A No-Cost Dramatic Effect

A very simple effect — the “starburst” around a bright light. This has been around so long that I sometimes forget that everyone does not know it. It is a great addition to images with bright lights in them.

You may have seen this effect with rays of light coming out of the sun or from a bright night light outdoors. It is dramatic and fun. Most photographers who don’t use this think it is from a filter. It is not. Anyone can create this effect.

What you need is simply a small lens opening or f-stop, a bright light that is in focus and some darkness around the light. In other words, set your lens to f/16, point your camera at the sun, and look for dark sky or some dark shapes to put near the sun and you will get the effect.

The starburst effect will come from wider f-stops when you are using wide-angle lenses or small digital cameras such as a point-and-shoot. This is because it comes from diffraction of light through a small hole in your lens — the f-stop. With wide-angle and small cameras, that hole is physically smaller for any given f-stop compared to telephoto lenses (an f-stop is a mathematical relationship between the opening in the lens and the focal length).

I have had students in classes at BetterPhoto.com (my Impact in Photography and Understanding F-Stops classes touch on this effect) get frustrated because they can’t make this work. The reason is usually because they are trying to shoot the sun against a bright sky. The starburst (or sunburst) pattern doesn’t show up if bright areas surround the light. It only shows up when that area is dark.

So a dark sky will show the effect, as will a sun peaking through dark branches in a tree or creeping around a shadowed corner of a building. You may need a graduated filter to darken the sky or you can use HDR. This effect also works really well at night with night lights. You have to shoot on a tripod and with a small f-stop.

Just remember the three things that you need — you only need them, but you must have all three for the effect to occur in your photos: a sharp, specular (meaning spot) and bright light such as the sun in your composition, a small f-stop (f/16 almost always works) and dark tones near the bright light.


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This post was written by:

- who has written 27 posts on The Digital Photo Experience.

Rob Sheppard is the author/photographer of over 30 books, the editor-at-large for Outdoor Photographer magazine, and a nationally known presenter and workshop leader. His specialities are nature photography and helping photographers with digital technologies from getting the most from small sensors to Lightroom to Photoshop. Check out Rob’s websites at http://www.robsheppardphoto.com and http://www.natureandphotography.com


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