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If you’re like me, you’ve probably noticed “starbursts” in other people’s photos and wondered how they created this dazzling little element in their shot. Last week I stopped wondering and I asked Matt for advice. Turns out that it’s much easier than you’d think and, aside from a tripod, you don’t need any special gear to pull it off!

Find a strong “point light source”

First thing’s first, you’ll need a light source that is much brighter than its background. This could be the sun (on a blue sky background), or bright street lamps against a dark sky (think: contrast). There are plenty of opportunities to get those starbursts in the city, so the next time you’re shooting a cityscape think about adding some twinkle.

At F/16 each of the street lamps on this classic bridge in Rome provide an interesting star-burst effect.

Set that aperture to F/16

The aperture blades in your lens are what create this “starburst” effect. The smaller your aperture setting is, the more angular the aperture opening becomes. The tight angles in your aperture blades cause rays of light to appear in your image. Try it yourself: compose an image with a “point light source” in your frame. Take two photos of the same scene, but with drastically different aperture settings, like F/4.0 and F/16. If you’re doing this under anything but bright, sunny, blue-sky conditions – you will need a tripod. Done correctly, you should see an effect like this in your pictures:

With the aperture set wide-open setting (in this case F/2.8), the starburst effect is not possible.

With the aperture closed down to F/16, the aperture's internal blades create the starburst effect.

If all this discussion about aperture settings sounds like Greek to you, start by reading our “Breaking up with Automatic Mode” blog series.

Don’t forget that you’ll have more success when the light source is relatively small in comparison to the rest of your frame. The sun will work, but only when it’s a clear sky and only when it “peaks out” from behind a foreground element or is positioned just beyond the edge of your frame. This is usually easier to achieve just after sunrise, or shortly before sunset – when the sun is lower on the horizon and easier to work into your composition.

If you like to learn more about night photography, you can practice this starburst effect (and many other night shooting techniques), on our Zurich by Night course.