Best lenses for Sunstars

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Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 | f/11 | 10 straight blades

The shape and appearance of sunstars is very important for landscape and architecture photographers. For some of them, they are even a defining element in their photos. Sunstars can appear around strong point light sources under certain circumstances, in this article I will talk about how to get them and how certain lenses (being more specific: number and shape of aperture blades) can influence their rendering.

Sample Images

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Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 | f/5.6 | 10 straight blades
sunstar sun sunburst blendenstern diaphragm stroke 10 7 8 14 18
Zeiss Loxia 35mm 2.0 | f/11 | 10 straight blades
sunstar sun sunburst blendenstern diaphragm stroke 10 7 8 14 18
Zeiss ZM 35mm 1.4 Distagon | f/11 | 10 straight blades

The basics

There are a two principles you should know when it comes to sunstars:

  1. An even number of aperture blades will give you the same even number of rays. For example a lens with 6 aperture blades will draw a 6-pointed star. An odd number of aperture blades will result in twice as many rays. For example 7 aperture blades will result in a 14-pointed star.
  2. Straight blades will give you btter defined rays compared to rounded ones.

Technical Background

Each aperture blade flicks light in two directions (radially from the center of the diaphragm outside and inside). With an even number of aperture blades  two rays (of blades that are opposed to each other) overlap, this is the reason for an even number of aperture blades “x” yielding an even number of also “x” rays and an uneven number of “y” rays will yield an even number of 2 times “y” rays.

Furthermore:  Straight blades will give you better defined rays compared to rounded ones.

If this was to abstract for you let me show you a few examples:

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Voigtlander VM 50mm 1.5 Nokton | f/11 | 10 straight blades (crop)

The Voigtlander Nokton 50mm 1.5 has what I consider very good sunstars. The 10 straight aperture blades will give you sunstars with 10 well defined  rays which blend in nicely with the scene.

sunstar sun sunburst blendenstern diaphragm stroke 10 7 8 14 18
Leica Summicron 90mm 2.0 pre Asph | f/11 | 11 inwardly curved blades (crop)

The Leica Summicron 90mm 2.0 pre Asph with its 11 inwardly curved blades renders the point light sources quite different, as you get very small sunstars with 22 rays. In the crops things don’t look that bad, but check out this comparison of the two photos as a whole:


Before: Voigtlander 50mm 1.5 Nokton / After: Leica Summicron 90mm 2.0 pre Asph (panorama)

I think the sunstars the Voigtlander produces really add to the scene while the Leica’s look rather mushy by comparison.

Lenses with many aperture blades (and especially the ones with not so tight tolerances) might not be able to produce sunstars at all, as can be seen here with the Jupiter-9 85mm 2.0 (the Jupiter-3 50mm 1.5 shows quite similar behaviour):

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Jupiter-9 85mm 2.0 | f/11 | 15 rounded blades (crop)

Also keep in mind this is a highly subjective topic, so you may not like what I like and vice versa.

How to get sunstars in my photos?

First of all you need a strong point light source against a dark background. Street lamps at night for example will easily produce sunstars:

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Zeiss ZM 35mm 1.4 Distagon | f/11 | 10 straight blades

During day hours even the sun against the sky alone will produce sunstars:

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Nikon AF-S 24mm 1.4G | f/8.0 | 9 rounded blades

Placing the point light source near an edge of something darker will most of the time yield very nice sunstars as well:

sunstar sun sunburst blendenstern diaphragm stroke 10 7 8 14 18
Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 | f/11 | 10 straight blades

Furthermore you should stop down your lens. Most lenses only show sunstars stopped down a lot (Loxia 21mm 2.8 and Voigtlander 15mm 4.5E III being some of the exceptions here) and sunstars become bigger the more you stop your lens down. You often have to trade a nicer sunstar for a less sharp images because many lenses need to be stopped down to at least f/11 for nice sunstars.
But you shouldn’t overdo it. Sunstars can also be distracting if used without care, as can be seen in this example:

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Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 | f/8.0 | 10 straight blades

Examples of different aperture constructions

Overview

Some manufacturers settled on a certain number and shape of blades for their lenses, while it seems others just use whatever comes to mind. I will give you a short overview and try to show you some examples after that.

