If you get lens flare in your photo, then that's a ruined photo. Good photos never have anomalies in them - motion blur, high contrast, lens flare - these are all errors. Lens manufacturers actually go out of their way to build equipment that doesn't cause lens flare. So it follows that lens flare is bad, right?
So before I tell you why your predecessors (or your photography 101 professor) were completely, totally and utterly wrong about that, let me just say that learning to avoid these “problems” is definitely something you should do when you’re a raw beginner. Because it is true that motion blur, high-contrast situations and lens flare can wreck a photo if you don’t know what you’re doing. But once you get a good idea about why and how to avoid these things in day to day photography, I’m going to tell you this: you can safely include all three of those so-called errors (and more) in your photographs provided you do so creatively and with deliberation. For today, though, let’s just focus on how to creatively use lens flare.
When lens flare works
Backlighting and lens flare is kind of a thing right now, especially in wedding photography. Have you seen any of those summery-looking images of a bride and groom frolicking in the late afternoon, with golden light all around them? How do you feel when you look at those photos? Do they seem romantic and dreamy? Do those subjects seem carefree and maybe a little enviable? Why do you think that is?
The answer is this: it’s the light. Now, that’s the answer for most really great photos—you can’t have a great photo without great use of light. But it’s a very specific kind of light that gives those wedding photos that warm, romantic flavor. It’s a sort of light that you’ve probably been warned to avoid for most of your photographic career: back lighting.
Backlighting is often associated with shooting silhouettes, because when you rely on your meter to dictate your settings for a backlit scene, you’ll often end up with a nicely exposed background and an underexposed subject. So for this kind of backlighting, you need to let go of that dependence on your auto or semi-automatic settings. And don’t think you can just get by with exposure compensation, either, because you’re going to need to be fine tuning as you go and you’ll probably find exposure compensation to be an encumbrance.
These photos are usually shot in the late afternoon, during the golden hour. There are a couple of reasons why this time of day works so well, and the first is the same reason why any photo works best during the golden hour—because the light at that time of day has more atmosphere to travel through, so by the time it reaches your subject it’s diffused and soft, and it just makes for prettier photos overall. But the second reason why you need to shoot during this time of day for this particular style of photography is because you need the sun to be physically low in the sky in order to orient it behind your subject.
Most of the time, you’re going to want to go for placing the sun behind your subject or partially behind your subject. As a general rule, if you include the entire sun in the shot you risk flooding the image with too much light, which is going to give you the wrong look. You can also position the sun partially behind other objects such as trees or buildings. Take it easy on your eyes—your mom was right when she told you that looking directly at the sun is bad for you. To avoid damaging your eyes, do all of your composition with the sun blocked by your subject or that other object, then move slightly until the sun is where you want it and take a couple of quick shots.
Start by putting your camera in full manual mode. Remember that in this mode you need to depend on your exposure level indicator (the little chart that appears inside your viewfinder) to tell you how far over or underexposed your camera thinks the scene is going to be. If you don’t typically use the exposure level indicator, here’s a quick overview:
The exposure level indicator is usually a set of dots or hash marks, with a zero (or an arrow) in the middle, a + on one side and a - on the other. Depending on your camera’s manufacturer, there may be numbers on either side with dots or hash marks between them, but generally speaking there will be an easy way for you to tell when the exposure falls on the underexposed or overexposed side of the scale, based on how those dots or hash marks move as you change your camera’s settings. If the indicator moves towards the + side, your camera thinks the image will be overexposed. If it moves towards the - side, that indicates underexposure. Those dots and numbers tell you how much: at -1 your image will be a stop underexposed, and at +1 it will be a stop overexposed, with the marks in between generally indicating fractions of 1/3rd.
The important thing to take away from this explanation as far as these dreamy backlit shots are concerned is that these numbers indicate what your camera thinks will be the result if you shoot the photo at those settings. Remember that just because your camera believes the image will be over or underexposed doesn’t mean it will be. Camera metering systems are not perfect, and when you’re shooting backlit scenes they are even less so.
Whenever you point your camera in the direction of the sun, your matrix or evaluative metering system (the default for most cameras) is going to think you’re about to overexpose your photo. It has a good reason for thinking this—there’s a lot of light coming into the camera, so the meter just makes the logical assumption that all that light is going to result in an overexposed image. So if you let it tell you where to set your shutter speed and aperture, you’re going to end up with an underexposed shot—that silhouette we talked about above.
If you want to get that dreamy, summery look you need to do a couple of things. First, don’t shoot in that matrix or evaluative mode because it’s not going to give you the right settings. Instead, switch to spot metering and take a reading off of your subject’s face. This still may not give you exactly the right settings, but it will be a place to start. Now turn on your highlight indicator (that’s the setting that will make blown highlights “blink” on your LCD)—your goal is to get soft, dreamy colors on your subject’s face, so you generally want that face to be a little lighter than you might be going for in a standard portrait. Aim for a stop or two below the point where you’re getting the blinkies on your subject’s face. With these settings you can expect your background to blow out, so shooting in Raw can be immensely helpful. That blown out background is almost a given in this sort of image, but that doesn’t mean that you should make it impossible to retrieve lost detail that you might decide later on you’d like to have. When you shoot in Raw, your camera collects more data and more levels of brightness than it does in JPG, so you’ll be able to recover lost highlight details if you decide later on that that’s what you’d like to do.
On the other hand, you may prefer to just keep that background blown out—this is actually a plus especially when you’re shooting in a less-than-ideal location, say one where there are a lot of busy and distracting background elements.
Shutter speed is not terribly important for these images (except in the sense that you don’t want to go so slow that you’ll get motion blur), but you should try to shoot at a larger aperture and a low ISO. The low ISO will keep noise out of your shot, and the large aperture will create beautiful bokeh in the background—remember that bokeh becomes more pronounced with light, so having the light source behind your subject will just increase this effect. Besides being beautiful, bokeh has the added benefit of further obscuring background details that might not be adding anything positive to your final photo.
Keep in mind that focusing can be very difficult when your camera is pointed directly at the sun. You may need to shield your lens with a hand while you’re locking focus. This will eliminate the flare (which in the long run is what you’re going for) just long enough for you to lock onto your subject. Make sure you’re using single point AF or the equivalent — that’s the mode that let you move the focus point around in your viewfinder using the joystick on the back of your camera. This will give you a precise way to lock focus, which is essential for the conditions.
Look for rim lighting—that’s the outlining effect you’ve probably seen in these sorts of backlit portraits, where the subject is surrounded by a sort of thin golden glow or halo effect. You will need to change your camera angle and position to achieve this—it’s most prominent when the sun is directly behind your subject. You’re most likely to get rim lighting around your subject’s hair or around other thin objects such as blades of grass.
This type of photography is a trial, error and experimentation art form. You’re not going to get perfect results every time, maybe not even most of the time. You’ll find yourself guessing at things like exposure and focus, and that’s OK. Don’t expect perfection and you’ll be a whole lot happier with your results.
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