3 tips for how to get an automotive star burst

If you’re an avid reader of this blog, you’ll notice that I tend to shoot cars at an aperture anywhere between 4 – 6.5. This has the advantage of keeping the entire car in focus while somewhat blurring the background.

But there are ways to add some drama in the lens, and today I’ll explain how to achieve a star burst in automotive photography without any editing. The short answer? Raise your aperture to something above say f/16. The long answer follows.

Tip 1- Know what you’re shooting

The sun? A street light? A headlight? Decide where you want the effect to be, and remember that raising the aperture makes everything SHARP. Super sharp. Everything will be in focus, from the front of the shot to those buildings in the distance. If you’re going for a star burst of the sun, this will most likely make the rest of your image under exposed and put in heavy shadow. A street light? Not so much.

Tip 2 – Multiple exposures

Which leads me to my next point – it’s best to take more than one exposure.

  • If shooting into the sun, the rest of the car will be in heavy shadow,  and you will loose detail.
  • Shooting at a high aperture can sometimes cause “chromatic aberration” – making the edges of an object noisy and appear to have an almost purple tint.
  • You might want a light to be sharp for a star burst, but the background to have a soft focus.

Combining these points, it’s best to shoot 2 or 3 exposures, one at f/20, and the others softer for the car and background, say f/5. Your lens will determine your course of action here as well – even the best lenses have a sweet spot for aperture, and when you go beyond that, you get an image that isn’t as sharp or crisp as it could be.

Tip 3 – Time of day matters

Remember that as you raise your aperture, you let less light into the camera lens. That means you’ll need to keep the shutter open longer…which means a tripod. Even if you feel like you only need one exposure, making sure the car is lit well is key. Let’s take this 3 Series image…

BMW 3 Series at night
The original image, taken at f/10.

Taken at f/10 to increase the sharpness of the lights on the bridge and parking lot lamp. I then shot the car at f/4…

BMW 3 Series light paint
The final image.

And combined the exposures so that I get the sharp lights with a softer bridge and car. The best of both worlds. Also remember that if you like a soft light, keeping your aperture open is the way to go.

BMW M3 F80 sunrise
Shot at f/4 for a soft focus.

Feel free to email me at mike@machineswithsouls.com with any questions.

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