A star is born

New Day, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

New Day, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
3.2 seconds
ISO 200
16 mm

Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of sunstars (a.k.a. starbursts). Cool as they are, sunstars have become ubiquitous to the point of cliché. So why do I shoot them? Because sometimes there’s little else you can do when the sun intrudes on the scene you came to photograph. In other words, they’re often more of a lemonade-from-lemons kind of thing.

Despite their ubiquity, sunstars work because there’s universal resonance to witnessing the sun kiss the horizon—I mean, who doesn’t have a warm memory of watching from a special location as the sun begins or completes its daily journey? These moments touch us on a literal, visual level (they’re beautiful), but I think more significantly they serve as a metaphor for the hope or closure we all long for.

Unfortunately, doing justice to these moments in a photograph is difficult: Including the sun in your frame introduces lens flare, extreme (often unmanageable) contrast, and an unattractive eye magnet that overpowers the rest of the scene. And while a sunstar doesn’t capture the literal experience, it does do a pretty good job of conveying the metaphor.

The good news is, despite the difficulties, creating a sunstar is relatively straightforward. Here’s a quick recipe:

  1. Start with a brilliant, fine point of light: The sun is the most logical candidate, but you can do it with the moon, stars, and pretty much any bright artificial light (lighthouse, headlights, and so on). The finer the light source the more precise the star effect will be, and the less lens flare and blown highlights you’ll have. If it’s the sun you’re using, virtually all of it needs to be hidden to get the delicate, symmetrical distribution of beams that generally work best. In this image the horizon hides most of the sun, but you can use a cloud, tree, rock, or whatever.
  2. The smaller your aperture, the finer your sunstar will appear: I generally use f16 or smaller (larger f-number).
  3. Do something to control the highlights: When the sun is entering your frame, you’re invariably dealing with a sky that’s much brighter than your foreground and will need to take steps to avoid the foreground of murky shadows. If you have a foreground shape or shapes against the sky, you could turn the foreground into a silhouette. But when I want to capture foreground detail, I use graduated neutral density filters to hold back the brilliant sky. My 3-stop reverse is my go-to GND in these situations; in particularly difficult light I’ll stack it with a 2-stop hard GND. Whenever I use a GND, I find Lightroom or Photoshop dodging/burning is a great way to disguise the telltale GND transition. HDR blending of multiple images is another way to mitigate extreme sky/foreground contrast (but I don’t do HDR, so you’ll need to Google this).
  4. Different lenses will yield different results: Experiment with your lenses to see which one gives the most pleasing sunstar effect. For example, I recently replaced my faithful 17-40L lens with a 16-35L Series II lens, and while I was satisfied with the sunstars from my 17-40, the 16-35 results are clearly better.
  5. Practice: You can practice sunstars any time the sun’s out. Just go outside with your camera, dial in a small aperture, and hide the sun behind whatever object is convenient (a tree, your house, etc.).

On the morning of this image from last month at the Grand Canyon, I had no plan to photograph. But I was working with a workshop student and we found this nice little scene off the trail to Bright Angel Point. The clouds had assembled into an organized formation that seemed to emanate from just beyond the horizon, and when they started to vibrate with sunrise color, I couldn’t resist. I quickly composed my scene, dialed down to f20, metered on the foreground, and stacked my 3-stop reverse and 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filters. The sun appeared a few seconds later and I fired off several frames before its brilliance overcame my filters’ ability to hold it back.

6 Comments on “A star is born

  1. What ISO do you generally use when taking these pictures? I’ve been trying to practice manually setting the ISO, SSpeed, and Aperture, and have tried to keep my ISO as low as possible.

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