Let me just say that I am a total junkie for any extra “oomph” (that’s my made up description for lack of better words) that will bring character or another layer of interest to a landscape. A great way to add “oomph” (I’m going to patent that) is to add sunstars. Now, like any effect while shooting landscapes, you don’t want to overdo it. Adding sunstars to every photograph in your portfolio is going to make you one-dimensional and boring. Landscape effects are like investing money, and investing money is like manure. Spread your money (or landscape effects in this case) and things will grow. I’ll go ahead and apologize for that analogy right now. Please forgive me while you read how to create epic sunstars!
The first thing you should know about sunstars is that they require a very small aperture like an f/16 or smaller. If you try to create a sunstar with a wide aperture, you are going to end up with a large blob of uninteresting over-exposed light. You will have to play around with the aperture and the way you position yourself in relation to the sun coming into the lens. All lenses are made differently and will show sun flares differently. Usually the better made lenses will work better for sunstars, however, if you can maneuver yourself into the perfect spot, you can achieve the same look. I’m never going to tell you to buy new gear to achieve any effect unless it’s absolutely necessary. 90% of the time you can do the same thing with less expensive gear if you work hard enough for it.
Another tip to get a great sunstar is to hide about half of the sun behind something. The reason you want to do this is to reduce the amount of light that the sun is producing. A great way to do this is to hide a portion of the sun behind a mountain or put the sun in between leaves on a tree.
Here’s another great gem of advice for sunstars: wait for the right conditions! Great conditions are perfectly clear skies. You don’t want to force a sunstar when you have a lot of clouds or haze in the sky because you won’t get the bright crisp star shape that you would if it were clear.
Bonus composition tip:
If you want to create a great landscape shot with sunstars, move the horizon line on your DSLR viewfinder to the top third of the photograph. Since it will be very clear, you don’t want boring blank space at the top of the photograph, you want the sunstar to be the focus of the sky. In the bottom two thirds of the photograph, find an interesting subject to make your foreground and middle ground. Focus 1/3 of the way into the frame with a small aperture like f/16 or f/22 and fire away!