Want a great way to include the sun in a photo without it overwhelming the entire scene? Try your hand at sun stars (also known as sunbursts).

Sun stars look fantastic in bluebird skies that are classic in western winter landscapes (adds interest to the sky) and when peeping through deeply forested areas where you need to break up an otherwise dark background.

Lens

To start, a lot depends on your lens. Though you can still get a decent shot with your standard kit lens, this is one of those times where the quality of your lens can make a big difference in the outcome of your photo. The reason: The number of blades your lens dictates the number of points on the sun star you’ll be able to create. But don’t be discouraged from experimenting with what you have on hand; I’ve been pleasantly surprised many times by my own kit lens and basic DSLR camera (circa 2008 :).

(But that being said, I’ve even captured them—though not as crisp—with my 4-year old cell phone, below; rules are made to be broken! 🙂

Photograph Sun Stars - taken with a cell phone!
I caught this sun star with my old cell phone; no special equipment needed.

Settings

Beyond the blades, the key to getting the shot is your aperture.

Mini-lesson on aperture: its size is inversely related as you move up the f-stop scale. At f/22, for example, you have a small aperture and a greater depth of field than with f/2.8 which has a large aperture and blurs the background.   

So what does this mean for sun stars? When trying to create these in your photos, the smaller your aperture, the better. Try starting with a setting all the way up to f/22. If you’re shooting without a tripod—and depending on the time of day—this may mean you may need to bump the ISO to a higher setting so your shutter speed doesn’t fall below 1/60th of a second. Without a tripod, anything slower than this shutter speed is in danger of motion blur.

Mini-lesson #2: Be aware that shooting at high a ISO may create a lot of noise depending on your camera; higher-end and newer models handle high ISO much better than older DSLR or entry-level cameras.

If you don’t want to mess with all your manual settings, set your camera to shoot in aperture priority mode.

Time of Day

To capture these sun stars at their best, you ideally want the sun lower on the horizon, so get out there early morning or late afternoon. Winter days are also a great time to play with them since the sun’s angle is lower in the sky for longer periods of time.

Photograph Sun Stars - shot through the trees

Getting the Shot

To add some interest and really make the sun stars pop, position yourself so that the sun is peeking behind your main subject. This could be between the trees in a forest, lighting the space between friends, appearing over a mountain hut, etc.

Once you have your settings dialed and found your subject, it’s time to shoot. Try the shot two different ways: one with a single exposure and the other shot in a bracket with three different exposures (read more on using exposure bracketing in “How to Photograph Skies without Underexposing Landscapes”). You might find that you like the silhouetted foreground you get with a single exposure.

Safety Note:

Pointing your lens directly into the sun can damage your camera and—if you’re looking through the viewfinder instead of using the screen—be very damaging to your eyes. Keep the sun off to the side or use a  UV filter  and the live-screen mode if shooting directly into the sun.

Did you try this technique? Show us how it went by sharing your shots with us on social media; hashtag it with #HikerChat and tell us what you thought!

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Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. Leaving home to journey westward alone, she chased the sun to Utah. Over the years, she was consumed with skiing, climbing, kayaking, mountain biking and getting lost on back roads. But exploration continued to call. After closing her bakery — which funded college courses and adventure — she stored her possessions and hit the road again, on a quest to reach the distant places of North America. For three years she lived in her little Mazda 3 and skied the backcountry of Alaska, slept under the northern lights in the Yukon Territory, ice climbed Colorado's frozen canyons and rock climbed across the continent, photographed Nova Scotia’s coves, backpacked in southern US wildernesses and munched on sugared tamarindo in the jungles of Mexico. But living in a car started to feel limiting, so after seeing the many glories this continent had to offer, she chose the only place fitting for an explorer to spend a lifetime of wild wonder: British Columbia. Dual citizenship in hand, she settled along the Powder Highway in the Selkirks and is now making her home between four walls and deeply wooded mountains. When she's not playing the part of a photojournalist, Gina can be found collaborating with women worldwide through her nonprofit, Outdoor Women's Alliance, and working to improve her outdoor skills and wilderness safety certifications.

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