Tutorial: Creating Sunstars

After a bit of a hiatus I’m back with another blog post.

This time I’ll look at creating a starburst effect from the sun or other light sources. It can be a great skill to have if you’re faced with a featureless/cloudless sky and need to add some balance to your composition, as in the shot below.


A sunstar can add interest to a featureless sky.


Often the best way to achieve this with the sun is to place the sun partially behind a hard edged surface, whether is a barn or the horizon itself. An easy way to find out where to stand is to look at the shadows on the ground; placing yourself at the edge of one of the shadows is usually a good start.


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Placing the sun partially behind a hard edged surface can create a sunstar.


Even if you can’t get a hard edged surface, another way to get this effect is to use a small aperture like f16. The smaller the aperture, the more defined the rays of light will be. I usually use a small aperture in conjunction with partially blocking the sun behind a hard edged surface. Something to be wary of though is if you use too small of an aperture you will run into something called diffraction; this can soften the image. Most good lens review sites will mention when diffraction starts to become an issue. This is a trade off between how defined you want the sunstar to be and how much sharpness you’re willing to trade. Keep in mind that you may be able to add some sharpness during editing, but you should try to make things as good as possible when shooting.

Keep in mind that if you use a small aperture you may need a tripod as the exposure time can get long. If it’s the middle of the day you might get away with handholding it, but during sunrise or sunset you’d probably need a tripod (and avoid using a high ISO which adds grain and less sharpness to photos). Also keep in mind that if you are using the horizon for your hard edged surface, the sun may no longer be high enough to light up your foreground features.


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I didn’t want to wait for the sun to go partially below the trees to get a sunstar effect, because it wouldn’t be high enough to light up this field of goatbeards. If you close the aperture small enough you can get a sunstar effect even without placing the sun partially behind a hard edged object. Here I used f18.


It’s not just the sun that can cause this effect. When taking shots in the evening or at night, city lights can cause the sunstar effect as seen below. The same tips apply, although you often don’t have to hide the light behind a hard edged surface.


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City lights can also create sunstars with a small aperture being used.


I’m not a big believer in flare in my shots; some people like it but I usually consider it a mistake. I’m often having to reposition my camera to avoid having flare creep into my shots.

To avoid it, keep your lenses very clean and also avoid using filters if you’re shooting directly into the sun. Also, if you’re placing the sun partially behind a hard edged surface you can usually just “hide” the sun a bit more to avoid flare that is in the image. But, sometimes due to the internal glass elements of the lens, a little bit of flare can’t be avoided (see the central light below).


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A little bit of flare has crept into this shot near the central light.


The type of aperture blades in your lens can also have an effect. Often lenses have rounded blades to make sure the out of focus areas are circular and smooth. But, if you’re looking for sunstars they aren’t as good as straight-bladed lenses. I’ve been shooting with a Voigtlander 15mm lens made for Sony cameras and it has straight blades. It can actually get a nice sunstar without even needing a very small aperture.

Below: On the left is the Voigtlander FE 15mm lens at f11 (straight aperture blades). On the right is the Canon 17-40mm lens at f16 (rounded aperture blades).



…And don’t forget that the moon can also be used the same way. This can be harder to do as you need a smaller aperture and there isn’t much light at night. But if you have a tripod and are ok with a long exposure then it’s not too difficult.




Here are a few more shots where the sunstar really adds to the image.


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I post to the blog about once a month, so if you want to get an alert when there’s a new post just scroll to the bottom of the page and click the Follow button.

– Patrick





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