creating starbursts

by Lisa Tichané

I discovered the magic of the starburst effect when I attended the very first round of Lynne Rigby’s workshop Shooting 201: Beyond the Basics. It was one of the many “aha” moments I had during this class, and being lucky to live in a very sunny part of the world, I have had many opportunities to play with it ever since.

creating starbursts photo

How does it work?

The starburst effect is created by light diffraction. Even if you’re not a physicist, you can understand the mechanics behind it: when light meets an obstacle (in photography: the edges of the hole created by the aperture of your lens) the light slightly bends around that obstacle.  The aperture of your lens is controlled by several blades, which create a circular opening. This opening is not perfectly round: the slight angles between the blades funnel the light, creating the star shape of the diffraction.

Here is a typical example – a random view of my city’s bay on a bright autumn afternoon:

creating starbursts photo

If you are wanting to create a starburst, the first thing you need is to find the right angle to include the sun or any other strong light source in your frame. Not just a ray of sun, but the sun itself (or at least part of it, we will see later that it’s also interesting to partially block the light in order to get an even more striking effect). Which means that it won’t work on an overcast day, except if you can catch the sun when it’s peeking out of the clouds.

Another important thing to understand when you are looking for a starburst effect, is that the smaller your aperture, the more defined the star shape, as in the example above (f22).

Let’s make it clear with some more visual examples. My previous image and all of the 6 images below were taken within a few minutes, playing with different apertures and adjusting my settings accordingly to keep the same exposure (no editing here, my point was to show how it looks SOOC).

creating starbursts photo

You can easily see how the starburst is at its maximum effect with the smallest aperture (f22), and progressively fades with the opening of the aperture, slowly becoming a blurry circle of light at wide apertures (f2.8).

Tip #1: The shape of your starburst depends on the number of blades in your lens. An 8-blade lens gives you an 8-branches starburst (like on the examples above, using my 24-70mm L). So you can play with different lenses to vary the effect: a 50 mm 1.8 (5 blades) would have given a different star shape.

Tip#2: The smaller your focal length is, the more visible your starburst will be (i.e. stronger starburst with a 24mm lens than with a 135mm).

In conclusion, achieving the starburst effect is quite simple: you just need to incorporate the sun or any bright source of light in your frame and choose the smallest aperture possible to maximize the effect.

So now that we know how to create it, when do we use that cool trick? Let’s try to identify various options.

Starburst with full sun

I love to capture movement and energy in my images more than anything else, and I have found that adding this starburst effect in my frame could enhance the mood, as if the image itself was bursting with stamina. So I love to include it in images where my subjects are in action.  It’s even more powerful when you use it in a silhouette: the contrast between the dark shapes of your subjects/environment and the bright shape of the starburst is a very striking visual effect.

creating starbursts photo

But I also love to use it when I photograph very quiet, still landscapes, or buildings/architecture. For the reason I mentioned above, I’m sadly not a good landscape/architecture photographer: I’m pretty useless when it comes to photographing something that doesn’t move. Adding a starburst in the frame creates a striking contrast between the stillness of the scene and the movement of the light, which give that extra “oomph” that makes the image become alive.

creating starbursts photo

Tip #3: The example above also shows that the starburst effect is increased if an element in the frame partially blocks the light source. You can play with your angle until your subject touches the sun (or whatever your light source is) to see your starburst spread even more.

