The Secrets of Photographing Sunbursts

Any keen photographer will know the magical effect as the sun peers around an object in the foreground, illuminating everything in its wake. It’s known as a sunstar, or sunburst. Whatever you like to call it, there’s no doubt that it’s one of the elusive pleasures of every landscape photographer. If you enjoy shooting sunstars, then you’re in luck. Here’s our guide to capturing them perfectly.

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Sunstars are great for bringing an extra layer of light and vibrancy to any landscape photo. They’re a touch of magic, certainly worth the wait for patient photographers. There’s something really rewarding about waiting for the sun to peak around an edge or corner, and the end result is always spectacular.   

The photo below is a great example, taken at Rialto Beach, Washington. At exactly the right moment, the sun hit the rocks to produce a glorious sunstar effect.

PAtrick

 

Want to take similar pictures? There’s a simple technique you can learn to master the perfect sunstar photograph. To begin with, follow these easy steps below:

  1. Get rid of those filters and make sure that the front lens is free from dust! Tiny dust and scratches are the main cause of those hard to remove flares!
  2. Set your camera to Manual mode.
  3. For a sharper and more distinct hands of the sunstar, shift your aperture to F20 – f22.
  4. Make sure to hide part of the sun on any edge then opt for 1-2 secs shutter exposure.
  5. Compensate on your ISO to achieve a balanced exposure.

So that’s it. Sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? But, assuming that you’ve followed those steps, your image will probably look something like this:

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Maybe not so easy after all. There’s one major challenge that often comes with shooting directly at the sun: our cameras simply can’t handle the scene’s dynamic range in light. This means that ultimately we’re left with a picture of extremes, without the subtleties of light present in reality. There are two ways this can go. Either you get a properly exposed foreground with an over exposed sun, or a properly exposed sun with an overly-underexposed foreground. The balance just isn’t quite right.

You’ll probably try to bring back details from the clipped highlights, which is impossible, or open up the dark and shadowy areas, which will in turn sacrifice the image’s quality.

What’s the solution to the Sunburst problem?

The way around this issue can be found in post-processing.Why not expose multiple shots and then combine them later on? I’ve found that this is the best way to achieve a clean, crisp, detailed and properly exposed image, complete with a perfect sunstar. So here are the steps I take to catch those brilliant sunstars in the act. As ever, timing is the key.  

I start with something that might seem fairly difficult, but with practice, should be a piece of cake. I’m talking about anticipating where the sun will be as it rises or falls, depending on the time of day. With this in mind you also have to predict which corner it will peak from; where the sunstar will form. Once in position, you just have to wait for the right moment. When that perfect sunstar creeps around the corner, begin taking multiple exposures from brightest to darkest, until you’ve captured the whole dynamic range of the sky, like in the example below:

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Next up comes the real magic, but it’s a pretty simple idea. What you have to do is refocus on the foreground, placing a finger in front of the lens, in order to cover the sun and its direct impact on the exposure levels. This way,the foreground shot is beautifully  balanced and perfectly exposed.

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All in all that’s six images, five for the sky and one for the foreground. The next step is to merge the best bits together in post-processing to create one awesome photograph.  

To do this, I use a few different tools. The first bit of software I use is called ACR (Adobe Camera Raw). In it, I open up all six images at the same time, before making the standard white balance adjustments, chromatic aberration removals and lens corrections. For the perfect sunstar photo, this is the first stage, before I synchronize all of the adjustments made across all the images and open them up in PS (Photoshop).

In Photoshop, I stack all the sky images as layers. The next step is to apply the preferred masking techniques and actions, to develop a properly exposed image using the combined images.

I use the TKActions panels by Tony Kuyper Photography’s luminosity masking as a tool to easily combine all of the exposures together (TKActions Panel is available here). Once that’s done, don’t forget to flatten the image.

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Next you will have to blend the foreground with the sky. To do this I copy my foreground image and paste it over the flattened sky image as a layer. I then use Photoshop’s Auto-Align layers feature. This ensures that everything I have worked on so far is properly aligned before I proceed with my masking. This prevents any ghosting effects when the sky and foreground are eventually combined together. Here is an example of PS’s auto-align feature in action:

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Once both layers are accurately aligned, it’s relatively straightforward to combine the well lit foreground with the sky. You can choose how much you would want to bring back from the foreground exposure. Personally, I like to use a low level opacity to keep everything looking natural, but this might vary from picture to picture or your personal preferences.  

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Images are not all the same, so in the masking process you have to work things out based on your taste, using the histogram as a guide.

And here you go! The final, fully-processed image:

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That’s all folks! Hopefully you’ve learned something here that will help to improve your photography skills. Sunstars are worth the patience required to achieve this method, so keep on shooting, practising and loving every second of it! And feel free to share this post with anyone photography friends who might be interested!

Article by Patrick Marson Ong

 

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