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How to: Starbursts

Tokina 11-16mm at f/13

Tokina 11-16mm at f/13

Have you ever wondered how to photographers create a starburst?

Why does the sunburst effect occur?

Starbursts or sunbursts are an effect created when shooting towards any source of light. Street lights, car headlights, the moon, or even a flashlight can give you this effect.
Inside your lens there is a set of overlapping blades. These blades open and close depending on the aperture setting you choose. When these blades close, they don’t create a perfect circle, which diffracts the light which results in a starburst. If your lens has an odd number of blades, it will create twice as many points as blades. For example, a lens with 9 blades will create a starburst with 18 points. A lens with an even number of blades will create a burst with the same amount of points. An eight blade lens will create and eight pointed sunburst. If you don’t know how many blades your lens has, a quick search on the internet should answer that question.

 
Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 at f/16

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 at f/16

Its all about the aperture!

First, You are going to need to be able to control your cameras aperture. Set your camera to either aperture priority (Av, A) or manual mode (M) and choose a smaller aperture, somewhere in the f/11 to f/22 range. Every lens is different, so you will need to try different settings to find the flare you like. The smaller the aperture, the stronger and more defined flare.

Shoot Wide!

Wider apertures tend to create a larger starburst effect, but this rule isn’t set in stone. Telephoto lenses can create this effect as well. Wide angle lenses tend to get you closer to your subject, adding a more dramatic effect.

 

Stopping down can show imperfections

Using a smaller aperture can show your lenses flaws. Any dust on the front element or inside the lens can become more visible when shooting with smaller apertures. Make sure your lens is clean before shooting a starburst. If the dust is inside your lens, it may need a professional cleaning.

These dust spots can be easily removed in post production because of their location.

Beware of diffraction

Diffraction is a problem that occurs when shooting at small apertures. When light passes through a small opening, it bends or diffracts, creating a softer image.

Canon 10-18 f/4.5-5.6 at f/20

Canon 10-18 f/4.5-5.6 at f/20

 
Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 at f/14

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 at f/14

Find an obstruction

Partially hiding the light source helps create a stronger sunburst. Partially masking the light will create more contrast and make for a stronger starburst.

All lenses are not created equal!

Some lenses don’t handle direct light well and create ugly lens flares or blobs of colour throughout the image. Adjust the angle of the lens towards or away from the light source to move the flare out of your image, or to a place where it can be easily edited out.

Flare can also be used as an artistic effect, depending on the look you are after.

Shield your eyes!

Shooting directly into bright light for long periods of time can damage your eyes, especially when shooting with a telephoto lens. Bright focused light can also cause internal damage to the shutter and sensor of your camera.

Wide angle lenses aren’t of a hazard, but definitely don’t look at bright lights for extended periods of time.

 

Use a tripod!

Capturing sunbursts, especially at sunrise and sunset, will require longer shutter speeds. Make sure to use a tripod and a cable release to get a sharp image. If you don’t have a cable release, you can use the timer on your camera to reduce the chances of camera shake.

Another reason to use a tripod is to keep your ISO low. Shooting at ISOs around 100-200 will also help create a cleaner image.

Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8 at f/11

Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8 at f/11

 
Canon 16-35mm f/4 at f/16

Canon 16-35mm f/4 at f/16

Get out and shoot!

Get out and shoot with your lens to see what kind of starbursts you can make. Shoot at different apertures and find out which f/stop creates the best starburst.

Also, the number of aperture blades may be something to keep in mind if you are in the market for a new lens. Keep an eye out for a future post on purchasing gear!

Do you love or hate the starburst effect? Will you give it a try?

Let me know in the comments.

Happy shooting!