Epic Photography – Capturing A Perfect Starburst Is Easier than You Think

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Epic Photography – Capturing A Perfect Starburst Is Easier than You Think

You’ve seen those photos with eye-popping starbursts.  What a cool way to bring a little wow factor to your photos!  Think that’s too tricky for you to bother with?  Wrong.  Capturing a photograph with a sparkling starburst is easier than you think.  With just a few adjustments to your aperture and settings, you won’t be able to resist adding this effect whenever and wherever you can!

Pregnant woman with aperture showing starburst


There are a couple of ways you can create a starburst in your photography.  The first way is simple and a bit old-fashioned.  You can purchase a lens filter that gives a star effect.  However, there are definite drawbacks to going that route.  First, anytime you add a filter to your lens, you risk lowering your photograph’s quality and sharpness.  Second, there is an investment involved because you will need to purchase a star filter for each different size lens you have.  The fewer dollars we need to spend, the more money we have to spend on traveling to somewhere fun, right?

Finally, it is one more piece of equipment that you need to put on and take off your camera every time you want to see a starburst.  That may be convenient at Christmas when you want to take a photo of your Christmas Tree lights (with or without your kid posed).  I mean, your tree is stationary and conveniently located.  That effect filter becomes far less convenient when you’re touring and want to snap a quick shot on the run.

Related:  Five Cheap Photographer Equipment Hacks

Boy tied up in christmas lights with starburst affect using aperture
These twinkle starbursts were created with an 8 point star filter that screws onto the camera lens. My son happily posed for this one.
Classic car shown with starbursts in the detail
This photo taken standard with no filters.
Classic car shown with starbursts in the detail with filter
This photo taken standard with an 8-star filter

Check out this set of star filters…  Nice to throw in your bag and use when you have time to screw a filter on and off your lens.



The second way to capture a starburst effect (and more impressive) is to adjust your settings as you’re shooting.  A starburst happens due to something called diffraction.  Diffraction takes place when light hits an object and then bends with the object’s shape.  The smaller your aperture (bigger #), the smaller space your camera has open for light to enter.  When the light hits this smaller opening, it bends around the aperture blades and creates the starburst.  It’s all very scientific, and that’s fantastic if you’re into that kind of stuff.  CLICK HERE for a great article that explains diffraction in delightfully scientific detail.  If you’re just not into the scientific stuff, then hang in there.  We’re getting to the good stuff soon!

All About Diffraction

The basic idea that you need to remember here is that diffraction always occurs in photography.  It is, however, relative to the amount of light coming into your camera through the lens.  Diffraction is why your photos are sharper when your aperture is bigger (smaller #) because there’s more open space for the light to come in. More light coming in equals less bending, thus sharper details.  You might not notice this with the naked eye, but as soon as you go zooming in tight in post-processing, you will see the truth of this statement.

By the way, this is as good a time as any to insert this exciting factoid:  The light bends around the aperture blades when your f-stop is lower (bigger #). The number of points on the starburst in your photo will equal the number of aperture blades in your lens, as long as it is an odd number. If you have an even number of blades in your lens, then the number of points on the starburst equals half the number of blades in your lens. To simplify – if you have seven blades, then you have seven points. If you have twelve blades, then you have six points. Make sense? Great, but I am getting off track here.

And now, we return you to your regularly scheduled blog post…

Where were we?  I believe we were talking about light coming into your lens.  Yes.  When the ambient light is very bright in your scene, you need a mega bright light for a starburst to happen.  That is why you can get a huge starburst from the sun during the day, but it’s tricky to get a starburst from much else.  During daylight, the sun is the only thing bright enough to give you the bursts.  Conversely, when the ambient light is low, then you don’t need nearly as much light at all to create a starburst. In fact, just about any concentrated light source is bright enough to produce the effect you’re looking for.  Just think of the lampposts, streetlights, Christmas lights, and candles you can work with here!

Small town along the river with aperture opened up for starbursts
Taken in Allegan, Michigan along the Rabbit River, which is a tributary of the Kalamazoo River.

So watch and see how easy this is….  The smaller your aperture (larger #), the larger your starburst!  That’s how simple it is.  Say it with me…   Large number = large starburst.  Of course, you must adjust your ISO and Shutter Speed to get the correct exposure.  THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO SHOOTING IN MANUAL is a great place to start if you’re still learning how to get that DSLR off the auto setting.  It will be worth it, I promise!

Starburst chart showing how aperture affects starbursts
Notice how the smaller aperture (bigger #) makes for a bigger starburst
Starburst with wide open aperture on Chicago Public Library
Taken at f/2.8
Starburst with stopped down aperture on Chicago Public Library
Taken at f/16


Don’t forget that every lens has a different range of aperture.  Some lenses are fast and go as high as 1.8 or even higher.  Some go as low as 22 or below.  Each lens will have a different range, but the basic theory remains the same….  Think Large Number = Large Starburst.  You can learn all about aperture and how it works in Photography Facts: The 5 Things You Need-to-Know about Aperture.

If you’re shooting during daylight, don’t forget your lens hood.  It will help shield your lens from too much ambient light coming in.  It’s as simple as that.  If you don’t have one handy, hop into your local camera shop and grab one for a few bucks.  Just be sure to get the right size for the lens you’re using.  If you don’t have a local camera shop, you can pick one up just like THIS ONE on Amazon.

Try this out for fun!

Another fun technique that will help you get a starburst effect during the daytime is to compose your shot with an object in the foreground, such as a building, or a tree, or even a person, to obstruct the sun partially.  Remember – the sun is massive and can be overwhelming in power, both at midday and even at sunrise or sunset.  Because it is so very bright, you have lots of room to play with.  When you partially obstruct that level of brightness, you amplify the diffraction effect.  Try this if you’re finding that your sun is more of a giant blob of white rather than a beautiful burst.  Take care not to block it completely – just let a little bit peek out from behind your object, and you’ll be amazed!!!

If you’re going out at night, you’ll want to bring your tripod and a remote trigger.  To get the light balanced for the correct exposure, you will need to slow down your shutter speed to compensate for the low aperture (high #), so it is important to keep your camera as still as possible.  Of course, you will also want to use your camera’s 2 or 10-second timer delay or a remote trigger to really stabilize the shot.  Here are a couple of recommendations to get you started:

This is the remote trigger I use that has a cord.  Simple to use and plugs in quickly.

This is the tripod that I use.  It’s high-quality, waterproof and lightweight!  Check it out!

Bringing it all together…

One final tip – don’t forget to look for opportunities for starbursts in places where you wouldn’t normally expect them.  Like treasures, they are hiding, waiting for you to find and capture them.  Keep an eye out behind people or flowers, in the reflections of buildings, or on the water…  No matter what time of day or night you are shooting, know that a starburst can add a whole lot of character and excitement to your image. 

Now that you are ready to get out and start practicing, I’ve created a little cheat sheet for you.  You can use this as a jumping-off point for some basic settings when you’re out in the field and need a quick reminder of how it all works…  Remember – the very best way to learn a new technique is to practice, practice, practice, so get that camera out and get shooting!  Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a perfect result on the first try.  Be sure to keep trying until you get what you want.  And then do it again and again till you can get it on the first try!

A candle shown with multiple starburst effects

Check out this Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving the Perfect Starburst Effect from my friends at Digital Photography School

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