Sunburst without an Edge


Today’s Question: You recently shared a photo on Instagram of the Parthenon in Athens, with the sun forming a starburst. I always thought you needed to have the sun at the edge of an object in order to get a sunburst. How were you able to get the sunburst with the sun in an open area of the sky?

Tim’s Quick Answer: While it can certainly help to create a starburst effect (or a more interesting photo) by having the sun at the edge of a solid object in the scene you are photographing, you can also create a sunburst effect with the sun in an open area of the sky. The key factor is to have a clear sky with minimal amount of haze.

More Detail: The photo mentioned in today’s question can be viewed on my Instagram feed here:

As you can see by looking at the photo, the sun is positioned in a clear space between columns of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Many photographers are aware that you can create a starburst (or sunburst) effect by stopping down the lens aperture, typically to around f/16 or f/22.

In addition to stopping down the lens, in order to create a starburst effect you need to have a light source in the frame that is not too diffused. For example, you can often achieve a starburst effect when photographing a bare lightbulb, but not with a lampshade that is diffusing the light of the lightbulb hidden by that lampshade.

When it comes to capturing a photograph that includes the sun in the frame, it is possible to create a starburst effect as long as the sun isn’t too diffused. In other words, you need a very clear sky, without too much haze. It is generally much easier to get a starburst effect with the sun in the middle of the day, and it gets increasingly difficult to achieve a starburst the closer you get to sunset, for example. This is because closer to sunset you are photographing the sun through more of the atmosphere, which will diffuse the sun more.

If the sky is a bit hazy, to the point that you can’t get a good starburst effect with the sun in an open area of sky, it can be helpful to frame up the scene so that the sun is partially obscured against a solid object with a relatively crisp edge. In many cases, for example, this will create an effect where the rays of the starburst will only appear over the object that is partially obscuring the sun, and not around the side of the sun that is against the open sky.