When I started making pictures, my day job took me all over the world and I ended up with lots of time to go out shooting in various countries. This was mostly at nighttime and mostly in cities, like this bike I found tethered to a post in Dubai. As I walked the streets with my camera and tripod I learned one cool technique that added pop to my pictures: starbursts. Whenever I show these pictures, people always ask if I used a lens filter or photoshop to make the rays shooting from the lights, and the answer is, “No.” This is done one hundred percent at the time of capture using only the lens to make it happen. And it’s so simple! Here’re some tips for maximizing your starbursts, both on lights and on the sun.
The most important setting to make starbursts is a small aperture; f/16 is pretty well guaranteed to work, but sometimes f/11 or even f/8 will do it. The thing is, it depends on the lens. If you’re using the kit lens that came with your DSLR, it probably has five blades in the iris that makes the aperture and it will probably need to be at f/16 or f/22 to get the best rays. The picture above, however, was made with my Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 at f/22. It’s ultra wide and has a nine blade iris with rounded blades. I find that there are usually twice as many rays in a burst as there are blades in your iris–if you count the burst on the left side you’ll see 18 rays. This particular lens, however, often produces a double ray as you can see on the center burst above, and I often get bursts with apertures as wide as f/8. I’m no physicist, but I find this quirk pretty interesting. The image below of the Washington Monument was made with a a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 f/16, and that iris has 7 blades. Disconnect your lens from your camera body and look in the back to see how many blades your lens has: I bet you get twice as many rays in your bursts!
Take Your Time
When you shoot nightscapes in the city, I think you’ll find that a long shutter speed really burns those rays in more solidly and makes them more substantial in your image. Since we’re using a small aperture, and it’s nighttime it’s a given that you’ll be using a long shutter speed. A tripod is necessary for starbursts, and I’d shoot in manual mode. Remember, too, that it’s night, so your picture will be dark. Make sure the important stuff is bright enough, and don’t worry about the deep dark shadows. Lightroom makes quick work of keeping the dark areas interesting, especially if you’re shooting in RAW.
The only time I have a hard time with long shutter speeds is when I’m on a moving platform, like a ship or boator a bridge. I love to shoot bridges, and some are very stable, but the bridge below shook and trembled every time a car drove by. So, in order to get the exposure I needed, I had to raise the ISO and use a shorter exposure. I only got 5 seconds between cars, where I usually go for 30 seconds. This was the 14-24mm at f/8.
Think like J.J.: Embrace the Flare
When you point a lens at a light, it’s likely to give you flare and ghosting in your lens. This is largely because light shining into the lens goes through to the sensor and is recorded, but it also reflects off the back of a lens heading out of the camera and then reflects back into the camera off the front of that lensand there are many lenses (elements) inside your lens. That means you may get a lot of little ghosts of lights in your lens and flare as well. You may be able to see that the ghosts are the same shape as the aperture in your lens (see the heptagon shaped ghosts below?)
Using a UV filter accentuates this, so I recommend removing it when shooting at night (actually, I recommend removing your UV filter all the time, but that’s another post). You may even be able to count the number of elements in your lens by the number of ghosts you see. This picture is of the same bridge as above (St. John’s, Portland, Oregon), shot with a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II lens at 86mm and f/22.
Use Live View
When you want the sun to be a starburst, it’s a good idea to use live view mode in your camera. If you use a telephoto lens, you must use live view, or else you will be magnifying the sun directly into your eyeball through the viewfinder, and that’s a bad idea if you don’t want to go blind prematurely. You may also find it easier to focus and frame your nightscapes using live view. Overlooking Canyonlands National Park form Dead Horse Point, I framed up this picture and then waited until the sun was in the right spot. Once again, it was that 14-24mm lens at f/16. Ahhhhhjust bask in that flare and enjoy the moment.
Cut the Sun
If you want to get the best starbursts on the sun, you’ll need to obscure part of the sun–it’s just too big to burst really well otherwise. Above in Canyonlands I waited until the sun was partly behind the horizon. You’ll find the same thing with large electric lights. If the lights are large or very close, they will not burst as well as smaller or farther lights. You can also compose with objects that will obscure the sun. Below I ran across the field to await the sunrise behind the branches of the far trees which obscured part of the sun enough for a good burst. 50mm f/1.4 lens at f/16.
If you start looking around, I think you’ll find that starbursts are available everywhere. Shooting at noon? Use a building to obscure the sun and make a burst in the sky. We’ve seen lots of sun flare and wide apertures for portraits the lest few years–it seems everyone is doing it. Well, I’m using starbursts to freshen things up a bit for my clients. Think a little and open your eyes as you go through your day and I bet you’ll find lots of opportunities to use starbursts to add a little twinkle to you images.
Disclaimer: The ideas presented here are just some of the ways to pull off this technique. Combine them with your own photo knowledge to achieve the best results.