Question #43: About Sunbursts

Bonjour! I decided to restart the Q&A blog posts. I put them on hold for a long time because of my Street Focus podcast. I answer listener questions in a monthly Q&A segment and thought that redundancy would not make much sense. I'll try to answer different questions here, but they may cross over on occasion as well. I was also busy writing my first street photography ebook :)

So this week, I want to talk about sunbursts!

Recently someone commented on one of my silhouette pics by asking if I used a sunburst filter. I must admit that, being somewhat of a gear minimalist, I had never even heard of a sunburst filter and wondered why anyone would use one when you can achieve sunbursts without a filter. So I investigated further... There are indeed such things are Star Effect Filters that you can put in front of your lens. They even come in 4 point or 6 point options.

But why? First, a sunburst is quite easy to achieve without the added expense of a filter by simply setting your camera to a small aperture (big number ;) ideally start at f/16). And, wouldn't the use of a filter reduce the quality of the lens? 

Does a star effect filter make the sunburst more 'perfect'? Again... Why? Is perfection so important that we need to alter everything to try to achieve it? Are we even wired to respond to perfection? Or rather, aren't we more likely to respond emotionally to imperfections. As a street photographer, I certainly don't look for perfection. I photograph everyday life, it's raw, it's not perfect and it's often those imperfections that make the photograph special.

Okay, but people buy those filters so they must be really awesome. I looked further and saw one great example where such a filter would be very useful: Night street photography. I can definitely see its use to create a star effect on street lights. 

I usually try to capture a sunburst when I shoot a silhouette. It's an added challenge and it looks cool. I really never even paid attention whether it has 4, 6 or more points... For one thing, the sunburst is never the subject of my photograph. I look at it as an added bonus that makes a good shot a little bit more interesting. 

As I was doing a Google search on the filters, I stumbled upon many tutorials on how to add a sunburst to an image that doesn't have one in the first place... Yikes! Don't even get me started... Call me a purist if you wish. I find it much more fun and challenging (and so much faster) to capture it in camera than spend my precious time making one up in PS. But hey, post processing is an art and I know many amazing photographers who enjoy that part of the craft and do it very well. I admire their PS skills, I'm in awe with what they can do with the tools. But it's just not for me, and that's probably one of the reasons why street photography and I are such good friends.

Conclusion: Maybe my first reaction towards using such filters was a bit strong, they are just another way to create 'in camera', no different than using a creative focus lens or even a toy camera. It's all good, especially if it makes the photographer go out with his/her camera more and make pictures! I may just have to try a star effect filter some day :)

Here are a few of my sunburst pics, they are 'au naturel', no filter or PS magic applied.

A Roman evening f/16  ©Valerie Jardin

A Roman evening f/16  ©Valerie Jardin

A New York morning f/16  ©Valerie Jardin  

A New York morning f/16 ©Valerie Jardin 

Yes, once in a while I also photograph the natural world in my own backyard :) f/18 ©Valerie Jardin 

Yes, once in a while I also photograph the natural world in my own backyard :) f/18 ©Valerie Jardin 

Question #39: About Going Through A Creative Rut

Q: "I'm attending evening classes in a photography school - we basically have weekly workshops where we're given assignments on imposed subjects on a regular basis. So far I've been quite inspired by those and enjoying it a lot. The "end of year" assignment that's coming next, in contrast, is a freely chosen topic and our photos will be exhibited in a prestigious place and potentially exposed to lots of people.

I'm excited about this great opportunity to have my work shown but still can't possibly figure out which direction to head towards - a kind of "photographer's block" I guess. I'm most passionate about street photography, however I fear that my usual kind of street images is too mundane and not catchy enough to be exhibited. I believe in the power of simplicity and I'm aiming at producing striking, graphical pictures but I just don't know where to start. Every street around where I live I feel like I have roamed a hundred times for assignments or personal work, and there's not much new to get my inner photography flame kindled again. The deadline for giving out the photos for printing is June.

Do you have any advice on how to overcome that block ? Any artist you'd recommend as an inspiration, be it photographer, painter, filmmaker ?

Thanks and keep up the good work ! It's always a pleasure reading your blog and hearing you on TWiP." Guillaume


A: "Hi Guillaume, thank you for your kind words and for submitting a question to the blog. Tough question as I'm not sure if you are planning to pursue photography as a hobby or a career.

