Atlas With the Sun - The Most Complicated Photo I've Ever Shot

About a year and a half ago, I was walking on a local beach and realized that for a few weeks of the year, the sun would set in a perfect line of sight down the beach. I thought it might be a fun photographic challenge to create a super telephoto picture with a body builder "holding" the sun in an Atlas style pose. In my mind, the entire scene would be lit rather than have a typical sun silhouette image. Little did I realize how much work I was getting myself into.

When I first had the idea, I shared it with the guys at the Fstoppers office and both Lee Morris and Patrick Hall expressed their skepticism that the image I described would even be possible to capture considering how many things could go wrong. Even if I did capture it, they thought it probably wouldn't look very good and would be much easier to do in Photoshop. Despite their concerns, I decided this was a creative project I wanted to pursue. 

The Challenges

The first big challenge to make this image work was finding a focal length long enough to make the sun as big in my frame as I wanted the subject to be. Tamron just released a new telephoto to super telephoto lens, the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 that worked perfectly. This lens is one of the few out there that exceeds a 400mm focal length. It comes with vibration control and some neat little locking mechanisms that keep the lens steady when shooting at 600mm. Most photographers would use this lens for sports or wildlife, but I was mostly interested in how much it could help me zoom in to my subject. Despite being able to go all the way to 600mm, this was not enough zoom for my shot. I added a Tamron SP AF 2X Pro Teleconverter to take my focal length to 1200mm. 

The second challenge was getting the proper perspective of my subject. In order to compress the subject and the sun to a similar size, I had to move about 500 feet away from my subject. If you're unfamiliar how this kind of compression works, Lee Morris wrote a great article about it a little while ago explaining it. For the image to look good so far away from the subject, I had to find a flat area of beach with a completely clear line of sight in between us. I also wanted the complete form of my subject to be outlined by only the sky. This presented my next challenge.


As you can see from this test shot I took, there is a tree line miles away that cuts off my subject from the sky. In order to compensate for this, I dug a hole into the ground and got my camera as low as possible. However, this didn't completely solve my problem as the trees still cut off my subject. To raise my subject above the tree line completely, I had to build up a small dune. The wide perspective shot below gives you a good idea of just how far away the tree line actually was. The hole for the tripod was easy enough to dig but the dune probably took me a total of three hours just to raise my subject 20 inches.

Building the dune might have been challenging but placing it perfectly was even more challenging and had to be done on the exact day of the shoot. Every day the sun sets in slightly different locations along the horizon due to the orbit of the earth around the sun. To calculate the exact location of the sun set with respect to my subject and camera, I used a handy app called "The Photographers Ephemeris." This tool lets you pick a point using your phone's GPS and view the angle of the sun at any given point during the day. While this sounds simple enough to plan for, the sun also sets at an angle. In order to plan for the exact moment my model would "hold" the sun, taking the model's height into consideration, I did a test shoot with a group of light stands. I measured different heights of the light stands and then created a somewhat complicated photoshop document to try and map out the perfect positioning of my subject at any given time during the sunset. 

To give you a sense of the amount of relative movement the sun has to my subject within the frame, the center three light stands were placed two feet apart. Each day, the sun moved one foot to the left. This gave me very little room for error when building my dune, digging my hole, and placing my subject. In addition, the sun set at about one inch per second down the light stands. This meant that I would have less than 30 seconds to perfectly nail the perfect pose with my subject.

Since my timing window to nail the perfect pose was so short, I used my Photoshop document to measure and build a life sized version of the sun for how big it would appear in the frame. I then used this to help my model practice with the angle of his arms and hands so that he would be holding the correct pose when the sun moved into position. 

Another tricky aspect of the shoot that you can see from my Photoshop planning image is the weather. In order to make this shot work, the horizon had to be perfectly clear, which was difficult to plan for. Even on clear sunny days, there are sometimes single clouds on the horizon that block the sun slightly. In my area, there are usually only two to four days each month where the horizon remains cloudless. Luckily, we ended up having two days in a row to practice the shot and then execute the final shot with the model. 

If this shoot wasn't complicated enough already, I decided to make it more complicated by adding lights. The original vision for this shot was to have some detail in the sky, sun, and on the model. Unfortunately, the day I tested to camera settings to see if this was possible, the sky was extremely hazy which threw off the lighting calculations for the sun in my final shot. Based on those calculations, I figured I could light the subject well using four Profoto D1's. As you may know, these lights require a power source which meant I had to bring out a generator and plenty of extension cords. 

