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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!