Learn how to take stunning sun flare and sunburst photos

by | Photography

Ever wonder how to add amazing sunburst photos to your travel images? Most of us have been taught to keep the sun behind us or to our sides when shooting photographs. This technique is a tried-and-true style for capturing beautiful images with great lighting of your subject. Breaking this rule, however, can lead to some terrific creative photos, especially when traveling.

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The simple tips below will help you photograph sunburst and sun flare for stunning photographs while avoiding dark foregrounds, blown-out highlights and too much contrast. What you will get is beautiful sun flare and, when you are lucky, sharp sunburst photos. These are also great additions to travel photography images to make a “typical” tourist site more than a typical shot that everybody takes.

Metering for sunburst photos

Shooting directly into sunlight can make metering a challenge. I frequently choose so-called “spot metering” when I shoot in these situations. I meter on a mid-tone area of my subject and begin there. I also shoot a lot of frames when using this technique. Checking my shots frequently enables me to see what adjustments are required. (Using the histogram is a must, so if you aren’t familiar with that aid, take the time to find out more.) Shooting multiple shots allows me to meter off different parts of the scene and then I choose the best when I edit them later.

US 395 sign sunburst photos

When to shoot

As with most outdoor shooting dawn and dusk are great times to shoot into the sun. The sun is lower in the sky thus not as harsh, plus the color of the light is softer than mid-day.

Sunset starburst at Dana Point

Perspective

Move. Move again. In fact, move a lot. Changing your perspective gives you options. When I’m shooting into the sun I capture two to three times as many frames as I usually do. I lie down and shoot upward. I shoot from all sides. If I can get above the scene onto a ladder or another high spot, I try that too. Make sure you just move one way or other a few feet to get the sun at the right position, even half behind an object. All this movement changes the angle of the light on and around the subject. Each image ends up with a completely unique look.

San Clemente Pier sunburst photos 1 of 2

San Clemente pier starburst photo two of two

Fill Flash

Another option when shooting directly into the sun to avoid lens flare (all those dots and green spots) or a severely under-exposed subject is to use what is called a “fill flash.” Fill flash enables you to provide just enough light on the shadows (i.e. the subject, either person or object) and still achieve the creativity of shooting into the sun.

Vineyard barrel with a sunburst

Aperture / F-stop

I generally like to shoot with wide-angle lenses and higher apertures when shooting towards the light. Using apertures like f/5.6 result in less dramatic softer flares which can also be beautiful of course too, if that’s the look you want. Using smaller apertures like f/22 or just below results in stronger flares. Smaller apertures also enable you to capture that elusive sunburst or starburst effect with sharper lines.

Mono Lake sunburst photos

Partly shade the sun

Using an object like a tree (two shots below from different angles using a tree in Yosemite Valley), huge rock or fence post to partially hide the sun helps capture nice flares, too. This can also help you add an artistic touch to a scene. I found a flag stuck in a fence post one evening and captured one of my most popular images — used as the cover image for this story.

Yosemite Valley sunburst photo one of two

Yosemite Valley sunburst photo two of two

Tripod and shutter release

When shooting at smaller apertures (the higher f-stop numbers), you’ll capture a sharper flare, like a starburst. This will also require a slower shutter speed though. In some situations, you’ll need to shoot with your tripod and use a cable release or remote release to capture a sharp image — as I did below with the image below of two people doing yoga at Cathedral Lake.

Sunset Yoga at Cathedral Lake

Be careful when taking sunburst photos

When shooting towards the sun always be careful. When looking through the viewfinder the sun is powerful and, if the angle is direct, the light could do damage to your eyes. Don’t stay too long on one composure; instead, shoot the sunburst photo and move on.

Surfer at sunset at Trestles in California

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Rick Saez
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Rick Saez

Rick Saez is a California-based international travel, landscape and adventure photographer. He’s led expeditions and photo trips to Alaska, Nepal, Mexico, Africa and has photographed in 25 different countries on six different continents. Rick recently launched The Outdoor Biz Podcast where he interviews outdoor professionals to learn their stories, tips, strategies, and ideas about outdoor business, careers and lifestyle. Rick has been published in magazines such as Austrian Ocean 7 magazine, Runner's World, Alameda magazine and more. His clients include Eagle Creek, Mountain Khakis, Sea to Summit, Orvis, WETA Trimarans, Lowepro, Montbell and Sage to Summit.
Rick Saez
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