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How do I get the starburst effect on sunset and sunrise pictures?

Published August 7th, 2011

I posted this image a couple of days ago on Flickr and was asked how I got the starburst effect on the sun so I thought I would post the answer for others who might like to try it.

The solution is very simple but timing is everything. First make sure your lens and any filters you are using are very clean and as scratch free as possible. Any smudges or dirt on the lens/filters along with scratches make the chance of getting unsightly flare effects much higher.

The next step is to be in place and have your shot composed in plenty of time. It is easy to get to a location before sunset and be moving around making images while losing track of how close the sun is getting to the horizon. I try to find the very best composition I can in good time, get everything set and then wait for the sun to dip to the horizon. I keep making exposures and checking the histogram every minute or two to make sure my exposure is spot on as the light levels are changing very quickly by this point. This is so much better than panicking to find a good composition when the light is at its very best - which only lasts for a minute or so at most.

To get the starburst effect, make sure you have stopped your lens right down - on most lenses this will mean going to f16 or f22. Normally I don’t recommend working at f16/22 as our lenses are starting to lose sharpness away from the f8 to f11 range - but with good modern lenses we are talking minor differences, and to get the starburst a narrow aperture is the key. Now wait until the sun is just touching the horizon line - either as it rises or sets, and as it touches start to shoot and check the histogram. For those few seconds as the sun transits the horizon you will the starburst you are after. the amount of burst spikes you get will depend on your lens and how many blades it has to the shutter, but the effect just adds a bit of something extra to the image - it gives it a more dynamic look.

Stopping the shutter down to a narrow aperture can also give starburst effects on other light sources - have a play and see how it works for you.

This image was made on a recent workshop of mine in the Peak District, from Stanage Edge looking towards Hope Valley and Mam Tor. We had a great day with perfect weather. I took a Holga 120 along with me and shot a roll of Ilford SFX ‘infrared’ film as an experiment. This film is not truly infrared but by using s red filter you get a great look to images, especially on blue skies and green foliage. I didn’t have a light meter with me or a tripod (you need long exposures with this film/filter combo so a tripod is really required) so I just supported it on a rock. I am expecting some good images that are slightly blurred:) I bracketed my exposures so if any work out well I will post them.

I have been asked if any of my images submitted to Landscape Photographer of the Year 2011 have been shortlisted and the answer is ‘yes’. Last year just one image was shortlisted and I was delighted (and surprised) to get one of the ‘Judges Choice’ awards from John Langley, the Director of the National Theatre.

This year I have had two images shortlisted. There is still a long way to go and it is very probable that they will both fail to get any further. My hope is one will make it in to the book and I will be delighted with that. Neither are any where near the calibre to win the competition. So what are the two images through? Here they are below.

Ironic that another of my ‘Scintilla’ series of lone cloud images (inspired by the ‘Harbinger’ series of the sensational mono photographer Cole Thompson) has made it through. If it gets through final judging this year I may have to go for a ha-trick next year!

The fence in the snow image was made in the heavy snows of last winter on the slopes of Mam Tor and was taken handheld with a 70-200mm f2.8 L IS lens with a 1.4x teleconverter fitted using the 5D mk2. The lone cloud image was made just a few days before the competition closing date down in Portsmouth. A day of pure blue skies and fluffy clouds. I have to confess this image was made from the car window (blushes). I had just a couple of seconds to get it as the cloud was not only moving quickly but also evaporating before my eyes. I spotted it, pulled up, window down and zoomed in with the trusty Panasonic LX5 and got the cloud directly above the tower block.

I have some new ideas for workshops on the drawing board including some ‘exclusive’ on location shoots followed by a workflow and image processing session to teach Lightroom, Adobe Camera RAW, Photoshop and Nik Silver EfEx Pro 2 skills. Email me if you would like to be the first get news of these and my other workshops.

I have some spaces left on my next Seascapes and Long Exposures workshop which I am running with talented photographer, Paul Morton, up on the Yorkshire coast. We will be covering locations (tide dependant) from Saltwick Bay through Whitby, Sandsend, Robin Hoods Bay, Staithes, Runswick and so on. It looks like being a superb day and we are on hand to teach all the skills we use in making our land and seascapes. You will find full details on the workshops page of my website at



Shortlisted for LPOTY

  • December 4th, 2010
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 280mm / f/11 / 1/100 sec


Shortlisted for LPOTY

  • June 29th, 2011
  • Panasonic DMC-LX5
  • 19.2mm / f/8 / 1/320 sec


An image made on Stanage Edge while teaching one of my workshops - it demonstrates using a narrow aperture to get a starburst effect on the sun as it sets.

  • August 5th, 2011
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 35mm / f/22 / 5 sec

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