Street photography is really something you do for you and you alone. I wrote an article about that recently, which you might want to read: To Be Or Not To Be A Street Photographer. Street photography is not something that will get praises like landscape or nature images will. I don't think that's a bad thing. Not everyone understands the beauty of street photography and the audience is more limited. When you are out shooting, you should aim at pleasing yourself, not others. If they like your work and buy it, that's the bonus! 

You don't have to travel to exotic locations to capture beautiful street photographs. If you feel like you are in a rut, give yourself assignments. But not the same assignments that are required for your classes.  Some days you may just want to shoot some street portraits, other days focus your attention on silhouettes or motion. Find a stage and wait for the right subject to walk through. Maybe you need to do something completely different for a change. Pick up a macro lens and try your eye at macro photography for a while. Give yourself limitations, pretend you are shooting film for a day and shoot 36 frames only. That will make you slow down and think.  Get in your car and get lost on purpose, take a path you've never taken before and explore it with your camera.  You never know what is going to move the artist in you. Follow your heart!

I get inspired by art in general. Go look at paintings at your local museum, immerse yourself in a photography book, not only images that are available online. Watch inspirational videos on (Richard Koci Hernandez comes to mind) or (Wonderful videos featuring Jay Maisel). 

We all go through creative blocks. Don't look at it as a bad thing. On the contrary, it may just be a sign that you need to push yourself, to grow in the process. I think that a loss of passion may be an opportunity to renew and refresh your vision and turn it in a positive experience. 

I wish you the best of luck in all your creative pursuits. Keep in touch!" Valerie

Give yourself your own assignments. Work on silhouettes for a day for example. Find the right stage, wait for the right subject to walk through and capture the shot you envisioned. That is a sure way to boost your energy and passion! 

Give yourself your own assignments. Work on silhouettes for a day for example. Find the right stage, wait for the right subject to walk through and capture the shot you envisioned. That is a sure way to boost your energy and passion! 

If you received this blog post via email, click on the title to view the actual published post. If you found it useful, please leave a comment below and share your experience with the community. If you have a question, feel free to send it to Valerie for an upcoming Q&A blog post. This blog cannot exist without your questions! 

Question#27: About Photographic Skills

Q: "Hi Valerie, I have always wanted to learn photography. Though I'm far from being even a novice in photography but have a very strong urge to learn it. My question is whether photography is for those born with a seed for it or can a person develop it as a skill from 0 (like me) ?

In addition to it, what must be my approach to learn photography because at present all I have is a point-and-shoot camera. Do I need to start with a workshop or any other way?  Thanks." U. Kartikey

A: "That's a great question and a topic that many probably wonder about but never ask! There's never been a better time to learn photography. Everything that you need to learn about the technical aspect of the craft is available online and mostly for free. This is a huge advantage what didn't exist 15 years ago even! For some, a classroom setting is better than learning online and there are photography classes offered everywhere through community colleges, etc.

You are also raising a very good point about 'natural talent' and the part it plays in the outcome. Learning the technical aspects of photography is the easy part that is accessible to all. Everyone can take a technically great picture but not everyone can make a compelling image. The rest of the ingredients you need is a combination of passion, determination and LOTS of practice. I do believe in natural talent but that comes in various forms. We are all talented at something. Some will see a perfect composition right away without ever having to think about composition rules. Others will have the ability to see a story in a frame and, with the technical skills they acquired with experience, will be able capture that moment flawlessly. Some new photographers have such great people skills, they can position themselves as portrait photographers because they have a natural talent at interacting with their subject, etc.

If you are just starting out, try a lot of different things until you find one genre (or several) that you are truly passionate about. If you focus on what you love, you're half way there! With passion, determination and experience you will grow and develop a style. 

About gear: Your point and shoot probably has some manual settings that you can experiment with. Start with what you own. Remember that the camera doesn't make the photograph and you can take killer shots with any point and shoot or camera phone. As your skills improve and you start to feel limited by your gear, then consider upgrading. Go to a camera store, rent or experiment with a friend's camera to determine what feels right for you. It may not be a DSLR system, there are hundreds of choices out there. There are no bad cameras. Take your time to figure out what you really want to spend your money on.

