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Using Sun Flares and Starbursts to Create Stunning Images

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An Introduction to Sun Flares and Starbursts

A sun flare or starburst is an incredibly cool photographic technique and one that is easy to achieve without any special post-processing or editing tricks. You will be amazed at the effects you can create by learning a few simple settings and knowing the proper situations for taking beautiful sun flare and starburst photographs.

McEnaney sunflare vertical tree

How to Shoot Sun Flares and Starbursts

It is possible to obtain sun flare and starburst images with a point and shoot camera, but for more reliable results, you will want to use a DSLR or interchangeable lens camera with adjustable aperture. A UV filter on your lens is suggested to protect your camera’s sensor, as you will be shooting directly into the sun when capturing sun flares. Stability is critical for capturing starbursts, so a sturdy tripod and remote shutter release are recommended.

The technique for shooting successful sun flares and starbursts is to use a narrow aperture such as f/22 and a relatively wide focal length like 18 mm. With a narrow aperture, the blades inside your lens close down to create a very small opening for light to pass through. This narrow opening creates a slight diffraction or bending of the light, which causes a point source of light (described below) to become a starburst shape when it hits and is recorded by the camera’s sensor. Different lenses are built with different numbers of blades: the more blades, the greater the number of points on the flare or starburst. The wider the focal length also contributes to the size of the starburst shape, as a wider focal length can create a larger starburst.

For settings, you want to start by shooting in Aperture priority (Av for Canon or A for Nikon) mode and setting your aperture to f/22. You also want to shoot at a fairly low ISO, around 100-200, to avoid the increased noise of higher ISO values. The camera will then choose the shutter speed. If the final image turns out too dark or too light, you can switch to shooting in Manual mode, dial in the same settings, and then slightly increase the shutter speed for a lighter picture or decrease the shutter speed for a darker picture.

McEnaney Capitol night starbursts

In lower light situations, your shutter speed may become so slow that you need a tripod to ensure a steady shot. (The general rule of thumb is that you should be able to successfully hand-hold a shot at a shutter speed of 1 over the focal length of the lens. For example, you should be able to hand-hold a shot with an 18 mm lens at 1/18th of a second or faster or a 50 mm lens at 1/50th of a second or faster.) If you are photographing starbursts after dark, then your shutter speeds will generally be slow enough to require a tripod or other stable surface. The alternative option would be to start increasing your ISO, which will also increase the noise in the final image.

Along with the tripod, a remote shutter release (corded or wireless) is helpful to avoid shaking the camera when pressing the shutter button. If you do not have a remote, you can set the 2-second or 10-second timer on your camera instead. A remote shutter release also allows you to use the Bulb setting on your camera to get shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds.

Timing and Strategies for Sun Flares and Starbursts

Sunbursts and starbursts are created from small point sources of light, rather than larger dispersed or diffused light sources. A point source is one where light is emanating from a singular location: a bulb in a street lamp, a car headlight, a direct flashlight, even strings of holiday lights. A dispersed light source is one where light is emanating from a broader location: a frosted light bulb, an overhead florescent light panel, or the tubes of a neon sign. A diffused light source is one where the location of the light is very spread out or difficult to detect: the sun in an overcast sky, large studio lights with diffusers or softboxes, or light bounced off a large surface or reflector.

McEnaney sunrise sunflare

The sun is not generally a point source of light, as it is often too bright and overwhelming to create a sun flare. So, the best time to capture sun flares is when the sun is low in the sky, either in the early morning or late afternoon. The winter season is ideal for sun flares, as the sun is lower in the sky for longer periods of the day.

sun flare and starburst photo

Once you have the right time of day, the second step for creating a sun flare is to position the sun in your composition so that it is partially obscured behind another object, such as a tree or the edge of a building. Even at low angles, the sun can still be so bright that it will overwhelm your scene and create large bright patches rather than a starburst shape. Partially obscuring the sun also serves to amplify the effect of the narrow aperture. Position the camera so that the sun is directly behind the object and determine your final composition. Then, move the camera slightly until the sun is just beginning to peak out from behind the object and take the picture.

McEnaney sunflare two trees

To create starbursts at night, you need to find suitable point sources of light. Street lamps and strings of lights work well. Because these sources are not as overpowering as the sun, you do not need to partially obscure them. This gives you a wider range of compositional choices. You can also combine multiple point sources of light to create an entire collection of starbursts in a single image. Moving lights will be rendered as blurs or light trails, while stationary lights will become starbursts.

McEnaney traffic trails

Composing with Sun Flares and Starbursts

Be willing to be patient and experiment with your compositions and angles for sun flares. Slight differences in the angle of the sun and the amount of sunlight streaming in can make a big difference in your final image. The two images below were taken of the same tree, two minutes apart. The only compositional difference was backing up several feet for the second image, so that the sun was only barely obscured by leaves rather than partially blocked by the trunk.

