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Photography Tutorial: Capturing a Sunstar in Patagonia

This is a step-by-step guide to how I created this image of a sunstar behind Mount Fitz Roy, taking you from how I found the composition on location to completing the final edit.

a sunstar behind Fitz Roy in Patagonia

Many locations in Patagonia are best at sunrise when the morning light catches the peaks from the front. At this spot just outside El Chalten, though, the sun drops directly behind the mountains, which means the opportunity to capture a sunstar just as the sun disappears.


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On Location

a river canyon in El Chalten in Patagonia

This place is on the road to El Chalten, where a river bends through a deep cut in the landscape. It's a popular spot for photography, and many tour groups come here to capture the river as a foreground for Mount Fitz Roy in the distance.


I'm not fond of images which use this river as a foreground, as the landscape around it is barren and dark, and the river is a little too narrow to be interesting. However, I hoped these clumps of grass could make an interesting foreground for an image with the peaks.


On my first visit (above), I realised too late that a sunstar might be the final touch for my image. Rushing around to capture the moment, I didn't have enough time to find a strong foreground and finished with this unsatisfying composition. I decided to return a couple of nights later with more time, hoping to make a more coherent foreground from the landscape.


Capturing a Sunstar

a close up of a sunstar

There are a few tricks to capturing a sunstar:

  1. Whenever your camera is pointed at the sun, it's essential to be careful with the camera and your eyes. I never leave my camera pointing at the sun for long to prevent the focused light from burning the sensor. If you have a DSLR camera, where the mirror reflects the light into your eye through the viewfinder, it's even more important to be aware of the sun's location.

  2. Sunstars work best if the sun is partly obscured. In woodland, you can achieve this using the canopy of leaves, but here I needed to wait until the sun was just about to disappear behind the mountains. That meant the sunstar would only last for a moment, so I had just a few seconds to get it right.

  3. Sunstars are created when you use a very small aperture (f/16-f/22), and wider apertures will not produce spikes of light.

  4. It's easy to over-expose an image pointed directly at the sun like this, so it's best to use manual settings on the camera and capture the image as dark as possible. That could mean being unable to capture details in the foreground, so it could be worth capturing frames quickly at different exposures to blend later.

  5. The amount of spikes on the sunstar depends on the number of aperture blades in the lens you use. This isn't a common thing for photographers to know, but very easy to find out online. For lenses with an even number of aperture blades, the sunstar will have the same number of spikes (6 blades = 6 spikes). For lenses with an odd number of aperture blades, the sunstar will have double the number of spikes (7 blades = 14 spikes).

Composition

a landscape photograph featuring a sunstar behind Fitz Roy

I wanted the sunstar to feature in my composition but not be the only subject in the frame. My idea was to use the clumps of grass as a foreground, leading to Fitz Roy with a sunstar completing the image. For any photograph with a novel feature like this, the composition must work without the sunstar, so that the sun only adds a finishing touch to an otherwise complete image.


I searched for a patch of ground that sloped away from me so that the foreground would catch the light just before the sun dropped behind the mountains. The sun would be very low when I captured the image, so I needed to find a piece of grass which would not be cast in shadow by other grasses or the hill.


Arriving on location long before sunset, I found my foreground and carefully arranged the image. I liked the shape of this piece of grass and how it was isolated from the surroundings, and I had arrived early enough to create a composition with the clump balanced with the mountains in the background.


After setting up the image, I just had to wait for the sun to reach the horizon. I captured the image at f/18 with a 1/40s exposure and using ISO200. Shooting into the sun like this makes automatic exposure almost impossible for the camera, so I manually chose these settings by testing different exposure times while waiting for the sun to drop.


Edit

a landscape photograph featuring a sunstar behind Fitz Roy

My raw image was seriously under-exposed, with the foreground almost black. However, I did capture the fine detail of the spikes around the sun. My first edit was to brighten the image and ensure I had detail and colour in the foreground.

a landscape photograph featuring a sunstar behind Fitz Roy

I had captured other frames using a brighter exposure for the option to blend images for detail throughout the scene. However, I had captured enough detail in a single frame, so I could keep the edit simple and only work on one photograph to create the finished image.


The scene was incredibly high contrast, so I needed to darken the sky again to bring a more even exposure to the photograph. This would recover the detail and colour around the sun and sky.

a landscape photograph featuring a sunstar behind Fitz Roy

The image now had plenty of detail, but I wanted to emphasise the golden light of sunset shining on the foreground. Although the grasses were now clear and sharp, my foreground felt flat and uninteresting due to the sun shining directly at the lens.


By adjusting the white balance in the foreground, I could recover the vivid yellow light of the sun. I also used brushes to darken and brighten different areas to make my foreground stand out.

a landscape photograph featuring a sunstar behind Fitz Roy

My last edit was to remove some stray patches of cloud in the sky and add a soft yellow glow around the sun to complete the effect. Ideally, I'd have been able to capture a clear sky on a different day, but I decided to accept this departure from the reality of the scene to create the finished image.


Final Thoughts

a landscape photograph featuring a sunstar behind Fitz Roy

This location on the road into El Chalten is one of the few spots in this area which can be reached by car, without needing a lot of hiking. It's ideal if you have time in the town where you don't want to hike to find a photograph, and there are a variety of compositions in the landscape here.


This location is best with a clear sunrise, when the light catches Fitz Roy and fills the scene with colour. However, there are few places around El Chaltén to spend sunset, and this is a fun place to capture a sunstar or light from behind the peaks.


It's best to use a wide-angle lens and get very close to the ground to make the most out of the tiny features which make up the foreground. This approach means there will always be something new to find, and it's an opportunity to capture a unique image as the landscape changes over time.


Mapping links:

Here is the location where I made this image, which is full of grasses to use as foregrounds in photographs of Fitz Roy. There is free parking in this area here.


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