©Valérie Jardin

©Valérie Jardin

About education: As I mentioned above, most of what you need to learn on how to use your camera is available for free, you can also learn a lot about techniques and composition online. Join a local photo community or photo walk group. Start a photo project such as a 365 day challenge. Anything that will make you want to go out and shoot everyday! Photo workshops are also a great way to learn in the field with like-minded people. There are many options available that range from a few hours to a few weeks.

Most importantly, shoot for yourself. Do not worry about pleasing others with your pictures (or we'd all be photographing kittens and puppies to post on Facebook...) Follow your heart and your vision. As long as you are not shooting for clients, make yourself happy first! As you grow, get some honest and reliable critique of your work in order to improve on it.

Remember the number one rule: Have fun with your camera! I hope this helps and I wish you the best." Valérie

Please leave a comment below and share your experience with the community. If you have a question, feel free to send it to Valerie for an upcoming Q&A blog post. This blog cannot exist without your questions! 

Question #23: About Presets

Q: "I would like to hear your thoughts on software for photo-enhancing beyond Lightroom and Photoshop. Are they helpful and do they add something the basic editing software does not? Also, the same question related to presets for Lightroom or Photoshop? And if you do find them helpful, how in the world does one decide which ones to purchase as there seems to be so many available?" Melanie Barrett

A: "Hi Melanie and thank you for your question! There are some wonderful enhancing software programs and presets out there, I just don't use them... I find programs such as PS, Lightroom or Aperture so powerful that I don't see the point of adding anything else to my workflow. I like to tweak my images myself to reflect the emotion I had when I took the picture. No preset can really do that for me.

That said, I am not a portrait or fashion photographer. They may use some tools beyond the traditional photo editing software programs in order to help them achieve a final image faster. It would be interesting to find out more about that if someone wants to leave a comment below.  

The type of photography I do requires very little post processing and I like a very natural look to my images. Anything that looks over-processed turns me off, especially in street photography or in nature. But photography is an art form and art is subjective. Presets are obviously popular and I believe that anything that boosts the artist's creativity is a good thing!

The presets available in LR are a good starting point to experiment with. I think you have to make it your own by adjusting a few sliders to achieve a final look and feel that works for you.

I think that many photographers rely on plug-ins or presets to try to make a mediocre image look better. Reality is, no preset or amount of post processing is ever going to turn a bad picture into a good one. Yet, skillful editing (via a preset or not) can definitely turn a good image into an even better one!

If you want to try some of the many products available on the market I would recommend a free trial to see if that is something your work is really going to benefit from.

 I hope this helps. Thanks again for submitting a question for the blog Melanie!"

Please leave a comment below and share your experience with the community. If you have a question, feel free to send it to Valerie for an upcoming Q&A blog post. This blog cannot exist without your questions! 

Question #9: About HDR

Q: "What do you think of HDR? I haven't seen any pictures of yours that applies that process. Thank you in advance for your answer." Donald from Montreal, Canada

Note that the question was originally sent in French as follows: "Ma question est la suivante : que pensez-vous du HDR ? Je ne crois pas avoir déjà aperçu de vos photos qui résultaient de ce procédé. Je vous remercie à l'avance de votre réponse." Donald, Montréal, Canada.

A: "HDR... One of the most controversial photography topics in recent years! You may be surprised to hear that I jumped on the HDR (High Dynamic Range) bandwagon really early. Like most photographers, I was fascinated by the fact that I could take multiple exposures, process them in Photomatix and, within a few seconds, create this magic blend that would reveal details in the bright and dark areas of the frame.

We are given tools that can actually make an image look much closer to what the human eye can see than what the camera could ever capture. New technology allows us now to render a higher range of intensity levels with a single exposure. Some cameras also now have a built-in HDR setting. There's never been a more exciting time to be a photographer.

Do I like HDR? In my opinion, if an image looks processed then it's over done. That's my personal taste.  But we are talking about art and there is no right or wrong answer. Art is subjective and that's a beauty of it!

I think we need to stress the fact that no amount of post processing is going to make a picture better if it's not a good picture to start with. As the saying goes "You can't polish a turd..." It's all about light, content, composition and story.  I think that, in photography, post processing should be used as a fine-tuning tool. The true creativity of the artist is applied in the field."

Please leave a comment below, I would love to hear your opinion. If you receive this via email, click on the title to be redirected to the actual blog post and have access to the comment section.

If you have a question about photography in general, about the business side of things or anything else that is photography related, please use the contact form to send it.   Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you!