McEnaney sunflare compare

Once you have mastered the single flare, you can step up the challenge and capture multiple sun flares in a single image. An easy way to do this is to use reflected light. Light reflecting off several points or different surfaces can create multiple individual point sources. Look for situations where sunlight is bouncing off water, vehicles, or other reflective surfaces. In this goodbye photograph of my old car, the multiple flares were created by the sunlight bouncing off the dents and divots of the hail damage on the hood (bonnet) of the car.

McEnaney car sunflares

Starbursts are a great effect to use with holiday lights. Each individual light is a point source and can be rendered as its own starburst. The starburst look adds an extra sparkle to your holiday images, but you can use strings of white or colored lights to add starbursts to any kind of subject you choose.

McEnaney holiday starbursts

For cityscape starbursts, seek out locations with congregations of street lights or other point sources of light. The blue hour (the approximate hour before sunrise or after sunset) is an ideal time to photograph lights outside, as the deep blue colors in the sky set off the scene. Your camera will record these blue colors for a short time even after they are no longer visible to your eyes.

McEnaney starbursts water

Now that you know the basic idea behind sun flares and starbursts, you will start seeing opportunities everywhere. Get your f/22 aperture ready, and get out there!

 

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Katie McEnaney is an educator and photographer from Madison, Wisconsin. Read more tips on her blog, Boost Your Photography. Her first eBook, Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR, is now available for Kindle on Amazon.

  • Katie McEnaney

    Always glad to inspire photographic exploration!

  • Christian Burton

    Tried my best to get a sun flare! What does everyone think?!?

  • Anony Mouse

    Great shot. The colors are a bit off, but beautiful nonetheless.

  • Anuj Grover

    Extremely helpful & well put article for novices to understand. I’ve tried some shots from my basic point & shoot cameras but the result isn’t as effective due to lack of settings.
    Mine turned out to be more of a glow rather than a flare. Nonetheless, I love the subtle evening colors at dusk. Will surely try my hands on some techniques in the future.
    Thanks Katie for the informative write up.

  • Katie McEnaney

    Interesting light – was there a bit of fog? I can’t tell your aperture without the EXIF, but were you up to f/22 or not?

  • Katie McEnaney

    Lovely shot and silhouette nonetheless, but you are right that it is tough to “force” a flare with a point-and-shoot.

  • Rafael Velez

    Great article, very helpful; next step is to go uot and practice thisd weekend. Thank you Katie

  • Katie McEnaney

    Go for it! Hope you have great success, and we look forward to seeing your shots.

  • Rafael Velez

    I love this one

  • Composing with Sun Flares and Starbursts is like taking images using long exposure of light to produce spirogram images! 🙂 #trickphotography101

  • jl

    Do you have suggestions for safely shooting into the sun? How do you take the time to focus and compose a shot without risking your vision — or does the UV filter help with this problem?

  • Katie McEnaney

    Wear sunglasses at that point, for one. Most sunflare shots work best when the sun is slightly obscured, so you can often take the time to compose your shot when the sun is behind a tree trunk, for example, and then move just slightly before taking the final image.

  • If I may ask and hope you won’t take it negatively, was this taken purely with your DSLR camera only? I mean, no photoshops or whatsoever with this picture?

    Because, I have created similar pictures with this one but yeah, I used photoshop on it to create the special effects. I think this is my tutorial I had before to create pictures similar to this one.. — http://goo.gl/f46Hme

  • Arifson Rifqie

    How to catch sun ray using smartphone camera? I love to point and shot but anytime but can’t carry DSLR all the time :/

  • mom413

    Here’s one I did with the little grebe- and now I want to do more!

  • Katie McEnaney

    Excellent use of reflected light to have her swimming in a lake of sunflares!

  • Katie McEnaney

    Great question. It’s a bit more “guess and check” with a smartphone, but you’ll have the best luck if you try the composition advice – sun low in the sky, just barely blocked or peeking out from an object, etc. Good luck! Please share your successes!

  • Ava Whetton

    I actually have a similar image that I took at the beach. 2nd day with my DSLR and didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing. I took a lot of creative images at the stage so I’m happy that I didn’t know the rules and TG for the EXIF data.

  • Katie McEnaney

    Great point, Ava! When I first started getting intentional with my photography, looking back at my EXIF data was really helpful.

  • Larraine

    Hello. I need help with this photo. How do I edit this to remove those violet/blue spots. I don’t know the right term for it. I’m using lightroom to edit my photo. I consider myself a beginner in photography and photo editing. Thank you for your help.

  • Gabi

    I believe you can call that chromatic aberration. I’m no professional either but I’d use Photoshop for correcting that – spot healing tool/clone stamp tool, whatever works better for you. I think that spot healing would maybe work for the spot on the right, but the one that overlays the sun.. hmm.. maybe you could try to select it and play with hue settings – turn it orange/yellow so it fools the eye into believing it’s some sort of bookeh from the sun?..Maybe I sound foolish, but you could try..

  • Georgia Musin

    unusual heat wave in April in Illinois

  • Took this one this winter on a frozen lake. Love it !

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