Half-week homework: Sunbursts

The first time you get a sunburst in one of your photos, the feeling is extraordinary. Those crisp rays shooting out from your light source look totally other-worldly. What luck! What a glorious visitation! (Assuming, of course, that it didn’t totally blast your subject.) How did this magic happen?

Fortunately, this effect is as easy to reproduce as it is exciting to discover. You just need the right combination of lens and environmental conditions. If you already know the trick, go forth and shoot: your challenge this week is to take an awesome photo with (or of) a sunburst! Share your favorites with your fellow readers on our Facebook page or on Instagram, tagged #mymikescamera #halfweekhomework. Read on for inspiration and instruction.

Why would you want flare?

Let’s take a step back and look at what the goal of this kind of photo might be. The most obvious is to amplify that “sunny golden summer” feeling to the extreme. Especially at golden hour (we’ll come back to that), photos veined with long tendrils of light effortlessly evoke the description of “sun-drenched.” See the photo at the top of the page for an example.

Another reason might be to add action, drama, or a sense of immediacy to your photo. Not only does the incorporation of what’s technically a defect (light bouncing on aperture blades) into your image give it a touch of journalistic realness, the well-known cinematic move of sweeping flares across the shot works subconsciously to lend an implied motion to your static image. “Sunbursts” don’t have to come from the sun, of course, and this sense of movement or vibrance is especially obvious in night shots with starbursts from headlights or neon signs.

You might even want another subject for your photo. Sculpting your light source gives it an active role in the composition of your photo, and you can use the technique to spice up a boring sky or balance out something on the other side of the picture.

The easy way to make a sunburst

Choose the right lens

First, the right tool is critical. As a general rule, wide primes with a large, odd* number of aperture blades (preferably straight ones) will provide the most crisp points. Make sure it’s totally clean and you’re not using a hood or filter that might block the light or haze the image. Some lenses’ internal elements just make for better bursts, too—look for examples online from other photographers if you want to get an idea of exactly what a lens might be capable of.

* Even numbers of aperture blades will be spaced in such a way that they each have a partner on the opposite side, meaning that their points will overlap one another. They may be stronger, but you’ll get double the points from an odd number of blades (e.g. a five-blade aperture will produce 10 points).

Here’s one from my Sony RX100M2. A great little camera, but “meh” flare.
The T* 35mm f/2.8 ZA, on the other hand, produces excellent bursts!

Narrow your aperture

This part’s easy: drop down to f/8 or smaller and watch those points grow from any source of light with decent contrast. (The contrast is important: you’re going to want to shoot a sun on a deep blue sky rather than a hazy white one, for example.)

Adjust your angle (and maybe block the light a bit)

Finally, play with the angle of your shot until the sunburst is just right! You can either adjust your camera’s position…

Not quite…
Just right!

…or the position of the light, if you have the ability to do so, as I did with the below photo from my Easter post. As you can see in just about all of these examples, the quality will improve if you partially obscure the light. A notch in a building, leaves in a tree, and so on are all great options for creating another narrow aperture environmentally.

Be sure to expose thoughtfully

Since you’ll be using light in a non-standard way, be sure that you’re either manually adjusting your exposure or using spot-metering to find the right target.

Bonus tips

  • Get creative! Check out the awesome double-exposure below—you can shoot one sunburst and then blend it with another, differently-exposed photo.
  • Some lenses will let you get rainbow colors from refracted light, too.
  • Sunbursts can be a bit overwhelming, but you can use them sparingly by keeping them at the edge of the picture (or cropping later).
  • Most of the time you’ll want those sweet, sharp points, but you can open your aperture up for a lazy, blobby “sunburst” if the mood is right.

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