Another layer of complication that came with adding these lights was triggering them. I recently compared the Profoto triggering system to the Venture TTL 600 and showed that Profoto lights are very capable of being triggered from over 900 feet away. What I didn't realize was that this range is limited to a normal standing height. When I dropped my camera into my hole at ground level, the lights would not trigger. In order to overcome this, I had to put the Profoto trigger on a light stand and run an extension cable from it to my camera's hot shoe. 

The Test Shoot

After working through all the components to make this image work, the weather cleared up for a couple days and I convinced Lee and Patrick to come out with me and film a test shoot. I thought it would be fun to be the model and have some interesting images of myself before using a body builder. I set up the camera for Lee and left him to shoot and direct me while I tried to nail the pose

We first tried to set up the lights with two back lights on either side. However, we quickly realized that the settings would need to be much brighter than I anticipated and so we put all four lights to one side of me to give my body some definition. Despite the many distractions that came through the scene, which can be seen in the video, we managed to get a few frames with decent poses. Unfortunately, the lighting on me was not as accentuated as I had hoped and the sun was much more blown out than what I planned for.

Lee and Patrick didn't believe the images could be improved much beyond what we captured and decided the image wasn't worth pursuing further. I figured I would go ahead and finish what I had put so much work into and come out with the model. 

The Final Shot

After the test shoot, I realized to get my subject brighter, my only option would be to bring the lights closer to my subject. However, I wanted to keep everything in camera which meant I would need to somehow zoom in tighter to my subject. I decided to put the camera in DX mode and turn the camera to make the image vertical. This gave me a few feet to bring in my lights a little closer but also required the positioning of the model to be much more precise. I ended up putting three lights on one side of the model and one light on the other to give the model's entire outline some detail. Luckily, we nailed a perfect pose on the second shot.

My positioning and framing ended up being about a foot or two off, so I cropped in the final image.

The Bet

As you hopefully have picked up by now, this shoot was extremely complicated to execute. I thought about it for over a year and probably ended up spending a weeks worth of total time planning and coordinating everything for both shoots. I'm fairly happy with the final outcome and I'm happy I put for the effort to pursue something creatively. 

Throughout the planning and execution of this shoot, I have maintained a discussion with Lee about whether or not all the effort I put for into this shot, considering the final outcome, was worth it. Lee maintains his original argument that even though the image might look cool enough for an incredible profile picture, there were probably a lot easier ways to accomplish it. The shot could have been taken in a much easier location like the side of a hill or building that wouldn't have people and boats going through the frame. Plus, at the end of the day, it looks like a guy holding a giant orb of light, something that could easily be done in Photoshop much quicker with a better looking final outcome. I've maintained that the effort I put into this shot has been worth it. I think that using Photoshop to composite in the sun would cheapen the image and make it look unrealistic.

So, we'd like to call on you to help settle our bet. After you've seen all the work that went into this and see the final shot, what are your thoughts? Did I spend too much time on a mediocre image? Do you love the image? Help us settle our bet and leave your thoughts in the comments or sign in with an Fstoppers profile and rate the photo here.

David Strauss's picture

David Strauss is a wedding photographer based in Charleston, SC.

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Before I am demolished in the comment section here let me explain my point of view. The image is clever but in my opinion it's not a quality photograph. The composition could be better, the pose looks awkward (I actually like David's pose more), the mound of sand looks cheap, the blooming around the model makes him look blurry, and the sun is totally overexposed. Even though we used 4 D1s at full power, they did almost nothing in the image, the sun was just too bright. I feel like this is the type of image that a photographer could appreciate because they understand how clever it is and an average person might appreciate because it's so "different" and they wouldn't know how to pull it off but it's not worthy of any portfolio. It doesn't look like a polished professional image (and I think even David would agree with me on that).

Because of that, I think far too much time was wasted on this shot. By simply standing at the bottom of a hill and shooting someone on the top, you could have recreated this shot in a few minutes and gotten identical results. Attempting this shot on the beach, digging holes and mounds, and then dragging out 4000 watts of light that had no effect, didn't add anything to the shot besides needless work.