Night shots

At night you obviously can’t use the sun, but any strong artificial light source such as street lights will give you beautiful starbursts, as long as you follow the same rules (smallest aperture possible).  Using a very small aperture at night can be tricky, since you will need a very slow shutter speed to get a proper exposure which means that you cannot rely on hand-holding your camera if you want to get a sharp image.  The solution is to use a tripod and a remote, or if you don’t own that equipment yet, to place your camera on a steady surface and use your timer to avoid any movement when the shutter is released.

creating starbursts photo
*image courtesy of Lynne Rigby

Now it’s your turn! What are your favorite tricks to capture starbursts? Please share with us in the comments below!

creating starbursts photoLisa Tichané, France
CMU Instructor | CM Mentor
website | facebook | pinterest | google+ | mentoring | ask a pro | daily project
Maybe it’s because she’s “a bit silly” or maybe it has to do with her being “a child at heart” but Lisa has an incredible talent for photographing babies and children in her fun, clean and playful style with her Canon 5d mark III, 35L, 50 f/1.4, 24-70L and 135L. She is the instructor of CMU’s Shooting 204: Capturing Joy and the author of Photographing Toddlers | a recipe for success. Marseille, France is the place she calls home along with her boys where they love to play, jump, run, make silly faces contests and wild pillow fights. She does enjoy some quiet once in a while where she can browse the web with her coffee and chocolate. Laughter is a must have, though, as she states, “a day without a good laugh is definitely a lost one for me.”

Read all photography tutorials form Lisa Tichané.

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24 Responses to “creating starbursts”

  1. Jan 22 2013 at 11:18 am #

    thanks for sharing this knowledge Lisa. i can’t wait to get out there and try this!

  2. Jan 22 2013 at 11:34 am #

    This is awesome! Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

  3. Aniya
    Jan 22 2013 at 11:43 am #

    Thank you soo much! I live in Barbados – constant sun! now i dont feel like i have to always run away from it, waiting for the golden hour!!

  4. Jan 22 2013 at 11:49 am #

    Thank you ladies, so glad it helped :)

    @Aniya: Barbados? I’m officially jealous, can I come to visit??

  5. Jan 22 2013 at 11:54 am #

    Great tut, Lisa! I love adding star bursts and honestly didn’t really know “how” i got them but now I know a little bit of the science which will make it easier to intentionally get them in my shots. Thank you for taking the time to do this!

  6. Laura
    Jan 22 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this Lisa…I was just thinking about this yesterday and how to do it!!! I am on so much information overload right now!

  7. Jan 22 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    Wow great explanation Lisa!

  8. Jenn
    Jan 22 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    Thank you LIsa! I will try to incorporate this into my winter shots!

    • Jenn
      Jan 26 2013 at 11:13 pm #

      Here’s my try :)

  9. Tracey
    Jan 22 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    Rain in our forecast for the next few days so I’ll practice indoors until Mr. Sun comes back.
    Thanks for an easy to follow tutorial for all the newbies!

  10. Jan 23 2013 at 1:28 am #

    Thank you all <3 Can't wait to see your images!

  11. Jan 23 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    Awesome post Lisa!! I am such a star burst sucker :)

  12. Jan 23 2013 at 7:14 pm #

    I love love love playing with sun star bursts! Wish it came more naturally but still working at it. :)

  13. Jenn C
    Jan 24 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    Thanks so much for explaining *why* the smaller aperature makes this happen. I’ll be able to use this so much better now!

  14. Jan 25 2013 at 3:29 am #

    Thank you for your comments, ladies <3

  15. Kim
    Jan 27 2013 at 12:58 am #

    So I was not able to get a star burst unless I positioned the sun partially behind something. All the photos I took of full sun, just came out as a big bright overexposed blob. I used my fixed 35mm at f22. Any suggestions of what I might be doing wrong or what I could do? I’d really love to get a full sun star burst. Love those silhouette shots!

  16. Jan 27 2013 at 10:47 pm #

    Thank you for this post, Lisa. I’m going to give this a try. :)

  17. Jan 29 2013 at 12:06 am #

    This was so fun. Thanks for sharing!
    Here is my first attempt.

  18. Jan 29 2013 at 12:08 am #

    File didn’t upload…trying again

  19. Jan 29 2013 at 12:11 am #

    Signed in…trying one more time to upload photo.

  20. Jan 31 2013 at 10:38 am #

    I *may* have just used some of your awesome advice yesterday. thank you, Lisa!!


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