Creating Starbursts in Landscape Images

Starbursts are magical, aren’t they?

We’ve all seen them in landscape photographs. And many of you reading this likely understand the concepts behind creating these aesthetically pleasing additions to our landscape images.  

But, for those of you wondering, “how do I do that,” well, keep reading because we’re going to tell you how they can be achieved with just a few simple steps. 

What exactly are starbursts (or, sunbursts), though? Technically speaking, they are lens flare from the sun’s rays that are shaped into a starburst pattern.

We teach, this technique on a number of Backcountry Journeys tours. If you’ve traveled with us to places like Bryce Canyon, Mesa Arch, and/or Grand Teton, we have sunrise and sunset shots that lend themselves nicely to this technique. But, you certainly don’t need to be on a trip with us, or at these listed locations to do this. 

The following are quick and simple steps to follow in order to create starbursts: 

Use Your Wide Angle Lens
You’ll get more of an impact with a wide-angle lens than with a telephoto. This will more than likely be a step you don’t need to think about because you’ll naturally be utilizing a wider angle lens when photographing landscapes (this is not to say that you can’t create a starburst in a non-landscape composition, because you can). 

Use a high F-stop number, such as F/16 – F/22. This will allow more rays of the sun to refract through the smaller opening. Again, you might be there already when sizing up your landscape, but be sure to get into this range for the best effect. 

Pinpoint the Lightsource
Capture that sun just as it is rising along the horizon.

Or, utilize a tree and its leaves. 

Or, some sort of object. Perhaps a natural sandstone arch, for example. 

 Along this line of thought, the burst will probably be best if you can frame it near dark objects. 

Clear Air
Haze or clouds will greatly reduce the burst effect. That being said, if there are broken clouds in front of your sun, maybe see if waiting until the sun gets into a pocket between the clouds will work. This way the clouds can be your “object” from the previous step. 

Watch Your Exposure
Start by underexposing by something like two stops. As with everything, check your images as you shoot, and if you shoot with your histogram (something you probably should be doing) monitor your shadows. Take care not to clip them so that you can recover them later, in Lightroom, during post-processing. 

Flare Spots
Try to get these pesky things out of your otherwise beautiful image by changing the angle on your composition, if you can. If you just can’t make it work, simply inform anyone who asks that you left them in there on purpose. Ha Ha! 

A Little Extra on Star Points
The number of star points you’ll be able to achieve is determined by the number of aperture blades there are on your specific lens. So, lens to lens this can be different. Lenses typically will have between 5-9 blades. 

Star points are created where your blades meet up. Because of the way the light reflects around the lens, you’ll also have rays that extend from the opposite of where each of your rays come out. So, for example, if your lens has an odd number of blades you’ll have an even number of star points. If you have five aperture blades, you’ll get 10 points. Six blades lead to six points, and seven blades will equal 14 points. 

And that is it! We hope that you enjoy trying out this fun, exciting, and surprisingly easy photographic technique the next time you have the chance! 

Kenton Krueger








Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.

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