Creating a starburst in your photos

South Falls, Silver Falls State Park, OR

One question I get at just about every workshop has to do with getting a good sunburst in a picture. It's really easy to do and requires just a couple of things.

First of all, you need to use a small aperture opening. This creates the diffraction needed to create the starburst. So use f/16 or f/22. The smaller the better.

And though you can create a starburst with just about any lens at f/22, wide angle lenses will make the best sunbursts. This is because the physical opening of the aperture at f/22 is smaller in a wide angle lens than it is in longer lenses. And the smaller the opening, the better the starburst.

Secondly, in your composition you need to hide most of the sun behind something like a rock or a branch. Show only about 1/8 to 1/4 of the sun. This is key and is a trick I learned from David Muench at one of the workshops we were co-leading (yes, I'm name dropping here, get over it!).

Those are the easy parts. f/22, hide most of the sun.

As far as exposure, set it for the rest of the scene. The sun will clip the highlights no matter what so don't worry about it. And be sure to check your histogram and highlight warnings to make sure too much of the sky isn't blown out.

The difficult parts are getting a good composition and getting the sun to show up in the viewfinder. It's easy enough to move yourself into a position to see the sun, what's difficult is manipulating your tripod to get the camera into the right spot and to get the shot off before the rotation of the earth moves the sun. This takes a little practice and often requires that you work fast and that you are familiar with your camera controls and working your tripod.

How can you tell if you've got enough sun for a good sunburst or too much sun that could spread out the sunburst too much as well as blow out the area of the sun? Use your depth of field preview button. For eye protection, this is always a good idea when looking at the sun through the viewfinder anyway.

Using the preview button, you should be able to see your sunburst.


Here are some examples.

North Island Viewpoint, Boardman State Park, OR. Nikon F5, 24mm lens at f/22. Fuji Velvia.

This is pretty straightforward. I set up behind these trees, set the aperture to f/22, and set the exposure for the sky with the shutter. Focus is on the trees and I've hidden most of the sun behind the middle tree. As the sun moves I move the tripod to keep the sun on the edge of the tree.


Mesa Arch at sunrise, Canyonlands National Park, UT. Nikon F5, 24mm lens at f/22. Fuji Velvia.

Another straightforward shot. The composition is a little trickier here since there's a bit of space to work with. I found the position I liked and moved the camera up and down until I place the sun at the edge of the arch. As the sun continued to rise I had to move the camera to continue getting a sunburst.

The hardest part about this shot was having to get up at insane-o'clock to drive out here from Moab. I made this shot in the spring of 2002. Back then, Mesa Arch wasn't nearly as crowded as it is now. In fact, there was just one other person there. These days the challenge is getting there early enough so you can spend the next two hours waiting for the sun to come up as you're slowly surrounded by about 185 other photographers. Good times.


Cape Blanco Lighthouse silhouette, sunset.
Nikon D300, 28-70mm lens at 31mm, f/22

This one took a bit more patience. I placed myself at a spot to get the composition I wanted and then just needed to wait until the sun began nearing the same level as the bottom of the lighthouse. Then it was a matter of just moving left or right a bit. Again, expose for the rest of the scene and let the sun's exposure go where it goes. In this case, the sky exposure was important and I preferred more of a silhouette for the lighthouse anyway.


Morning in the Hoh Rainforest.
Nikon D810, 24mm lens at f/22.

Now things get complicated. We were shooting in the Hoh rain forest on a clear morning, trying to get some images in before the sun came up, which ruins everything. Or so I though. Seeing the early light warm up the trees and seeing the sun peaking through the branches, I quickly found a composition that I liked and maneuvered the camera until I could see the sun between some branches while I was looking through the viewfinder.

Exposure was a little tougher here because the foreground area is in distinctly different light than the background. Thank goodness for modern DSLRs. I set the aperture to f/22. Then knowing that background was going to be pretty bright, I underexposed a bit and took the shot. Checking the histogram I could see I guessed right. The foreground was darker than I wanted, but more importantly, the background wasn't blown out. And I had a decent sunburst. I adjusted position and took a few more shots, trying to improve the starburst.

I still needed to open up the shadows in Lightroom, but that's the whole point of exposing for highlights.

The toughest part about this was finding a camera position where I could see the sun. It's easy to move your head around and find the sun, but it's a different matter when looking through the camera.


Lower South Falls, Silver Falls State Park, OR.
Nikon D810, 16-35mm lens at 16mm. f/22

This was another tricky shot. I've got two legs of the tripod atop a rock wall along the trail so I could get the camera out far enough to get the leaves on the ground but not get the wall in the frame.

The sun was peaking through the trees and fortunately for me the trail wasn't crowded at the time and I could move to the left to where the sun was in a great position.

I took about a dozen identical shots. The reason I took so many was because of the ferns in the foreground. The shutter speed was 0.4 seconds and there was a breeze coming off the waterfall. I took a dozen shots hoping that at least one of them had little to no movement in the ferns. Plus I liked this shot so much it seemed a shame to take just one.

One note about these sunbursts. I will usually take off my polarizer when shooting these unless for some reason it's really needed (like for horrible glare on wet rocks or something). The reason is that the polarizer won't do any good for the sky when pointed at the sun and it also adds glass in front of the lens, which can increase lens flare and ruin the picture. So whenever you're doing sunbursts, take any filters off your lens. Even protective filters. I don't use those anyway so that's not an issue for me.


Redfish Rocks at Sunset, Oregon coast.
Nikon F5, 28-70 lens at f/22. Fuji Velvia.

And one final image. Usually I look for a hard object like a rock,  a mountain, or a tree branch to hide the sun. But clouds can work too. Anything that can hide most of the sun works.


One observation I've made is that the quality, construction, and type of lens can have an effect on the quality and shape of the sunburst.

For example, my 24mm f/2.8 fixed focal length lens creates nice sharp rays in the sunburst (the first two images and the Hoh forest image above). My 16-35 f/4 zoom appears to have more rays (the Lower South Falls image). They're both quality lenses and I like the sunbursts both can produce, but it's something I'm aware of.

My suggestion is to practice creating sunbursts at home. Go outside on a sunny day and just use the roof of your house as the object to hide the sun. Start with your widest lens at f/22 or f/16 and hide most of the sun behind the roof. Try your other lenses too.

Soon you'll be able to quickly set your aperture and exposure, find a composition and manipulate your tripod into the needed position. And the more you do it the easier it gets.

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