Diaphragm BladesCan be found inNumber of Rays
3Rollei QBM lenses6
5Some old SLR lenses
wider Jupiter lenses
10
6Many old SLR lenses, e.g.:
Minolta MD
Contax/Yashica
some new UWA lenses (Samyang 14mm 2.8)
6
7Many (D)SLR lenses (old an new)
cheaper FE lenses
cheaper Sigma lenses
14
8Many Canon EF lenses
some Leica lenses
8
9Pro Nikon lenses (especially tele lenses)
Sigma Art lenses
Pro Sony lenses
Zeiss Batis and Milvus lenses
18
10Zeiss Loxia and ZM lenses
Modern Voigtlander VM and E-mount lenses
Some Pentax/Tokina lenses
10
11Some Sony GM lenses
Some Leica lenses
22
15Older normal to long Jupiter lenses
Some old Leica lenses
none

5 blades

5 blades are rather uncommon, the Canon EF 50mm 1.8 II and the Jupiter-12 35mm 2.8 are two examples:

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Jupiter-12 35mm 2.8 | f/11 | 5 straight blades

Some reviews of lenses with 5 aperture blades:
Pentax K SMC 28mm 1:3.5

6 blades

Some modern UWA lenses (like the Samyang 14mm 2.8) but also many old lenses like most of the Contax/Yashica and the Minolta MD lenses feature only 6 straight blades which will give you sunstars like these:

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Samyang 14mm 2.8 | f/11 | 6 slightly curved blades
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Samyang 14mm 2.8 | f/11 | 6 slightly curved blades (crop)

I am not a fan of these as I think they can be very distracting and just look whacky by comparison.

Some reviews of lenses with 6 aperture blades:
Canon FD 20mm 2.8
Canon new FD 24mm 1:2.8
Minolta MC Rokkor 50mm 1:1.4

7 blades

Nikon and Sony are using 7 aperture blades on their “lesser” lenses, like most of the 1.8G series from Nikon and the likes of FE 50mm 1.8 or FE 50mm 2.8 macro from Sony:

Sony FE 1.8/50
Sony FE 50mm 1.8 | f/11 | 7 slightly rounded blades
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Nikon AF-S 20mm 1.8G | f/11 | 7 rounded blades

The Nikon AF-S 20mm 1.8G is considered to offer a very nice rendering of sunstars among Nikon users. Honestly I fail to comprehend this claim and think the main reason for it is that many Nikon users don’t know there a lenses that can do better.
Sidenote: Every time I look at this shot I wish I already owned the Loxia 21mm 2.8 at that time.

Some reviews of lenses with 7 aperture blades:
Laowa 12mm 2.8
Sony FE 16-35mm 4.0 ZA OSS
Nikon 75-150mm 3.5 Series E

8 blades

Canon decided to use 8 slighty rounded aperture blades in most of their lenses. This is a bit of a goldilocks approach, as sunstars are quite decent as is bokeh stopped down a little. This shot was taken with the Canon EF 70-200mm 4.0L USM:

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Canon EF 70-200mm 4.0L | 70mm f/11 | 8 slightly rounded blades

Some reviews of lenses with 8 aperture blades:
Canon new FD 50 mm 1:1.4
Zeiss Sonnar 2.8/90 T*
Canon EF 135mm 2.0L

9 blades

Nikon settled for 9 rounded blades with their pro lenses, (Sony takes a similar approach with their FE lenses, but threw in 11 rounded blades for most lenses of their GM line except for the 2.8/24-70 GM that uses 9), Zeiss Batis lenses also feature 9 rounded ones. This is good for bokeh stopped down as light circles stay pretty much round, but frankly not the best choice for sunstars in my opinion.

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Zeiss Batis 18mm 2.8 | f/11 | 9 rounded blades

The sunstars produced by the Zeiss Batis 18mm 2.8 therefore show 18-pointed sunstars. Sidenote: if you are deciding between the Batis 18mm 2.8 and the Loxia 21mm 2.8 give this a little more thought than the meaningless differences in sharpness we get asked about a lot.

