Behind The Shot: “Star Power” By Harry Lichtman—Moat Mountain, New Hampshire

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Shooting into the sun has its challenges, but special considerations can help control the wild light and bring an image to a new level. Sun stars are compositional elements that can add drama to an image if used under the right situations. I try not to let a sun star overwhelm the image, but instead add another layer of interest to an already solid composition.

Sun stars are the result of shooting into the sun using a relatively small lens aperture such as ƒ/16 or ƒ/22. Light diffraction occurs as direct sunlight passes by the diaphragm aperture blades and/or a solid object. Lens construction and aperture, atmospheric conditions, and exposure of the image can all affect the intensity of a sun star. In this shot, I hadn’t planned to create a sun star initially, but I could see that the sun would pass by the edge of a cloud and the mountainous horizon near sunset, and there was potential for some explosive color as well as the star burst. The sun was partially diffused by clouds, which did limit the strength of the sun star but did improve the color in the sky. I preferred the angled sun off center to create textural side lighting and the illumination of the tent.

The image required several shots to ensure proper exposure, control unwanted flare, and time for me to run into the image to add the human element to the scene. While sun stars can improve one area of the photo, the downside of shooting into the sun is unwanted flare artifacts and reduced contrast and detail in the lower portions of the image. To solve this problem, I used a 10 second self timer and recorded a bracketed sequence of three images, each 1 stop apart at ƒ/16 to capture the general exposure of the image and guarantee sky highlights wouldn’t be blown out. For the next exposure, I used a two second timer delay using Live View and placed the tip of my finger over the sun to adequately eliminate flare/sun star. Live View prevented looking into the sun through the viewfinder and is safer for the eyes. Bracketing is always recommended in extreme lighting conditions, though a single RAW image can be successfully processed multiple times for highlights and shadows.

In post processing, I layered the image with the properly exposed sun star with the image using my finger over the sun. I chose the best exposure from the bracketed sequence for each. I carefully used the Erasure Tool in Photoshop 6 to reveal the lower portion of the second exposure that preserved the contrast and detail in the mid-ground and foreground. Manually blending exposures allowed me to include a sun star in an image to better reflect the power of the scene and the moment which we all strive for in outdoor photography.

Equipment & Settings: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 24-105L USM, Manfrotto tripod, ISO 100, ƒ/16, 1/6 sec., 2 exposure, multiple processing of each RAW for highlight and shadow exposure.

Harry Lichtman recently received the Smithsonian 2015 Windland Smith Rice Award for photographic excellence in the Landscape Category. See more of his work at