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A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving the Perfect Starburst Effect

Adding a starburst effect to your images is a great way to spice things up and really grab the attention of your viewers.

Seeing rays of light slice through your photo is one of the most enjoyable tricks to pull off, especially if you haven’t really done this sort of thing before. While some software programs let you do this on your computer, the real magic comes when you do it by knowing how to use your camera.

starburst on building

Step 1: Find a light source

Creating the starburst effect isn’t difficult. But it does require a bit of training and practice to pull off. You’ll need a few basics to get started:

First, you’ll need a bright source of light, such as the sun. A street lamp or really powerful flashlight will work too, but the sun is nice because it’s always available and doesn’t cost money to use.

If you don’t mind shooting pictures at night, you can get a starburst effect quite easily with a street lamp or other source of light. However, night photos might not look as interesting or visually compelling as shots of the sun.

Ironically, you also need something to block most of the sun. This is because the sun itself is too large and bright to give you good starburst shots; just a sliver of its light is all you need. Buildings and trees work great, but whatever you use can’t be too far away. If the thing blocking the sun is separated from you by too great a distance, you won’t get the starburst effect.

starburst effect on a building roof

The effect isn’t as pronounced in this image, but it’s definitely there. Using a structure to block most of the sun is a great way to help you achieve a good starburst.

Step 2: Choose a small aperture

As far as your camera goes, the one setting that really matters is your aperture.

To get a good starburst, your aperture should be small, such as f/11 or f/16. This means you will need a camera with aperture control, such as a DSLR or mirrorless system. Nearly all mobile phones use wide apertures and very few of them allow you to have any control over the aperture at all.

So if you want to pull off a cool starburst effect in-camera, you’re going to need a dedicated camera and not just a phone.

Step 3: Set up for your starburst shot

The basic setup for a starburst effect photo is also fairly simple and works best when the sun is lower on the horizon during the morning or late afternoon. You can do it at other times of day, but it’s a little more difficult to find objects that obscure the sun when it’s directly overhead.

starburst on a clock

To achieve the starburst effect, position yourself so that the sun is off in the distance and the object obscuring it is not too close and not too far. Then set your aperture to f/11, point your camera in the direction of the light, and take a picture.

Take care to not point your camera directly at the full sun, as it could damage your sensor or your eyes. Just a sliver of the sun and a small aperture is all you need.

Step 4: Experiment with different setups

If the object you use to block most of the sun is too far away, the starburst effect will be much more difficult to achieve. In the shot below, you can just barely see the points of light emanating from where the sun is peeking over the clouds. It’s subtle and can work if it suits your compositional goals for the image, but I don’t find shots like this to be nearly as fun as other starburst images.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving the Perfect Starburst Effect

There’s a lot of creative things you can do when you start experimenting with starbursts. In the picture below, the sun was obscured just a bit too much by the tree branch. The cicada exoskeleton looks fine, but the photo lacks something in the way of a visual spark.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving the Perfect Starburst Effect

I adjusted the position of my camera by mere millimeters so as to get the tiniest bit of the sun poking out below the branch. The result is a much more compelling photo:

cicada with starburst

The addition of a starburst adds a whole new dimension to the photograph and elevates it to a whole new level.

Note: How aperture alters the starburst effect

To see why a small aperture is important, look at the following photos, which were taken just a few seconds apart. The first used a large f/1.8 aperture, and as a result, the sun is a large yellow blob in the sky and not all that interesting. This is similar to the type of picture you could take on a mobile phone since most of those have large apertures ranging from f/1.8 to f/2.8.

Image: I took this photo with an f/1.8 aperture at 50mm.

I took this photo with an f/1.8 aperture at 50mm.

Stopping down to f/11 changes the image dramatically. Not only is the foreground and background in focus, but the sun is now a brilliant star pattern. This is a direct result of the smaller aperture.

fountain with starburst

I took this photo with an f/11 aperture at 50mm.

A similar effect is seen in the two photos below. Taken at different locations, they illustrate the effect quite clearly. The first shows a row of lights fading into the distance, and because I shot it at f/1.8, they appear as blurry orbs. This isn’t a bad thing, as my intent was for the viewer to focus on the light in the foreground.

row of lights without starburst

I took this photo with an f/1.8 aperture at 50mm.

The next image shows a similar row of street lights, but the small aperture I used caused every point of light in the image to appear as a starburst.

streetlights with starburst

I took this photo with an f/13 aperture at 50mm.

Even the green traffic lights far in the distance are starbursts. You can see how this dramatically alters the overall effect of the picture. If I had used a larger aperture, it would be an entirely different image.

Conclusion

My favorite part of shooting starburst photos is how easy it is once you get the hang of it. It’s also rather gratifying to know you can do it just by manipulating your camera.

starburst at night

Have you tried using the starburst effect in your images? What tips or tricks do you have for the DPS community, or for others who might not have done this type of photography before? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

perfect-starburst-effect-in-photography

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.