LAST MONTH WE TOOK on rainy-day shooting, so I thought I’d balance that with a brighter note – how to capture beautiful sunbursts in our photos.
That said, capturing the sun in all its glory needs much more than sunny weather. Stunning sunbursts are the reward for paying attention to details. They require us to read the conditions and execute our technique perfectly.
Get it right and those gorgeous rays have a transformative effect on our wide-angle images, converting standard reefscapes into beautiful scenes.
Get it wrong and we’ll quickly discover why so many underwater photographers shy away from the “white ball of death”, as a poor sunburst can overpower and kill an otherwise attractive scene.

THE SUN BEING OUT is obviously a prerequisite, but just as important photographically is a smooth surface to the water.
When it’s windy the surface of the sea becomes ruffled, which breaks up the sunburst, stopping the beams from being focused into attractive rays. Larger waves and swell are not actually a problem as long as their surface is smooth.
On those special millpond days, we have this smooth surface everywhere we go. We should always make the most of these conditions when they come along, but to regularly incorporate sumptuous sunbursts we cannot rely on luck. We must seek out the ideal conditions.
Most tropical dive destinations are exposed to easterly trade winds, so dive-sites on the protected western sides of islands provide the smoothest water.
Furthermore, as the land heats up more quickly than the sea each day, so breezes develop, with winds blowing from mid-morning to late afternoon.
The calmest conditions and the best sunrays are therefore usually at either end of the day.
Small-scale topography and other obstacles to the wind will also give us small pockets of smooth water that are ideal for exploiting photographically.
The steep sides of protected inland dive-sites, especially those of old quarries, provide this type of shelter. As does a large Red Sea liveaboard, which will create a small patch of millpond even in blustery conditions.
We can also find shelter in locations where coral grows right to surface and where marine life clings to submerged walls of steep-sided islands, such as around the limestone rock islands of Raja Ampat.
The alert photographer is tuned into these opportunities.
Particularly when on a liveaboard, we should spend a few minutes looking out at the terrain and conditions between dives and plan our diving and photography from what we see.

DEPTH IS THE OTHER BIG FACTOR that affects how a sunburst looks in our images. And the take-home message is that staying shallow is good.
The first reason for staying shallow is that sunrays become increasingly defocused with depth. This is because as they pass through water their light is scattered in all directions, making them weaker and weaker.
Therefore, if we go too deep, we lose the attractive rays radiating out from the sun in our pictures.
The next argument for staying shallow is that the sun’s light becomes increasingly blue with depth, and this affects the edge of the sunball.
The sunball is the area of over-exposure at the centre of the sunburst. We shouldn’t worry about this over-exposure, because the sun is super-bright and should be overexposed in an image.
However, we need to control the amount of over-exposure so that it doesn’t get ugly. The main reason for incorporating the sun in our pictures is to make them more attractive, not less!
Anyway, depth affects the look of the sunball, because the centre of the sunball over-exposes in all channels, so is white, but at depth as the light becomes almost entirely blue, the edge of the sunball over-exposes only in the blue channel of the image.
This is what creates an ugly cyan-coloured halo around the sun. You don’t really need to understand that process, but you should remember that this unsightly cyan halo increases with depth.
I will include the sun in my photos at any depth, for additional contrast and as a focal point. However, if I want a beautiful sunball and sunrays I will dive shallow. How shallow actually depends on how high the sun is in the sky, which varies with the time of day, latitude and season.
When the sun is high in the sky, such as in the middle of the day in the tropics, I will try to stay in the top 10m to shoot it at its best.
In these conditions the sun creates symmetrical beams, shining out in all directions, known as radial light.
When the sun is low in the sky, I will try to dive much shallower still, because in these conditions the best sunrays are seen only in the top 3m.
Yes, if we’re on a safety stop we’re too deep, because the beams refracted under water from a low sun quickly lose their intensity!

THIS DAPPLED LIGHT is very attractive, because light from a low sun travels through more atmosphere, endowing it with a warmer colour, and giving the sunburst a more greeny-orange hue. More importantly, the low angle means that the sunburst is smeared across the surface and the golden rays are spread into layers.
Dappled light is often described as evening light, but this is the view of a lazy tropical diver! Those who can get up for dawn or are willing to go diving on a sunny winter’s day at high latitudes will find equally beautiful dappled light in the middle of the day.
In fact, one of my favourite times and places for spectacular dappled light is a winter’s day dive at a sheltered inland site in the UK.
The key to great sunbursts is not thinking that there is a magic camera setting to capture them.
They are much more about reading the conditions and diving and shooting with them as your main focus.

Attractive sunrays can be photographed in warm and cold, salt and fresh and clear and murky water. The most important factors are sunny conditions, a smooth surface and staying shallow.
The sun can still be used in deeper photos, but it won’t give attractive rays at depth.

A bright sun requires a fast shutter speed and a closed aperture to expose correctly, but the exact settings are not critical. Don’t under-expose too much, because this records too dark a water colour.
Instead, try to hide the brightest part of the sun slightly out of frame or behind something in the frame.

The height of the sun in the sky greatly affects the aesthetics of sunbursts in underwater photos. The lower the sun, the shallower we have to be as photographers to capture its beauty.
Don’t worry if the water is slightly murky, it can often help beams show up in pictures.