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How to Improve Your "Sunballs" in a Digital Age

Letting the sun shine in your picture and getting a little closer to film-like results

Text and Photos by Kevin Palmer

I am from the Pleistocene era, so I remember the joys of shooting with 35mm film and getting the most wonderful burst of sun rays in the background of the image with only modest adjustments to exposure. Film just handled these over exposed plays of light against a blue background really well.

With the digital revolution, almost everything about taking pictures underwater improved enormously. But there was this one disappointing aspect: that sunburst in the background was now an amorphous mushy blob with weird color banding around it. Many of us just quit having direct sunlight in the shot as it wasn't worth it.

Digital has come a long way and dynamic range (the ability to maintain digital information and detail over a broad range of exposure in an image) has improved greatly as well as the software that interprets the light information that is being received by the camera sensor. So things have gotten good enough to take advantage this background composition tool, but there are a number of guidelines that will bring out the best of what your digital camera is capable of. 

  • First understand that some elements that contribute to a nice sun-ball are the same as any other subject: How close are you and how clear is the water. If you are at 120 feet of depth and the water has 30 feet of visibility; all the camera settings in the world are not going to help much. So for a crispy looking sun-ball, try to get a bit shallower and take advantage of clearer water when possible. I like to use the "Can I see the surface" rule. If I can look up and see the texture of the water at the surface, I probably have an environment I can work with.
  • Weather conditions matter. Obviously a cloudy day doesn't help, but just as important is not having too rough conditions on the surface. A choppy surface diffuses the light dramatically.
  • The prettiest light rays can often be found earlier and later in the day. The sun-ball is not as "hot" and the acute angel of the rays stands out.
  • High shutter speed is a must - the higher the better. This is easy if you are shooting ambient light, but if you are syncing with an underwater strobe, the camera will be a limiter on maximum sync speed. Ideally you want 1/250 or 1/320 sync speed. Some cameras are not rated for that, but don't be afraid to experiment. Some cameras will let you shoot at a higher shutter speed will triggering a strobe, but will have a portion of the image where the shutter will block strobe light. But if that portion is at the top of your image where the sun and blue water is, you will never notice it. This trick has been around since the Nikonos days, so if your factory sync speed is low, give it a try.
  • Your aperture should be small. This will vary depending on your camera and size of sensor, but for APS-C and Full Frame cameras, f/11 should be a minimum and smaller is better. This means you may need extra strobe power and close proximity to your subject to balance foreground and background or adjust your ISO to allow for the desired shutter and aperture settings.
  • If you find your camera just doesn't handle these kinds of exposures well, try using a subject - diver, animal, boat, dock, etc. - to silhouette against the sun-ball to reduce its intensity and maintain the rays.

Get shallow, stop it down, turn up those strobes.

 Late day sun is easy on the sensor

 Close to the surface and high shutter speed!

 Deeper, but you can just see the ripples on the surface.

 Use the structure you have!

Shooting the rays in a cave follows exactly the same principles.