I get this question a lot actually. There’s a few things that’ll help get that starburst / sunstar effect. And, just so you know, not all sunstars are the same. Some are more pleasing than others. So what’s the key?

Well, first let’s take a look at an example. Here’s a photo I took last fall in Colorado (I wrote about the trip here if you want to see more photos). You can see the starburst effect in the lower left corner.

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Key Ingredients to the Sunstar Effect

  • Aperture – aperture is by far the most important. The smaller the aperture (which means the larger the f-stop number), the better the sunstar will be. Without getting too technical, with a smaller aperture the light bends around the blades in the lens at a stronger angle, which is what causes those sunstars to appear. Try squinting while you’re looking at a light (night time usually helps) and you’ll see what I mean. An aperture like f/11 will give you a decent starburst. Something like f/16 is even better and they usually get even more apparent at f/22 (or higher if your lens shoots at something like f/32). While I’m not a super-techie guy, and I absolutely hate all the talk about diffraction at the higher f-stops and how horrible it is for your photos, there is some truth to it (not much though). So I usually try not to shoot any higher than f/16 most of the time, which will give you a great looking starburst.
  • The Size and Brightness of the Light – the overall size and brightness of the has some effect on how the starburst will appear. This one is probably more personal than anything, but I like a nice compact starburst effect. So I typically don’t try to do this with the sun, mid day, high up in the sky. The photo above is a good example. It’s pushing the boundaries of how large I like the starbursts to appear. It’s still really nice but it’s definitely larger and you risk lens flare and all that fun stuff. So, for me, I try to shoot the sun on edges of things. Maybe it’s right after it rises over a peak, or right before it sets over something. To me at least, those last few seconds (or first few seconds) when it’s barely visible make the best starbursts. Here’s another example taken during sunrise in Norway, when I caught the sun just coming up over the mountain.
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  • The Lens – There’s not too much you can do about this one, but the lens definitely does make a difference. Basically, the number of blades makes a difference. Again, trying not to get too technical here, but the rule of thumb is that even number irises (like 6 blades) produce sunstars with that many points. The photo above (the trees) was taken with a Zeiss 15mm lens that has 14 blades. And if you count them, you’ll see there’s 14 points off the sun. Odd number ones though (like the Canon 16-35mm I’m using has 7) produce double the number. So 7 blades would produce a star with 14 points as well. Again, there’s not much you can do about this one. The lenses you have are the lenses you have, and the appearance of the sunburst probably isn’t going to be the top priority when I’m shopping for a lens. But, again for me personally, I prefer more points on the sunstar when I can get them.
    One more thing… lenses with the latest technology in coating don’t necessarily make a difference in the starburst, but they do make a difference with flare, which helps keep the starburst looking nice and clean.

Welp, there ya’ have it. Just about as techie-less discussion about getting a good starburst effect as I can give. But hey, you asked? Or some one did at least 😉
Have a great weekend!



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