I am happy that David captured this shot, but our original argument wasn't whether or not he could pull it off, it was whether or not all of this effort would be worth it. I stand by my original argument; I think it's a clever shot but it certainly didn't warrant all of this work.

i agree with what you're saying, but it is fair to point out David only stated this was the most complicated shot he has taken - not the best, or the highest quality etc.

also what was the purpose of the shot? was it for a client project or just testing out a personal idea / hypothesis? for the latter, i do not see an issue with "wasting" a bit of a time to solidify a concept has been incubating or satisfy personal curiosity on whether something can be done.

Well at the very least he learned the least efficient way of doing that shot.

Itsn't Edison that said he didn'T fail 1000 times before creating the incadescent bulb, but he did discover 1000 ways how not to create one?

I agree with you, it's not an outstanding shot, but it's not devoid of things to learn from!

If it would be only with Photoshop, there is no special thing about it. Everybody could make it.
So, good job. Believe in your concept and work hard for it. You just did it. Period.

I certainly salute your enthusiasm and your single minded effort in creating that which existed only in your imagination. However, he finished images is, so so. A studio effort could be more interesting and certainly cleaner more professional. Maybe not as much fun, but then again, maybe more fun?

How I read that second paragraph:

"Patrick Hall and Lee Morris can suck it!!!"

It would be much easier and cleaner to do as a composite in studio with Photoshop. I'm all for "in camera" but in this instance, the ends don't justify the means.

IMO the only reason to do this all in camera is simply to say this isn't photoshop

Lee, please do this in photoshop, better, in a few minutes please. We'll all wait for the results to be posted. I like that it is real, not perfect. Just real.

I made this in 2 minutes using these 2 images:

Of course this doesn't look great but with a bit more attention to detail I would argue that it would look much better than the "real" version.

I'm not suggesting that getting it in camera has no value, but I would argue that if you're going to do a ton of work, you should get a professional looking shot.

Go to google images and type in "holding the sun" and you will see 50 images that are similar and in some cases are technically better than David's.

«…50 images that are similar and in some cases are technically better….»

Please, only two of the images of the first 1,000 are anything similar to David's, (this one you show here showed up, and also the one in this link),
and neither one is technically better. David captured more detail of the model than any of the thousands. (Except the one of Stevie Wonder holding the moon, which is a totally different ball game).

Ok I'll say it, "the guy sould be nude."

I considered doing that but as there was one specific location I had to work with and it was located in Charleston, SC (an extremely conservative place), I didn't think I could pull it off without problems.

ah SC yeah they hate those dongles, on the beaches.

I agree that his shorts do cheapen the shot a bit BUT with this pose, if he was just "hanging" there, that would be a far worse look.

.....because everyone likes a dangling ballsack backlit by the sun?

That was my first thought, also. :)

Sorry Lee, but I'm with David.

Primarily for the planning purpose of photographing the sun. Was a solar filter used on the lens because I've been told that pointing a lens at the sun for a long period of time can destroy the lens.

I am in the process of planning for photographing the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017. Charleston is the last point of land to view the eclipse. I'm in Columbia, the second-to-last major city for the eclipse. I hope to rent a Canon supertelephoto somewhere between 400 to 800 to photograph the eclipse.

Sounds like a neat shoot! I was surprised how small the sun was in the frame at 600mm. You may want to consider adding a 2x extender if you want the eclipse to take up any significant portion of the frame.

Yea, the link below shows the size of the sun on 35mm film. I should probably see about getting a telescope to mount my DSLR on.

hahah this grabbed my attention big time! I've been shooting giant suns for a while. My limit is 600mm (300mm + 2x). The trick is to be on a very long stretch where you can be at the same level as the model. Digging holes is not my cup of tea lol ;)

I wish I could leave for the next trip with a 800mm boat :)

Check out the 2 videos at the bottom of this post: (not mine)

Yes! Now this I like

Frankly, I would have given up on this photo attempt a long time before David. But with much respect to David. He went at with the intellect equal to that of a physicist! With all the calculating to pull this shot off, it is definitely a skills he can call upon in future endeavors.

Bravo, David, for taking the time and putting in the effort just to see if you could pull off such a shot. I think it looks great and I am thankful that you stood your ground. Too much is created with just software these days! Much of your photograph's value, I believe, is in the story you were able to tell afterwards. If you had simply slapped it together with unrelated images and a computer we wouldn't be having this discussion would we?

