How to Create a Starburst Effect

When shooting into the sun it is possible to create an attractive, eye-catching “starburst” effect. The starburst effect results from pointing your lens at a bright source point of light, such as the sun or street lights at night. The effect renders a source point of light not as a bright dot, but rather as “star-shaped” with tines radiating around the light source. For this dizzying view of autumn aspens in the photo below, I made sure to include the sun in the composition, creating an attractive starburst effect.

Starburst-8-web
Gunnison National Forest, USA. Canon 5DIII, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/20 second.

Use a small aperture to create the starburst effect

You won’t get a starburst effect if your aperture is at its widest setting, because at the widest setting the aperture diaphragm is shaped like a circle. An optical phenomenon called diffraction causes the starburst effect; as light passes through a small aperture, it is diffracted (or spread out) across the lens’ aperture blades. As you stop down your lens and select smaller aperture, the blades of the diaphragm come together to form a polygon shape, which is what creates the star-shaped streaks radiating from the light source. The smaller the aperture you use, the more pronounced the effect.

Typically, a small aperture such as f/11, f/16, or f/22 is necessary to produce an attractive burst; the smaller the aperture the better the effect, although you may want to avoid extreme apertures such as f/16 or f/22 because of diffraction (this same optical effect that produces the starburst effect also reduces overall image sharpness at small apertures). So, when choosing your aperture, you are trying to find the right balance between a crisp and bold starburst effect, and minimizing the sharpness-reducing effects of diffraction.

When working with high-quality lenses, I find that f/11 usually gives me a starburst of adequate quality while at the same time maximizing overall image sharpness, although sometimes I’ll stop down a little bit more to enhance the starburst. For the image below, I was lucky enough to capture the sun rising and the crescent moon setting; an ultra-wide lens allowed me to include both within the image frame, and stopping down to f/11 created a crisp starburst.

Starburst-3-web
Canyonlands National Park, USA. Canon 5DII, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens with Canon adapter, ISO 400, f/11, 1/30 second.

Reduce lens flare by partially blocking the sun

Flare can be a significant challenge when the sun is included within the picture frame, as you cannot effectively shade the lens to prevent light from hitting the glass. In such circumstances, it is typically possible to partially block the sun to reduce its intensity (for example, by using a tree trunk or a passing cloud). It is important to find the right balance between blocking the sun sufficiently to reduce flare, and leaving enough of it exposed to create a strong burst. For the image below, the sun was shining through a small hole in the sandstone formation, which blocked the sun just enough to eliminate lens flare, but still allowed a strong sunburst effect.

Starburst-4-web
Virgin Mountains, USA. Canon 5DIII, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/14, 1/125 second.

If you can’t block the sun, try shooting with the sun low on the horizon

Sometimes partially blocking the sun isn’t an option, and sometimes you might prefer to capture the sun in the sky without any obstruction. You should expect to get some lens flare in such circumstances, especially right around the sun. When the sun is low on the horizon, its intensity can be reduced by haze and atmospheric particles, which should help mitigate flare somewhat. Too much haze, however, can reduce or eliminate the starburst effect. For example, with the image below, you’ll notice some flare around the sun.

Starburst-5-web
Valley of Fire State Park, USA. Canon 5DIII, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/16, 1/250 second, focus stack multiple exposure blend for depth of field.

Not all lens handle shooting into the sun equally

Some lenses handle lens flare better than others. Typically, more expensive lenses will handle lens flare better than less expensive lenses, and new lenses will be better than older models lacking the benefit of modern lens multi-coating technology. Prime lenses typically handle flare better than zooms, although many modern zooms do admirably well.

Also, generally speaking, higher quality “pro” lenses will produce more defined and higher quality starbursts than lower-quality consumer lenses. Even among pro lenses, there is considerable variation as to the quality and character of the starburst effect created. Of course, there is a huge subjective component to how one feels about a given lens’ starburst quality, so I suggest looking at sample images when considering a lens purchase.

The quality and characteristics of the starburst produced by a lens are a result of the number and shape of aperture blades. For technical reasons too complicated to go into here, lenses with an even number of blades produce stars with spikes equal to the number of blades (for example, a lens with 8 aperture blades produces a star with 8 spikes). Lenses with an odd number of aperture blades, however, produce two spikes for each blade (for example, a lens with 7 blades produces a star with 14 spikes). Furthermore, some lenses have a tendency to produce “twinning” or “splitting” of their spikes, most noticeable at the far ends of the spike.

Which type of starburst effect you prefer is, of course, entirely subjective and completely up to you. Although many photographers prefer fewer spikes, I’m partial to the 18-spike stars produced by 9-blade lenses such as the Nikon 14-24mm, Canon 11-24mm, or Tamron 15-30mm. What can I say, I like a lot of spikes! That’s just a personal preference, of course.

Starburst-2-web
Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina. Canon 5DIII, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/14, 1/6 second.

Keep your lens clean and remove filters

Smudges, dirt, or oil on the front of your lens can increase lens flare. So can UV or other types of filters. If you are having problems with flare when shooting into the sun, make sure to remove any filters and check to make sure your lens is clean.

