We’ve all seen those beautiful sunburst shots — a skier vaulting off of a cliff against a deep blue sky, a magical trail in the woods with the light poking through the trees or the sun rising over a mountain caught at just the right moment to create rays that look like they’re coming down from the heavens.
Usually referred to as “sunburst” photography, pictures like this often show the sun looking like a perfect star, or peeking through a doorway or around a corner and diffracting, creating beautiful rays of light. There are a couple tricks that as photographers we can use to get this effect in photos.
Use a small aperture
Using a small aperture might seem obvious, but until I started playing around with sunbursts and thinking about how light came through the lens, it didn’t hit me. You’re going to want to use an aperture smaller than f/11. The smaller the aperture you use, the longer and more defined the rays of the sunburst will be. However, if you do use a smaller aperture, there are tradeoffs in the quality of your photo due to diffraction. Those are decisions that you make while you’re shooting (i.e., will I sacrifice a bit of quality for a better sunburst?). Often times if I know I want to get a sunburst, I’ll stop all the way down to f/22 just to see what I get and then go back to f/18 or so.
This series of photos shows the effect that stopping down to a smaller aperture has on the sun in the same exact scene. I shot these handheld, all within about 15 seconds.
You can see at f/11 that the sunburst is appearing, and at f/16 it looks even better. In this instance, I probably didn’t need to go up to f/22.
Use something to partially block the sun
You can shoot the sun directly, but I prefer (and honestly I think it makes it a lot easier) to use something — the top or side of a house, an archway opening, the bottom of a bridge, or trees in the forest to help with diffracting the light.
What I love about using these techniques to get sunbursts in your photos, is that it’s not just specific to landscape photography. If you’re shooting on the street, doing an engagement session, or shooting family portraits, you can stop your aperture down a bit, use something to partially block the sun and grab a really fun and interesting shot.
Do you use any of these techniques in your shooting to get sunbursts in your photos? Let me know in the comments!