A common question people ask me when I’m showing an image which has a light source with a pronounced star effect is; What kind of filter did you use to get that? The truth is, none. People are sometimes surprised with this answer. In this article I will show you how to get wonderful starburst, or as some people call them, sunstars, in your shots.
Getting right to the point, you can achieve this effect by using a small aperture. Apertures like f/16 or f/22. Now, does that mean you can take any light source at any time and by stopping down the aperture you can create a sunstar? Well OK, yes! But listen (or read) closely. There are some extra things you need to take into consideration when doing this.
1) The same thing happening to the bright light is also happening everywhere in your shot. This is called diffraction. It’s when your light is squeezing through a smaller aperture, the light gets scattered and can cause your images to be somewhat fuzzy. You may not be able to notice it unless you zoom in 100% and even then, you might not notice it at all, but if it’s happening to your bright light sources, it’s happening everywhere. This is why you might hear people say to never shoot at f/16 or f/22. They are right, I don’t typically shoot at those apertures either……. unless I’m creating a starburst, of course.
2) Make sure your front lens element is clean. Any and all dust should be blown or wiped off and free of smudges. Remember, we are already scattering the light with the smaller aperture. If you’re pre-scattering the light with a dirty front element then the image will have lots of flare artifacts.
3) Shooting into bright lights causes flare. Some lenses are better than others, and some lenses are really really good at reducing flaring from bright light sources but you need to be aware as to where that flare is located. Placing the bright light sources in different areas of the frame will change where that flare lies. Unless you are super great at Photoshop, try to make sure you keep the flare off important parts of your composition.
4) This kind of goes along with #3 but remove any extra filters from your lens as it will only create additional flaring. Obviously if your artistic interpretation calls for the use of additional filters, use your own judgement and use high quality filters. They have special coatings to reduce flaring and keep the image sharp.
5) Make sure your sensor is clean. Shooting at smaller apertures reveals dust on your sensor. Don’t believe me, crank your camera up to f/22 and shoot towards a bright blue sky, or a white wall. Do you see grey spots in the image. If no, great! your sensor is clean, if yes, get your sensor cleaned. Keep an eye out for events at your local camera store as they will normally offer sensor cleaning free of charge or at a discounted price. Otherwise if you don’t feel like waiting, you can send it to Canon, Nikon or Sony or whoever and they can clean it but normally for a fee, and you’re without your camera for a few days.
6) Be careful shooting into the sun. Those of you who remember melting your GI Joe’s with a magnifying glass on a bright sunny day know what I’m talking about. The sun, shining it’s light through glass elements can create some intense heat and actually melt plastic. I’m guessing if you are reading this you have a decent camera. Take care of it and don’t leave it open towards the sun for a long period of time.
There you have it. Creating a sunstar is very easy once you realize all you have to do is close down your aperture. But you need to be aware of the side effects of doing that so you don’t end up with a beautiful sunstar in your shot, but also with flare artifacts, sensor dust and a melted shutter curtain.