Some reviews of lenses with 9 aperture blades:
Nikon Ai-s 180mm 2.8 ED
Zhong Yi Mitakon 50mm 0.95 Dark Knight

10 blades

10 straight blades are my preferred choice when it comes to the rendering of sunstars. Zeiss uses them in their ZM and Loxia lines, Voigtlander for their newer VM and E-mount range and Pentax for some of their limited lenses.

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Zeiss Loxia 35mm 2.0 | f/8.0 | 10 straight blades

Some reviews of lenses with 10 aperture blades:
Voigtländer 15mm 4.5 E Super Wide Heliar
Voigtländer Ultron 28mm 2.0
Zeiss Loxia 35mm 2.0

11 blades

Many Leica-M lenses feature 11 aperture blades as do most of Sony’s GM lenses. Not the best choice for nice sunstars.

sunstar sun sunburst blendenstern diaphragm stroke 10 7 8 14 18
Leica Summicron 90mm 2.0 pre Asph | f/11 | 11 inwardly curved blades

Some reviews of lenses with 11 aperture blades:
Leica 90mm 2.0 Summicron M

15 blades

Some of the old Jupiter lenses feature 15 rounded aperture blades and I think also some older Leica lenses do. As written above: it is quite difficult getting sunstars with these lenses and if you do they don’t look exactly great:

sunstar sun sunburst blendenstern diaphragm stroke 10 7 8 14 18
Jupiter-9 85mm 2.0 | f/11 | 15 rounded blades

Some reviews of lenses with 15 aperture blades:
Jupiter-3 50mm 1.5
Jupiter-9 85mm 2.0

Conclusion

As I have already said this is a highly subjective topic, so choose what suits your shooting the best!
You should also consider straight aperture blades may yield nicer sunstars, but bokeh highlights won’t appear round anymore and will look less natural and might even distract from the subject.
For my portrait lenses I therefore vastly prefer rounded blades, but you can’t have both in one.
Canon with it’s 8 slightly rounded blades on most lenses went for the middle way, decent sunstars, decent bokeh highlights but not outstanding in either category.

I hope we could shed some light on this topic, in case there are any questions left, just leave us a comment!

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My name is Bastian and for many years I have been mostly shooting Nikon DSLRs. As of today I have made my transition from Nikon to Sony and I am mainly using small but capable manual lenses. My passion is landscape photography but I also like to delve into other subjects from time to time.

28 thoughts on “Best lenses for Sunstars”

  1. Hi Bastian, I believe that this article will be something you want to put under your pillow. I am currently not a big fan of taking photographs for sun stars, but having always thought of how you can get good pictures with nice sun stars on the other hand, wondering why there are not so many good pointer articles like this. Concise but well-described and informative, and I enjoy reading your trio blogs regularly.

  2. Hi Bastian, again nice article. This whole site is filled with many great works. I highly apreciate your (and your colleagues) effort. Keep going! 🙂
    I have very little correction forh the overview section. Mentioned old DSLR lenses e.g. Minolta MD and Contax/Yashica are (were) in fact SLR, no DSLRs were presented yet at those times. 🙂

  3. Let me chime in from the “other side” 😉 I want my lenses to render point light sources as points, not as friggin’ huge stars. To me, this is purely an effect, like the aperture flares that are sometimes intentionally added because they remind people of Hollywood movies. If I wanted an effect, I’d prefer to use an effect filter or add it in post. I think it’s weird that one “point light source gets rendered decidedly un-pointy” effect – coma – is treated as a defect, but sunstars are considered a feature.

    Using optical imperfections (flare, spherical aberration wide open, …) intentionally to achieve a certain effect is of course a valid technique, and I’m happy to have lenses at my disposal that render nice sunstars when I want that effect. It’s just that most times I don’t want it.

    That said, your article (great read, as always) provides an interesting comparison and reminded me that I haven’t yet tested my own lenses for this aspect. I already sold my Macro Zoomatar (16 aperture blades), but older rangefinder lenses or the Zhongyi Creator might do.

  4. Hi Bastian,

    basically, I agree with you, even if I feel you overdo an ever so slightly little bit with the 10 blades/rays. 🙂

    My so far preferred sunstars come from several shots with a Nikkor AF-D 80-200 F/2.8 with 9 blades and 18 brilliantly sharp rays/small center.

