Feb 11

How to: Create a sun star in your landscape photo

With last weekend’s stunning winter sun and a cobalt blue sky over deep frozen snow, of course I couldn’t leave the camera alone. And actually a lesson I learned two winters ago came to my rescue – how to produce the nice sunstar effect, which is about turning the sun in the picture into a bright star-like shape with rays protuding from it. A very special look, but usually nicer than just a blown-out blotch of whiteness you get if you miss out on this one.

I was hiking in the Chiemgau mountain range, and came across this old tree wanting to be a nice foreground. I found that at that time of day the sun was making its way into the picture, and as always if it’s that close to the border of the frame – I chose to include it.

Did so, and snapped a picture to see whether this motif would work (ok, not that great, but good enough to show the effect).

winter snow with tree and sunstar

I thought it came out ok – but – who was talking about ugly white blotches in the sky where the sun was supposed to be? So, in order to create a nice sun star, do:

  1. Close your aperture. This is important. I usually choose f/16 or f/22.
  2. Clean your front lens. If it has any dirt speckles, the image will be useless.
  3. Hope that your sensor is clean – that much stopped down, it will show. Better sort that out before going into the field.
  4. Remove any filter from your lens, as in all these backlighting situations image quality can suffer because of light trapped between filter and front lens, reducing overall contrast.
  5. Choose the right lens. This is something that seems to be amiss in most tutorials I found (nice ones here and here), but in my experience the lens really makes the difference!

My standard lens I also used for the picture above is the rather old kit lens AF-S 18-70 mm DX, which is really nice, but it does perform miserably in terms of sun stars. My Tokina 12-24 mm wide angle, which I mostly use for landscape situations like this, luckily performs much better – I just love its 18 ray sun stars! Quick switch of lens, retake photo utilizing also the larger view angle possible – quite a difference, eh?

winter snow and tree with sun star

By the way, the shape of the sun star depends on the number of blades the physical aperture in the lens has: An even number will create one ray per blade, an odd number of blades will create a sunstar with twice as many rays as blades. I also read that curved blades used for making the nicest Bokeh are rather bad for sunstars, which come out better with straight blades. Seems the Tokina got 9 straight ones!

And here is the image from two winters ago, which shows that the Tokina can produce sunstars also with the full sun in the image, not just when it’s partially obscured by trunks or trees. And it shows how I learned I should rather clean the front lens ;-)

Winter sun star in the mountains

Hope that was useful to you! But tell us about your experience – do you have lenses that excel (or perform badly) when doing sunstars?

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  1. You know photography’s not my cup of tea, but again you provided a welcome bedtime reading :-)

  2. Good tips, thanks!

  3. I don’t have trouble getting the star effect with a bulb, but can’t seem to get it with the moon or sun without completely blacking out the picture. I have an 18-200 lens and have used various aperture settings from F16 and 22. Any suggestions on what to do?


  4. Hi Joy – this sounds to me that your camera exposure metering gets confused with an object as bright as the sun (or the moon?) in the picture. It will expose for the sun, so the sun itself is correctly exposed – and then everything else will be pitch black as the sun is so much brighter than everything else.

    A test if this is the case: Try it once with manual exposure! Do set a small aperture like F22, and dial in an exposure time manually that will give you a nice looking picture (without the sun in the picture). You can check just by making test photos and looking at the resulting picture / histogram. If you have a manually correctly exposed landscape with F22 – simply include the sun in the photo and see what your lens can do in terms of star shapes!

    Hope that helps,

  5. Thank you! Very helpful. Heading out today to see what I can come up with. I think I have been shooting with bigger apertures so I haven’t gotten any sun stars with my 17-40L.

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