Elevate your photography with this insightful look into the starburst effect. Learn what settings and approach you need to capture beams of light, and how the Stellar Filter Kit is your go-to for creative brilliance.
Words by Urth HQ
What is the starburst effect?
‘Diffraction’ is a photography term you may be familiar with. If not, diffraction essentially means the spreading of light. As photographers, we understand this optical phenomenon to be a bad thing because of the associated loss of sharpness. But diffraction is also responsible for creating a dreamy starburst effect in photographs where the sun or a harsh light source creates a spiky, beam of light.
What does aperture have to do with the starburst effect?
The starburst effect in photography is predominantly controlled and dictated by your aperture, and more specifically, the blades of your aperture. If you asked two photographers to capture the same sun, they’ll likely produce different starburst effects due to their lens choice and the number of aperture blades the lens has (unless, of course, they’re using the same lens!).
Lenses with an even number of aperture blades will produce starbursts with the same amount of spikes, i.e., a lens with 8 aperture blades will produce a starburst with 8 spikes. On the other hand, lenses with an odd amount of aperture blades will produce double, i.e., a lens with 9 blades will produce a starburst with 18 spikes.
“The starburst is a complementary effect so the best lens for starburst photography is the lens you’d be using anyway.”
What aperture to use to create the starburst effect
Light will enter your lens and diffract across your aperture blades, however the starburst effect is most prominent when your aperture is narrow, at f/11 or more. The thing is, the narrower you go (towards f/16 or f/22), the more prominent the starburst will be. But, the narrower your aperture goes, the greater the chance you’ll lose sharpness.
Use f/11 as a starting point but do a couple of tests at f/13 and f/16. You may notice a difference in the starburst effect, but it may be harder to determine loss of sharpness, if any, unless viewing the images on a screen.
What lens to use for starburst photography
The starburst is a complementary effect, so the best lens for starburst photography is the lens you’d be using anyway. For example, if you’re wanting to capture the great expanse of a unique landscape, a wide-angle lens may be the most suitable choice. Using the wide-angle lens, adjust your aperture to f/11 or more and the starburst effect will add a level of creative depth to the resulting image.
You may reconsider your lens choice for starburst photography if you’re unhappy with the effect your lens is producing. As mentioned before, the actual effect is dictated by the number and shape of the aperture blades, which will differ from lens to lens. If the six-star starburst isn’t cutting it, maybe you should look into a lens with more, or an odd number of aperture blades to produce a much spikier starburst.
You may also reconsider your lens choice if your current lens is particularly susceptible to flare. All optical glass and lenses are manufactured in different ways. Expensive lenses will handle the harsh sun much better than cheaper lenses. Ideally, your lens or lens filter will be multi-coated to prevent too much lens flare.
“Starburst effect photographs are often taken in forests because the sun can be filtered through the canopy of leaves.”
Obscure the sun
Shooting directly back into the sun or another harsh light source is always going to be challenging. In this case, you can’t protect your lens with a hood and as a result, you may notice that lens flare is completely washing out your images and preventing a crisp starburst effect.
One way around this is to partially obscure the sun. This can be tricky depending on the sun’s location in the sky. Observe the scene before you and see what you can use to somewhat block the sun. A building? A bridge? A cloud? A tree? Starburst effect photographs are often taken in forests because the sun can be filtered through the canopy of leaves – a natural rooftop allowing reduced intensity and maximum starburst.
Too much coverage will create no burst. Not enough coverage will create too much lens flare. Be sure to only partially cover the sun to achieve a balance between flare elimination and a striking burst.
What if you don’t want to cover the sun? Then, you may need to ensure you’re shooting at the right time of day. Photographing the sun while it’s directly overhead may be too harsh to render adequately. But atmospheric qualities differ between the zenith and the horizon, which is generally much hazier. So, if you’re up at dawn or shooting in the late afternoon when the sun is at its lowest, you should be able to avoid the lens flare normally experienced when looking down the barrel at the universe’s biggest light source.
The Stellar Filter Kit by Urth
If the above information is anything to go by, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to starburst photography. We’ve made things easier thanks to our Stellar Filter Kit, letting you create stunning starburst effects in 4-point, 6-point or 8-point stars.
For more information on our Star Filter range, check out the Stellar Filter Kit, as well as some before and after image samples below.
Hunting for a starburst isn’t just about chasing the sun. Following the above rules and techniques, or using our Stellar Filter Kit, you can create dreamy depth in your images using any light source from street lamps to the glistening sea. Make sure your lens and/or filter is sparkly clean, then set about your celestial photography.