underwater sun rays
Slight cropping of the hotspot can prevent the attention from being drawn away from your actual subject.

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