Starburst-7-web
Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Canon 5DIII, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 II lens, ISO 100, f/13, 1/160 second.

Don’t just shoot the sun

The starburst effect isn’t limited to landscape photography and shooting into the sun. Anytime you have a bright source point of light, you can create a starburst effect. The moon during a night shoot can be great for starbursts. And when shooting cityscapes at night, I’m always on the lookout for ways to include bright street lights for creative use of the starburst effect, such as with this photo of the Lowry Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Starburst-6-web
Canon 5DIII, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 200, f/11, 20 seconds.

Conclusion

Including the sun as a starburst creates an eye-catching point of interest in your compositions. With a bit of creative positioning, technical considerations are easily overcome.

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About the author: World-renowned professional photographer and Tamron Image Master Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to a number of leading photo magazines (including Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, and others). You can see more of Ian’s work at www.ianplant.com.

Have something to add to the story? Leave a comment or email editor@outdoorphotographyguide.com.

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Discussion
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17 Responses to “How to Create a Starburst Effect”
  1. Bob Dumon

    …or you could cheat and just use Topaz Labs Star Effects software. Love my Tamron 15-30mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 VC lenses, by the way….

    Reply
    • Robin

      Bob Dumon…I’m not sure that most starburst filters don’t give a softer image than stopping down. Diffraction can be bad on some lenses when stopped down but without comparing the difference I’ve no idea which would be the more preferable. As I use ‘L’ series lenses though which so far show little diffraction when stopped down, I’ll stick with stopping down when I want a starburst effect.

      Reply
  2. Jackie

    Thank you so much for the tips. I especially like the flare coming through the hole in the rock at the Virgin Mountains.

    Reply
  3. John Olson

    Ian-What do you think of using crosshair, or starburst filters, provided they are clean and free of grease,smudges,etc.? I have a Tamron 18-270 lens on my Canon 50D and usually shoot all outdoor stuff with a circular polarizer. I have attended 2 seminars with David Maynard(also a Tamron devotee).

    Reply
    • Ian Plant

      Hi John, I’ve never used a starburst filter, so I can’t speak to how effective they are. I’m not sure why one would use one when shooting into the sun, since the sun naturally creates a starburst – I’m not sure what the starburst filter would add in such a situation. But since I’ve never used one, I can’t say for sure!

      Reply
  4. J Chris Hansen

    Another method of creating a starburst is to make your own starburst filter. Take two pieces of window screen slightly bigger than the front of your lens. Lay one piece on top of the other at a 45 degree angle and then tape the edges together. When placed in front of your lens at night light sources have a starburst effect.

    Reply
      • Customer Service

        Hi, Phil. I agree, the tasteful use of the star filter effect can really add to a final file. That said it can easily be over done, subtle is usually best.

        You can start with a trip you a good old fashioned hardware store and buy different small samples of fine wire mesh screen materials. I’d recommend testing various types to see what works best. If’s it’s really fine it will act more like a softener, if’s it’s too coarse it won’t work as a star effect. You can get “official” and mount the material in a can you can shoot through or on a spare lens hood or just use tape to hold it over the lens. That said the fun is in the experimentation!

        Note: The color of the mesh will matter, if is it black the image will hold more contrast while a lighter color will hold less punch and of course that is also something you can play with.

        As always with filters, you will be “baking” the effect into the file, so if you think it’s a great shot without the filter do it with and without, that way in post production you can always just “ghost” the effect in as a layer.

        And finally if you want to go all digital, a quick search will locate various tutorials and commercial digital only effects that you can add it post.

        Happy Shooting!

        Reply
  5. Mandela Donkor

    I’m so much impressed by these pictures.outdoor photography guide is really guiding
    me

    Reply
  6. Prashant Jadav

    Great Mr.Ian ..such a great landscape photos with starburst effect…U r proud of all photographers…Keep it up…thanks….

    Reply
  7. Phil green

    This is the best most useful article on sunburst creation I have read. Ian simply has so much experience in shooting every situation and is happy to share his trade knowledge and secrets!
    I also really like the example images which are typical ‘plant style’ characterized by outstounding composition and technical perfection.
    I like Ian’s bio photo which I guess was taken at the sulphuric lake Kawah Ijen in East Java!

    Reply
  8. séamus McNally

    Easy for someone to talk the talk, but your stunning photos show you walking the walk.

    Reply
  9. Peter Bowes

    IIInteresting technique but what are the chances of damaging the camera sensor when photographing directly into the full sun ?

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi, Peter. Good question. The sensors are designed to handle that option. Although on principle I would not recommend pointing a camera into direct light in one spot on live view for hours at a time, the amount of time that you would typically need to take some photos should be no problem.

      Reply
  10. Abhijeet Avate

    Good article, beautiful pictures, but in the 2nd image from top (Canyonlands National Park, USA) the two celestial bodies Sun and Moon are either rising or setting, cant be that the Sun is rising AND moon setting as mentioned.

    Cheers.

    Reply