Posted on September 17, 2013
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:
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.