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Using (and Abusing) Lens Flare

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Using (and Abusing) Lens Flare

Raise your hand if this has happened to you: you’re out shooting some photos in the late afternoon. The light is beautiful (it’s that magic hour), your subjects are particularly photogenic and you just know you’re going to end up with some amazing pictures. Then, when you get home and review your shots, you realize that you failed to take one little factor into account: the sun.

Yes, the sun. It makes the grass green and the tomatoes red. It gives us that beautiful, natural light that can never truly be matched in a studio. And it creates lens flare.

Now if you’re like a lot of photographers, you try to avoid lens flare, and when you have a senior moment like the one described above, you probably just delete the photos, grieve for them a little and then move on. But lens flare isn’t always the disaster that your Photography 101 instructor might have told you it was. In fact some photographers regularly use lens flare as a creative tool. So instead of avoiding lens flare, how can you rein it in and make it a part of your creative process? Let’s see how!

[Top image at the alamo by Flickr user lanuiop]


Lens Flare... by Flickr user ObjektivKRAFT

What Causes Lens Flare?

Lens flare happens when stray light reflects on some of the internal elements of your lens. This stray light can create light streaks, “sunbursts” or reduction in contrast and saturation. For most of the history of photography, lens flare has been a much maligned anomaly. Photographers learned all sorts of little tricks to avoid it or minimize it. Lens hoods were invented to give photographers a weapon to use against it. For some reason, it wasn’t until the very recent past that someone noticed that under the right circumstances, lens flare is actually pretty cool.


Setting sun from Mt. Tamalpais by Flickr user WarzauWynn

How to add Lens Flare to your Images (on Purpose)!

Fortunately for those of us who want to use lens flare creatively, it’s pretty easy to do. That’s why so much attention has been devoted to how to avoid it, because it’s one of those “problems” that crops up all by itself under fairly common circumstances. To get lens flare to show up in your images on purpose, try these tricks:

Remove your lens hood. Your lens hood is there because the people who designed your lens decided that you don’t like lens flare and will attempt to avoid it under pretty much all circumstances. Don’t blame them, they’re tech guys, not creative geniuses. Happily, they were kind enough to also design your lens hood to be removable. So unscrew your lens hood and put it in your bag.


Rebecca '13 | Heartstrings by Flickr user Sean Molin Photography

Position your subject with his or her back to the sun. By positioning your subject in such a way, you’re inviting that stray light to do its reflecty thing on those internal lens elements. Depending on how you meter the scene, this may actually turn your subject into a silhouette, which might also be pretty cool.

Adjust your subject’s position and/or your camera angle. Depending on your creative goals, you may want an extreme effect on your image – washed out colors, low contrast and all. Or you may simply want a few of those polygonal subursts strategically positioned in the corner of the frame, or perhaps you’d like some streaks to create a sort of heavenly effect. You can control this to some degree by moving your subject so that some or all of the light is behind him/her. Or you can simply adjust your own position so the sun is angled behind a tree or building.

Take more than one shot, even if your subject isn’t moving. Like a fast-moving subject, lens flare can be unpredictable. Set up your subject and shoot multiple images as you make slight adjustments to your camera’s angle. This will change the overall position and strength of the lens flare, which will give you multiple final images to choose from.


Summer Haze by Flickr user Kris Kesiak Photography

Switch to spot metering. If you don’t want your subject to succumb to that often lovely but sometimes unwanted silhouetting effect, make sure you switch to spot metering mode and then take a reading off of your subject’s face before you make the shot. Unless your subject is dead-centered in the frame (ahh rule of thirds violation!), you’ll need to use exposure lock to lock in that meter reading before you recompose and make the exposure. And don’t forget to bracket – this is a tricky lighting situation and your meter might not make the same decision you would have made if you were a metering system. So shoot one shot where your camera tells you to, one shot that’s a stop overexposed and one shot that’s a stop underexposed.

Block the light so you can focus. Your autofocus system is probably going to have some trouble locking onto anything when there’s all that stray light bouncing around, so you may need to position your hand in such a way that it blocks all that lovely lens-flare long enough for you to actually focus on your subject. When all else fails, turn off the autofocus system altogether and manually focus on your subject instead.


Untitled by Flickr user morgan childers

When is lens flare bad?

OK, as cool as lens flare can be under those right conditions, you and I both know that there are still cases where it will detract from your image rather than add to it. You don’t, for example, want lens flare to cover your subject’s face, especially his or her eye(s), and you don’t want it leaving a strange and unattractive trail from his forehead to his chin. You don’t want your subject to be so washed out as to be unrecognizable (although you might be aiming for that artistic effect). Obviously there’s a lot of creative choice involved in your decision to include lens flare or exclude it, and ultimately it’s going to come down to what looks right to you in the final image. That’s why it’s so important to take multiple shots whenever you think you might want to include lens flare as a part of your composition. You’re probably not going to know exactly which camera angle or subject position works in any given situation until you actually see the final image on your LCD, or on your computer monitor. That’s where creativity and guesswork come together to make that serendipitous final image.

[Also see 26 Outstanding Shots of Lens Flare]

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About the Author ()

David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

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