Creating Stunning Starbursts with a Digital Camera

Add starbursts to your bag of photo tricks!


Pacific, beach, scene,washington

Using a sea rock to obscure the sun. Point of the Arches, Washington.

Have you ever wondered how photographers are able to create those wonderful sunburst or starburst effects?

You may be thinking that the photographer used a special filter or did some tricky post-processing. While this is possible, the technique that I will talk about and enjoy using myself is created in the camera without a filter or post-processing work. These starburst effects are being produced by the camera when light passes through a small aperture (large f stop number like f16 or f22) and is being diffracted, which is the bending of light waves around the blades of the aperture.

You can use the sun, the moon or artificial light sources to create the starburst effect. The smaller and more intense the light source, the better quality of star points  — as in sharper and crisper points — you will achieve. Please note that not all lenses are created equal when it comes to high-quality starbursts. Consumer-grade lenses will usually not produce pleasing starbursts like a pro-level lens. Many photographers will take the starburst-producing quality of a lens into consideration before purchasing.

I use Canon L lenses and have had great success with the Canon 16-35 f4 and the Canon 24-70 f4. Cheaper but by no means inferior, I have seen great starbursts taken with the Tokina 11-16 f2.8. This crop-sensor lens is a great value at less than $500. A couple other crop-sensor lenses with good reviews are the Tamron 17-50 and the Sigma 10-20.

One of my favorite times to create starbursts is during the blue hour, specifically 45-30 minutes before sunrise or 30-45 minutes after sunset, in a situation where the composition includes some form of artificial warm light and complimentary cool blue light from the sky. Street lights that are not too close to the camera but are fading into the distance are better so that you don’t end up with a big blasted-out blob.

You can learn more about how to “Become a ‘shooting star’ overnight! Photographing the Blue Hour” by clicking here. »


The evening blue hour on Burano, Italy

blue hour, edmonds, washington

Starbursts from street lights at the evening blue hour. Edmonds, Washington

blue, hour, venice, italy

The morning blue hour, Venice, Italy.

Using the sun as the light source for starbursts is great fun and it is quite easy to get good results with a little trial and error. Digital cameras make this easier than ever as you can review your photos immediately and also before you even pull the trigger by using the Live View mode available in many of the newer cameras. The key here is to obscure most of the sun behind an object such as a tree or building. You just want a bit of the sun peaking out. Getting the right amount is the trial and error part. If you get too much of the sun you get a big blob and if you get too little of the sun you get a small starburst or none at all. Again, playback your photos or use Live View to see if you are getting the desired results and if not, keep adjusting the amount of sun that is peaking out from behind the obstruction. You many have to close the aperture down even more to get a better quality starburst.

Using a tree branch to obscure the sun. Seattle, Washington.

Using a tree branch to obscure the sun. Seattle, Washington.


Using an arched entryway to obscure the sun. Santorini, Greece.

waterfalls, lake, Plitvice, Croatia

Sun obscured by trees. Plitvices Lakes National Park, Croatia.

I have also achieved some pleasing results shooting directly into the full sun. This always causes some flare spots in the photo which can be distracting. I remove as much of the flare spots in post-processing as possible. The higher-end lenses do a better job when shooting directly into a full sun with less flare spots.

sunburst, passo giau, dololomites, italy

Shooting directly into the sun. Passo Giau, Dolomites, Italy.

manarola,cinque terre, italy.

Starburst of the moon using f16 and a long exposure, 30 seconds. Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy.

The most important steps for creating good starbursts are:

  • Use a small aperture, f16 or f22.
  • Use a tripod if you do not have a lot of light and your shutter speed is below 1/60th of a second. I like to use a tripod whenever possible.
  • Review your images using Live View or in Playback after you expose.
  • Adjust your position if you are getting too much sun or too little.
  • Buy a higher-quality lens (wide or ultra-wide angle) if your starbursts are not of good quality and it is important to you.

Creating starbursts is one of the lessons we offer on our photo tours and we find that the participants greatly enjoy the process. It is so pleasing to see their excitement when they master this technique and are getting great starbursts!

Join us in 2016 on one of our Photography Travel Tours and put the starburst technique in your bag of tricks. Space is limited and we are getting close to filling up on some of our tours.

Click here to see all our 2016 Photo Tours:

  • Prague & Czech Republic
  • Meteora/Greece
  • Santorini/Greece
  • Cinque Terre/Italy
  • Tuscany/Italy
  • Venice/Italy
  • Slovenia & Croatia
  • Italian Dolomites
  • Provence/France
J_M_150x150(1)Jim and Magrit have been photographing professionally and traveling in Europe for the past 20 years.

They started Photography Travel Tours in 2011 with the goal of educating and guiding photographers to some of the most beautiful and iconic scenes in Europe.

The tours are not just about getting great photographs but also have the side benefits of doing so in wonderful environments. Great food, wine, people, and ambiance.

Read more about Jim & Magrit and their wonderful photo tours here: (

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.
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