I find the exercise of planning and shooting the photo interesting. As long as you had fun doing it, it was worth it.

While I do agree with Lee on this one, I do believe it to be a great story in regards to how determination can allow one to accomplish anything in the world. Definitely helps to bring inspiration to photographers of all sorts. :)

Lee... Clearly creating this image was about the journey (process), not the destination (final image). And I'm sure he learned a lot about photography, planning, equipment limitations, and about himself as an artist.

I love hiking in the Sierra Mountains (50-100 miles over several days). But by your logic I should just take a car or helicopter from point "A" to point "B" because it would be so much faster and easier.

If we belittle or discourage the PROCESS, soon we will lose art completely! This is a dangerous line of thinking. Its like discouraging a painter from trying oil paints because it can be done so easily, cleanly and cheaply on an iPad.

Bravo to David for seeing his vision through to the end.

And by the way... I could tell instantly when I saw that image that it was not photoshopped. And I dare you to create something similar on the computer that is actually BELIEVABLE to anyone who knows photography. There's just something about the way the light interacts with the subject that is difficult to replicate.

Totally agree with you! in every single point!

And I bet that if anyone tries to replicate this shot using photoshop they will check this one as a reference to see how it actually looks for real lol the beauty of irony

I like the shot a lot, I don't disagree with Lee but I see where he is coming from. But I see that as part of photography, doing it in camera like that and not taking 2 seconds to do it in photoshop would seem much more rewarding to me, even if I spent that amount of time on the photo. Leaves you with a better story to tell rather than saying "I took two photos and merged them in PS". But again I agree with Lee as well as David. Great shot, loved hearing the story!

Hey David, I've actually been playing with something similar, though using the moon, not the sun. In the end, I had to use two images to create the image I had in mind because the sky was darker than I had planned for. Unlike you, I only spent a month planning my shot. I really admire all the effort you put into creating your image and I don't think I would've been so driven. Like you I think Photoshop would have cheapened your work. However, if the end goal was just the image, then I agree with Lee that it could have been accomplished with less effort. That said, I know how exciting and satisfying it is to accomplish something you've set out to do, and if that was your goal, you've accomplished that :)

Good to see you on here =). I've played around with a couple ideas with the moon too. I was actually thinking of doing a similar shoot around moonrise/moonset but didn't realize how dim the moon gets on the horizon. It is crazy how bright both the sun and moon are compared to the rest of the sky if you try to properly expose them.

Rather than judging on whether the quality of the image was worth the time you put in, I would ask whether the journey was worth it.

The experience you have gained from the sun motion, the sun-to-flash ratio or the overall planning of such a shoot may one day differentiate you from other photographers who never would have pursued a project such as this one to the end. Kudos David!

Wow, there is no question here Lee, this is like telling Von Wong not to spend days taking off labels of plastic bottles instead of just photoshop them, the real value of this photograph is exactly what you are saying is not worth it! TIME! The dedication of David was the winner! Many times in photography competitions the winner is not the most technically perfect image but all the effort and concept behind it. That is why in every single competition we always look at an image and say, oh! I could have done that! the effort and dedication are the winners... Well done David! it's a great (real) image!

Would you still have this point of view if the shoot was a total failure and there was no image to show at the end?

Of course! how does creativity works? how can we push the boundaries of what we do? taking risks it's something that a lot of photographers don't do and it kills the art. It's like when you try to take a photograph of a water drop hitting the water and creating a crown. It can take you many hours, even days! and many different setups to capture that perfect moment that might not even happen like you wanted... But at the end, you end up not only proud of a photo you captured but with a lot of new knowledge about how to do it... For me this photo shows love for the art and there is nothing more valuable than that... But I guess it depends on which eyes do we look at this Commercially or Arty, Commercially it might not be the perfect photo but Art wise it has all the points

I think we are debating two different things here. I applaud everyone who works hard and has the drive to work through difficult situations, and taking risks is great. I'm also not saying that David should have just used Photoshop. I'm saying that in this particular case, the way David went about this shoot was foolish. It could have easily been done in camera in another location that didn't require digging. We could have used a reflector instead of strobes, stands, and a generator, that weren't powerful enough.

The concept for this shoot isn't a waste of time but many of the decisions David made about this shoot weren't the best option and therefor caused a lot of time to be wasted and the image to turn out poorly.

