I discovered the magic of the starburst early on in my journey. It was one of my many “aha”, and being lucky to live in a very sunny part of the world, I have had many opportunities to play with it ever since.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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!
Lisa Tichané, France
CMU Instructor | CM Mentor
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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.”