    And, btw., maybe my eyes deceive me: if I count the rays in your 9-blade-section, first image (Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore I guess?): unlike the second image, in this one I only find 14 rays (and I like them). Really 9 blades? Maybe with 10 blades/rays even better, but surely not worthless with 14 😉

    Please continue delighting us with such articles!

    Uwe

  5. One of the most informative articles I have ever read. Thank you!
    Didn’t have a clue about sunstars before I read your blog. Now I am going to check the number blades my large collection of lenses.

  6. Hi Bastian,

    Many thanks for this great article- I actually kind of waited for this explanation. Aesthetically I fully agree with you approach.

    One question remains for me: please have a look at this photo https://flic.kr/p/QFoNBW which was taken using the 16-35/4 (7 blades). I just can’t figure out what happened to the sunstars since there are way more than 14 or they am to ‘double’?

    Keep on the good work!!

    1. Dear Martin, thank you for your feedback!
      Honestly we are not sure yet what is wrong with the sunstars of the 16-35mm 4.0.
      We already discussed that lens before we published this article and couldn’t really wrap our heads around this :/

  7. Great stuff as always. I find that I can only get good stars when I shoot at night with long exposures. I’ve tried to do it with handheld shutter speeds during the day (stopped down of course), but can never seem to get a good star that way. Can you comment on how much the shutter speed plays a role? And those daytime shots you have posted here, would I be correct in assuming those are handheld? (unless i suppose you’re using ND filters)

    1. In general I tend to say with longer exposures the rays are also longer,
      but maybe one just thinks that because you are usually using longer exposures when it is darker anyway.

      For the shot on top of this article: it was shot under bright daylight at 1/500s without a ND filter.

  8. Having recently rented the Loxia 21mm I was disappointed that the infinity mark on the distance ring was inaccurate. Therefore trying to focus to take long exposures at night (where the EVF is too grainy for focus peaking) was extremely difficult and very much hit and miss. I liked the build of the lens and the quality of the images, and the sun stars but this problem for me was a deal-breaker particularly given the price point of this manual focus lens.

    1. Due to tolerances (temperature/production) there are rarely new lenses with an infinity hard focus stop and what you have written is true for all Loxia lenses I have used so far.

      1. That’s a shame because an infinity hard focus stop is both exactly what is expected and what is needed in such situations where extreme low light means that focus peaking can’t be relied upon.

        1. In order to have infinity hard stop, a lens would really need to be adjustable for infinity focus. Even if each lens has infinity calibrated at the factory, temperature fluctuations will mean that sometimes you won’t precisely get infinity focus. So those lovely lenses of old with infinity hard stops will -sometimes – not quite be able to focus to true infinity. Of course it won’t *seem* like that – it’s not a gross difference – its just that resolution at “infinity” will sometimes not be quite as good as it would have been a true infinity. So to get the very best quality, sadly a lens needs to focus just past infinity, at least in cold conditions. I can imagine some folk liking user adjustable hard stops though. You carefully focus to infinity in the prevailing conditions, and set the hard stop to that, and it should be accurate until those conditions change.

          1. Nothing to add from my side 🙂
            I owned a Nikon AIs 50mm 1.2 for quite some time which didn’t really focus at infinity, way more annoying than a lens you have to focus a few mm before the hard stop.
            Needless to say I would heartily welcome user adjustable lenses, I think Irix lenses offer that option (or at least a locking for the focus ring).

        2. It’s an easy fix. Spend ten minutes to test your lens, memorize where your infinity lies and you are ready to shoot.

  9. Is it just me that think too much sunstars in night photos pretty much ruins the photo? They easily, with some lenses, manages to become the focal point of the entire photo.

    This due to the fact that sunstars doesn’t appear normally for humans the way many sunstars appear so it really look like the artifact it is.

  10. A wealth of knowledge. I am basically opening tab after tab in your reviews at the moment. Thank you.

  11. Nice article. Funny how you use places as examples which some of I know very well like Forth Road Bridge in Edinburgh and the new one being built next to it, Prague and Charles bridge. The famous San Marco square…. 🙂

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