Desperately Seeking Sunstars

By , February 24, 2014 8:42 pm
The sun sets on our old Walnut tree earlier this month. Note that the sun is surrounded by 14 rays of light. This is a 14-point sunstar.

The sun sets on our old Walnut tree earlier this month. Note that the sun is surrounded by 14 rays of light. This is a 14-point sunstar.

Since I am one of those photographers with no “off” switch, I have a camera with me pretty much all the time. At work, that’s obvious, since taking pictures is my job. But it’s that way for me at home, too.

My aging but excellent Minolta DiMage 7i.

My aging but excellent Minolta DiMage 7i.

One of the cameras I sometimes grab at home is my very old Minolta DiMage 7i. I often keep it hanging on a nail next to my computer as kind of a “grab cam” for times when, for example, fleeting sunlight comes through a vase in the kitchen window. It’s right there, and, because of its age and condition (well-used), I am not at all concerned about getting pasta sauce on it or having a dog knock it out of my hands.

It’s got an ace, though, that a lot of newer cameras, by virtue of their lenses, don’t have: a straight seven-bladed aperture. Lensmakers in the latter day have gotten into their heads that everyone wants every lens to exhibit “good bokeh,” and that making lenses with curved aperture blades instead of traditional straight ones is the way to do it.

This is Michael's 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma lens for Nikon. In addition to having nine straight aperture blades that yield wonderful sunstars, it is well built, and optically excellent. (Photo by Michael D. Zeiler)

This is Michael’s 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma lens for Nikon. In addition to having nine straight aperture blades that yield wonderful sunstars, it is well built, and optically excellent. (Photo by Michael D. Zeiler)

I was also thinking about all this last night as my wife and I watched the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The event was quite spectacular, and to enhance the look, the stadium featured lots of spotlights. Television likes to exploit these lights to enhance their visuals.

This view shows the seven straight aperture blades of the AF-Nikkor 50mm f/1.8.

This view shows the seven straight aperture blades of the AF-Nikkor 50mm f/1.8.

The real question is: why do we use sunstars, and how do they help us express our vision? Our audience typically sees our images either printed or on a computer monitor of some kind, and the brightness values of these display methods are limited. As we view the scene we photograph, our eyes see all the values, from the darkest shadows to, in many cases, the brilliance of the sun. Since prints and monitors can never express this brightness range, it is then up to us to use photographic elements to express them.

This is a crop from an image I made at Gallo Cliff Shelter at Chaco Canyon in 2009, using my Tokina 12-24mm. The lens has nine curved aperture blades, but at smaller apertures, it can be coaxed into making nice sunstars like this one.

This is a crop from an image I made at Gallo Cliff Shelter at Chaco Canyon in 2009, using my Tokina 12-24mm. The lens has nine curved aperture blades, but at smaller apertures, it can be coaxed into making nice sunstars like this one.

Although the sun in this image does help convey the sense of light in this image on the Delicate Arch trail at Arches National Park, the six-point sunstar just isn't as nice as a 14 or 18 point sunstar. This was made with my Fuji S200EXR.

Although the sun in this image does help convey the sense of light in this image on the Delicate Arch trail at Arches National Park, the six-point sunstar just isn’t as nice as a 14 or 18 point sunstar. This was made with my Fuji S200EXR.

The formula is pretty simple: even-numbered aperture blade produce that number of sunstar points (eight blades, for example, give eight points), while an odd number of blades gives twice that number of sunstar rays (nine blades make 18-point sunstars.) The television cameras at the Olympics, and most television cameras, had six-bladed apertures, so all the spotlights were rendered with six-point sunstars. Now that you know this (if you didn’t already) you won’t be able to look at television again without counting the sunstar points.

Sunstars, at least in my own photography, help me express to the audience the sense of brightness of the brightest items in my image, and the sharper and more beautiful the sunstars, the more my viewers will understand and appreciate my message.

This image, an experiment in painting with light, is what inspired me to write this entry. It was made with the Sigma 24-70mm borrowed from Michael. When I viewed it recently I was really impressed at the spectacular sunstar on the right side of the frame.

This image, an experiment in painting with light, is what inspired me to write this entry. It was made with the Sigma 24-70mm borrowed from Michael. When I viewed it recently I was really impressed at the spectacular sunstar on the right side of the frame.

 

One Response to “Desperately Seeking Sunstars”

  1. Wil C. Fry says:

    I’ve long noticed your fascination with sunstars — and I notice them on TV quite regularly…

    In fact, since beginning to learn photography in earnest about 10 years ago, the way I watch TV and movies has changed considerably — I’m constantly noticing reflections, lighting, bokeh, point-of-view, wide v. telephoto — sometimes to the point of distraction.

    Honestly, I did not know until reading this entry that it was the shape of the aperture blades that made such a difference. (I did know that the number of blades affected the number of points on the stars).

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