So next time time David will do things differently or use the things learned here in another context. Being damning of first attempts at an idea is not good, because many laudable end products you see/hear/watch were not the first attempt. You only progress by pushing things, if you make mistakes along the way and learn from them that is actually a good thing.

BTW digging a ditch was a daft idea. Using a tripod where you can place camera low to ground would have been far more sensible. But if you don't have access to one, then digging a hole is your only option.

I respect you lee but i am all for a creative challenge and proving the impossible as possible is always worth the effort.

I would however say id really to have loved to see a lower exposure on the sun and it better lit.. almost to the point id love to try it myself to prove it can be done.

I don't need to be biased. Effort wise, yah that is impressive. The photo? Hmm, it's nice but this is like the first few stuff starters in photography are doing.
Lee has a point. We need to weigh out the length and amount of process given for our products.
It's like building a tower of LEGO with white bricks and the other one with assorted colors and just spray painted white - both will be same white tower, would be appreciated as is and not how it was done.
Photographers need to think more about the final output. It has been a trend nowadays to try to complicate a process just to impress fellow photographers that in reality, are not the majority of the viewers/clients of your work.

Easy and simple will always be more effecient.

Obviously the article Lee just posted about not confusing working hard on an image and having it be good was spawned from this video. The final image is below average, regardless of the effort that went into it. The whole ditch digging thing is obviously absurd, it should have been abundantly obvious that they needed a new location.

To me, the clear battle here is is there inherent value in something being done entirely in camera vs. a being a composite, and my answer to that is a hard no. Doing something in camera is a fun technical exercise that will make you a better photographer. Knowing what would need to be done to execute a shot like this in camera indicates knowledge of how to problem solve, but it just becomes a thing where the only people who are (potentially) impressed are the photographer, and maybe other photographers.

I think it's a classic example of losing sight of the forest for the trees. If the point of any photograph is communication as best as possible, that is virtually entirely lost when it becomes entirely about the gear. A camera and lights are tools. Know what else is a tool to execute a vision? Photoshop. The benefit of getting something in camera is to save yourself time because photoshopping it can be time consuming. This is the opposite case though. That's my .02.

All that being said, good work on having an idea and going for the execution the way you want tot. At the end of the day, everyone learned something about photography, so the exercise wasn't without benefit, but the result doesn't match the effort.

Hear, hear

I'm just curious to know why you didn't use a mirror to reflect the sun at the model? Instead of using flashes..:) otherwise a Great story about the process of process!

That very well might have worked. I'm not sure how much light it would have reflected. I guess I'll find out next time =).

Next time It is :):):)

I have wondered if this would work but it certainly seems like 4000 watts of strobe light would be more than a reflector.

I don't think it would have worked because we aren't trying to get the subject and the sky to be correctly exposed like you would in a normal portrait. We are literally trying to get the subject to be as bright as the surface of the sun. That is like 6 stops brighter than the sky surrounding the sun.

Yes, but it's 4000 watts @ 4 meters(?) and with light fall of with distance square (swedish term) it might be insufficient. The mirror should've reflect the suns surface or am I wrong here?

Good example of planning and execution of a difficult shoot. A lesson for all of us, that can be applied to any of our opportunities. IMHO

I doubt anyone will read this comment, and yet I logged in just to write it. So this could also be considered a waste of time :)

HOWEVER, I do want to comment on Lee's "clientcentrism". He looks at everything through the eyes of the client. Will the client like it, what will the client think about it, does the client care how hard was it to crate the photo. It's a symptom of American culture (IMHO) which interacts... weirdly with some people. How about you stop thinking about "the client"? Clients usually don't know shit, wouldn't be able to differentiate a photoshop montage from a real work, drool over soft focus and selective coloring. And you're telling people the client is who gets to judge the work. LOL! The client should be ignored - hell, even 90% of "photographers" should be ignored (check instagram and 500px).

It doesn't matter if the "client" doesn't appreciate the shot. If he doesn't understand it. He doesn't need to. He'll either buy a stock photo or hire you, and he'll be happy.

I agree that the end result from the photoshop that inspired you to write this article isn't really stellar. It doesn't matter. I, as a photographer, appreciate the effort that went into it. And the "client" can go have intercourse with him/herself. :)