How to Create Sunstars in your Photos

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How to Create SunStars in your Photos

I love a sharp sunstar whether sunrise, middle of the day or evening lights. They ad a sparkle, literally, to that picture.

The starburst is caused by light passing through a small aperture (this is a high number between f/16-f/22). The narrow opening causes the light to be diffracted or spread out across the aperture blades in the lens in a uniform manner as it is recorded by the camera sensor.  The more blades and the less curved they are, the better the star.

Utah Arches National Park Sunstar

Equipment Needed

  • Camera with Manual Controls: You will be using the manual settings for aperture. A small aperture between f16 or f22 is needed to make fully-formed crisp sun stars. I currently use the Canon EOS 6D.
  • Good Lens: The lens really does make a difference for sunstars. I use the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L ll USM Zoom Lens which has a great reputation for making great sunstars.

There are also a few factors in the environment which will increase your chances of a sharp sunstar.

  • Blue Skies: Pure and clean light will make the best sunstars.  When the light is being filtered by fog, haze or high clouds, the camera will capture the light but the sunstar may not be sharp and defined.
  • An Edge: I find the best crisp sunstars appear in my photos when I use a hard edge, ie a wall, rock, arch, tree etc., to partially obscure the light source. Play peek-a-book with the sun helps to manage the light and create a sharp edged star.

Camera Setup & Composition

To capture a sunstar, simply adjust your aperture to f/16 and shoot facing the sun.  

Be careful to not point directly at the sun through the viewfinder, especially when it is high in the sky as you are basically focusing the sun directly into your eye. Use the Live View screen to save your eyes if shooting directly into the sun.

Sharper stars will appear if you manage the light source by having it peak out from a hard edge surface.

SunStar Camera Settings

  • Aperture: Start with f/16
  • Under Expose: Change your exposure to 1 to 2 stops down.
  • Shoot in RAW for post editing capabilities
  • Tip: Copy the settings above and put them in your NOTES on your phone. You can quick reference them if a sunstar shot opportunity arises.
Florida West Palm Beach - Sunstar

A f/16 aperture and letting the sun peak around a hard edge works the majority of the time.  

Here are some suggestions if you are not getting the desired sunstar.

  • Dark Picture: If the foreground gets too dark, either adjust the exposure again or focus on the horizon.
  • Aperture: You may need to stop all the way down to f22 to get the desired effect.
  • Focal Length: A wide focal length also contributes to the size of the starburst shape, as a wider focal length can create a larger starburst
  • ISO: A low ISO, around 100-200, will help to avoid the increased noise of higher ISO values.
  • Tripod: In lower light or nighttime situations using light sources to make stars, your shutter speed may become so slow that you need a tripod to ensure a steady shot.
  • Clean Lens: You should always have a clean lens, but you are really going to see smudges with all the light refracting.
Utah - Zion National Park - SunStar

I take a shot and then look in the preview to check the sharpness & flare and also the histogram. Remember you are dealing with refracted light.

Flare: Sometime a small adjustment up/down or left/right in the position of the camera will sharpen the light.

Exposure: With the sun in play, you need to keep an eye on exposure and on first shot may end up with a pure white photo. A good starting point for sunstars is to underexpose your image by two complete stops.

Check the histogram. Generally speaking, unless an image is intended to show bright white or pure black areas, pixels pushed up to the very edge of the histogram could indicate an exposure problem. The sun should also appear white and not grey.

If the histogram is not touching the edges, you can use a software editing program like Lightroom or Photoshop to recover the darker sections of your image.

Sedona Arizona Direction Sign - Sunstar

Bonus Equipment

I was introduced to star filters when at a Lantern Festival.

Star Filters are etched with a criss-cross pattern and designed to intentionally defract the light and create a star effect.  The star filters come in all common lens thread sizes & vary in design to product star effects with 2 to 16 points. There are over 800 variations on the market to inspire your creativity.

They make for a quick and easy way to manage light sources, especially in tricky lighting like a lantern festival.  

Arizona Monument Valley Sunrise - Sunstar Filter

Processing the Photo

Your photo on the viewfinder will still often look darker and the sunstar not as sharp.

This is where Lightroom will reveal your photo.

In lightroom, play around with the white, highlights, and shadows to further adjust the light and sharpness of the star.

Utah Arches National Park - Delicate Arch -Sun Star
Utah Arches National Park - Delicate Arch -Sun Star

Inspired to create Sunstar Photography?

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