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Guide to Creating a Starburst Effect with the Sun

Having the sun in your photo leads to backlight, but this is not necessarily something you need to avoid at all costs! In this article, we learn some tips and camera settings for composing stunning photos where intense sun rays are transformed into a starburst (also known as “sun flare” effect). (Reported by: studio9)

EOS 5D Mark II/ f/22/ 1/1250 sec./ ISO 200


Backlight from the sun can be harnessed to create stunning effects!

Let’s take a look at the two photos below. They are both of the giant Gundam figure at Odaiba in Tokyo, shot in backlight with a mild silhouetting effect, the sun included as an accent. They were also photographed with just about the same angle of view. Which leaves a deeper impression on you?

EOS 5D Mark II/ f/5.0/ 1/8000 sec./ ISO 100


EOS 5D Mark II/ f/22/ 1/320 sec./ ISO 100

While the sun has been photographed with the starburst effect in both images, its light appears more intense in the second image, with clearly defined light rays. You can achieve the same effect too - read on to find out how!


Key concept 1: The smaller the f-number, the more intense the starburst effect

The key to starburst effects lies in the aperture setting.
The first image was taken at f/5.0 while the second was taken at f/22. That was the only difference. It goes to show that when it comes to light sources such as the sun, a bigger f-number (smaller aperture) will make the rays of light that extend outwards from them longer and more prominent.


Key concept 2: The relationship between the number of starburst rays and your lenses

The number of “points” that your starburst effect has (i.e., the number of rays of light that extend from the light source) is dependent on the number of aperture blades on your lens aperture diaphragm.

The aperture blades are opened and closed to adjust the amount of light entering the lens, and are what we usually call “aperture”. An even number of aperture blades results in the same number of starburst points, whereas an odd number of blades results in twice the number of starburst points.

In the photo at the top, there are 8 starburst points, which indicates that the lens used has 8 aperture blades. If a lens with 7 aperture blades was used, there would be 7x2=14 starburst points. So if you are really particular about the number of points your starburst has, take a closer look at the technical specifications for your lens—the number of aperture blades should be indicated on the official catalogue as well as the manufacturer’s website.


5 tips for creating a starburst effect with the sun


1. Use Aperture-priority (Av) mode

You will need to adjust your aperture settings, so set your shooting mode to Aperture-priority (Av) mode. Then, turn the dial and set the largest f-number possible on your camera. It differs from lens to lens, but you should be able to set it to at least f/22. And that’s it!


2. Use negative exposure compensation

The sun is extremely bright, so you can expect blowout especially in its centre. In fact, under normal settings, the points of the starburst may be blown out too. To prevent that and make the sun appear to gleam brighter in the photo, set exposure compensation to a negative value. EV-2 or -3 should work fine.

EOS 5D Mark II/ f/22/ 1/1250 sec./ ISO 200
Apply even more negative exposure compensation and you will eventually get a silhouette photo, which is a rather cool effect on its own. (Here’s an article on how to capture silhouettes against the sun with telephoto lenses.) There are 18 starburst points here, which means it was taken with a lens with 9 aperture blades.


3. Attempt your shot on a clear, fine day

Cloud cover over the sun or haze in the atmosphere will cause the sunlight to be dispersed, and the rays from the starburst effect will not look as clean and intense as a result. It’s best to attempt your starburst effect on the sun on a day where the skies are thoroughly clear and blue.

Also, the more concentrated the light source (i.e. the closer it appears as a single intense spot), the more intense the starburst effect. Blocking the light from the sun a little such that it seems to peep out from the shadows of another object (such as in the example below) will therefore give you stunning, dramatic results!

EOS 5D Mark II/ f/16/ 1/1000 sec./ ISO 160


In the following photo, the sun glints through the gaps in the torii shrine gates. If the shooting conditions are good, you should be able to get a starburst effect of the same intensity. This photo has not been edited at all.

EOS 5D Mark II/ f/22/ 1/15 sec/ ISO 800


4. Make sure your lens are clean

When you shoot using a narrow aperture, dirt and smudges on your lens become quite obvious in the resulting image. They become even more obvious when you add the sun into the equation, because the light from the sun will reflect off the dirt.

Look again at the photo with the mirror. Do you see the bright marks near the starburst? They are actually caused by dust on the lens. To prevent such stains on your photos, do make sure your lens surface is clean.


5. Don’t look at the sun for extended periods

Looking directly at the sun can cause damage to the eyes, even if it's through an optical viewfinder. Make sure you don’t do so for extended periods.


Summing up

There you have it—key concepts and tips on how to take a photo of the sun with a starburst effect that emphasizes the intensity of its rays. How defined your starburst points appear as well as their number depends on your lens, but for now, to keep things simple, just use the largest f-number possible. It is also possible to create starburst effects from light sources in nightscapes.

My personal favorite lens to use for such effects is the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM. It gives me lovely starburst effects from around f/8 onwards, which allows lots of room for experimentation when I take photos of the sun. Both the photos below were shot at f/13 with the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens.

EOS 5D Mark III/ f/13/ 1/500 sec./ ISO 100


EOS 5D Mark III/ f/13/ 10 sec./ ISO 200


In conclusion, while backlight photography may seem tough because it is quite a challenge to get the correct exposure, I hope this guide to achieving the starburst effect will show you that you still can have fun with it!

You can create a starburst effect with an external flash, a water droplet and macro lenses too! Click here to find out how:
Macro Lens Techniques: Brilliantly Capture the Sparkle in a Water Droplet

For more tips and tutorials on harnessing the effects of backlight, check out the following:
4 Steps to Capture a Soft, Dreamy-looking Backlit Portrait
Telephoto Lens Techniques: Creating Multiple Layers of Bokeh


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