Kira Kira Effect: How and When to Use the Star Cross Screen Filter

The "Kira Kira effect" is about way more than just creating stars and sparkle. In the right hands, this specialty filter can turn ordinary photographs into stylized dreamscapes.

Finding ways to de-sterilize digital photography is a passion of mine.

While carving out a niche as a photographer begins with a strong handle on composition and color, you'll eventually need to create a 'feel' for your photos. For me, creating this sort of 'feel' in camera is more satisfying and reliable than coming up with a Lightroom editing preset – which is why I shoot professionally with gear that might not be considered conventional: Fuji mirrorless cameras, vintage manual focus lenses, and a cross screen star filter.

How To Get the Cross Screen Star Filter Effect in-Camera

In the past few months, apps Kira Kira have gone viral. You've probably seen it – glamorous, over-the-top sparkling effects on Instagram videos. 

The Kira Kira effect is actually digital emulation of an old photographic technique called the 'star filter'.

The true star filter effect is analog: it comes from a cross-hatch pattern in front of your camera lens that diffracts the light. The star filter effect was prolific in Old Hollywood films, then had a resurgence in 1970s glamour portraits, and hasn't been seen much since.

What Does the Cross Screen Star Filter do?

The utility of the cross screen star filter is twofold.

First, and most obviously, it converts any sort of lens flare in to a cross-pointed 'star'. 

The creative application of this effect is based on your ability to push the idea of what lens flare is and where you can find it. For starters, point your lens towards any bright light source – like the sun – and you'll get a dreamy photo like this:

 NYC Post Office in Midtown. Fuji X-Pro 2, Fuji 35mm f/1.4 with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

NYC Post Office in Midtown. Fuji X-Pro 2, Fuji 35mm f/1.4 with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

Or you can hunt for strong reflections, like the metal on cars in bright sunlight, to kick up indirect star-shaped lens flare:

 NYC Post Office in Midtown. Fuji X-Pro 2, Fuji 35mm f/1.4 with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

NYC Post Office in Midtown. Fuji X-Pro 2, Fuji 35mm f/1.4 with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

Secondly, the cross screen star filter effect makes your lens susceptible to 'highlight bloom'.

Not dissimilar to the effect of vintage lenses like the Helios 44-4, highlight bloom gives the brightest parts of your image a hazy and vintage soft focus effect by rendering the brightest parts of your image with a soft and ethereal glow.

Note the rim of the park bench in the below photo for a good example of highlight bloom in action. 

 A park bench in Washington Heights. Fuji X-Pro 2, Fuji 35mm f/1.4 with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

A park bench in Washington Heights. Fuji X-Pro 2, Fuji 35mm f/1.4 with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

When used tastefully, highlight bloom becomes a subtle and wonderful effect, giving your photographs an ineffable sense of dreaminess. Even in harsh noon sun, the bright glow, lowered contrast, and detail softness work in tandem to create a gorgeous image – note the glow of Sophia's hair, jacket, pant, and boot in the below photo.

 Sophia Black in the Hollywood Hills for Aaro Entertainment. Fuji X-Pro 2, Fuji 35mm f/1.4 with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

Sophia Black in the Hollywood Hills for Aaro Entertainment. Fuji X-Pro 2, Fuji 35mm f/1.4 with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

The creative applications of the star filter doesn't end there.

While direct lens flare creates hard-edged stars, indirect lens flares – when the light source is just out of frame – chops the stars in half and gives them a rainbow colored, hazy sheen.

In the below still pulled from a 4K video shot with the Fuji X-Pro 2 and the Helios 44-4, I framed the lightbulbs of the vanity just barely out of the composition to give a soft, vintage, and surreal effect that would've been impossible to create in post.

Better yet, as Allie interacted with the set and moved around, she blocked certain parts of the light from flaring into the lens, dynamically shifting the haze and creating a glittering effect.

 Allie X in the studio. Fuji X-Pro 2, Helios 44-4 58mm f/2 with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

Allie X in the studio. Fuji X-Pro 2, Helios 44-4 58mm f/2 with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

Star Filters and Sharpness

The cross screen star filter robs otherwise sharp lenses of much of their detail rendering – and not necessarily in the 'retro glow' look you might be going for.

When using even the most high quality star filter, details on the pixel level smudge and blur.

Noise from high ISO does a good job at masking the star filter softness, which works out quite well: nighttime is ideal for creating dreamy, vintage photos from the abundant artificial lighting.

 A hotel in Los Angeles. Fuji X100F with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

A hotel in Los Angeles. Fuji X100F with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

But that's not to say that you can't get sharp images with the cross screen star filter. Tack sharp focus and high contrast will still push clear pixel-level detail through to the sensor.

 NYC Post Office in Midtown. Fuji X-Pro 2, Fuji 35mm f/1.4 with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

NYC Post Office in Midtown. Fuji X-Pro 2, Fuji 35mm f/1.4 with Holga Star-8 Cross Filter

When To Use the Cross Screen Star Filter Effect

Of course, it's not as easy as slapping on a cross screen star filter and calling it a day. In many applications and compositions, the visual effect of the star reads as both dated and distracting.

Think of this effect like a sprinkle of salt or a squeeze of lime on top of your dish.

The more subtle the application, the more dreamy your final result. The key to using the cross screen star filter effect is playing down the visual weight of the star filter in your compositions.

Star Filter Review

I've only used one brand of star filter, but I swear by the Holga series. Just be sure to pick up the right thread size for your lens!

Digital strategist, writer, and image maker based in Manhattan working with clients in the tech and entertainment industry.