There was once a time when lens flare was considered a bad thing. No, really. It was an anomaly, something to be avoided. Today, lens flare is something we like. We use it for artistic and creative purposes. And only on a few occasions does it show up when it isn't wanted. So how can you use lens flare creatively and effectively in your photos? Read on to find out.
[ Top image Setting sun from Mt. Tamalpais by Flickr user WarzauWynn]
What is lens flare?
Lens flare is a phenomenon that can have a couple of causes—it can happen when light reflects off the surfaces inside your lens, or it can happen when light hits the imperfections in the glass and scatters.
In the olden days, we tried to avoid lens flare because it could have the effect of marring or obscuring the details in the photograph. Today, lens flare is still a problem in particular if it ends up over an important part of your photograph, such as your subject’s face. The last thing you want is for your subject’s face to be completely obscured by lens flare, so that's a good example of when it ought to be avoided. But the rest of the time, lens flare can have an almost crystalline beauty, like little glittering jewels descending from the sun. Lens flare can show up as orbs, or it can have hexagon shapes, or it can just show up as streaks or rays. Lens flare can also be a lot more subtle, sometimes it’s just a reduction in contrast—an effect which is actually quite popular in portrait photography right now because it can give an image an almost a vintage look.
Lens flare can come from any very bright light source, even a light bulb, but for the purposes of this article we're going to specifically talk about lens flare that comes from the sun.
How to capture lens flare
Lens flare doesn’t always happen when you want it to, but you can increase the likelihood of capturing it if you follow a few basic steps. First of all, if your lens has a lens hood, remove it. A lens hood is a piece of plastic or metal that is attached to the end of your lens, and acts to block those light rays that may cause lens flare. Your lens’s manufacturer added the lens hood as a way of protecting you from lens flare, mostly because of adherence to those traditional ideas about its undesirability. Of course there will be instances where you don’t want to capture lens flare, but if its your goal to include it, you’ll need to remove the lens hood.
In order for lens flare to show up in your photograph, you need to make sure that you include the sun in the frame. Now, there's a fine line between including the sun in your photograph and shooting directly into the sun, so ideally you want to find that line and make sure you don’t cross it. When you shoot directly into the sun, you may just get a very burned-out sky and overly bright area where the sun is, which will lessen the appeal of the image. Instead, try partially obscuring the sun behind an object such as tree or part of a building. Look through your viewfinder and change your camera angle in slight increments, until you see those rays start to come down from the sun. When they look the way you want them to, capture the image.
One of the problems with capturing lens flare is that it’s a situation your meter isn’t really designed to cope with. Because your meter assumes that most scenes fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, any time you include the very bright sun in the frame your meter is going to try to compensate by underexposing. Don’t trust what it’s telling you—instead, bracket your shots and check your screen and/or histogram to see how well you’re doing. Start by looking at your camera’s recommended exposure settings, and then take a series of shots that are overexposed by increments of about a half stop, which will give you a good range of photographs to choose from.
Now keep in mind that your histogram is going to show clipping in the highlights (or a chart that cuts off abruptly on the right)—that’s unavoidable whenever you include a bright light like the sun in your composition. What you’re really looking for is a good range of midtones as well as highlights and shadows. Also remember that your histogram isn’t going to be perfect—it may be skewed more towards the shadow side of the spectrum, which is fine—as long as you’re able to capture some compelling detail along with the lens flare.
Sometimes it can be challenging to capture the detail you want in a photograph that includes lens flare—that’s because these images tend to have very high dynamic range, which means that your camera will often choose to underexpose the image in favor of capturing those highlight details. To avoid this problem, you can shoot in HDR, which is a technique that combines a series of images into a single photograph that has a broad range of tones from highlight to shadow. To capture an HDR image, you take (at least) one photo that is exposed to find detail in the shadows, one (at least) that is exposed to find detail in the highlights, and another one that shows good detail in the midtones. Then you use post-processing software to combine the images, and the result is a single photo that is the best of all three worlds.
What is a starburst? If your answer is "a sickly sweet chewy candy," you need to keep reading. To a photographer, a starburst is not as mundane as packaged piece of candy, in fact it is a little bit magical. A starburst happens when you shoot a bright point of light using a very narrow aperture. Let's look at an example so you'll see what I mean.
If the photographer had shot this image using a wider aperture, he would not have achieved that starburst effect on each one of those points of light. Starbursts happen because of diffraction around the aperture blades, which only occurs when the opening is narrow.
The procedure for capturing starbursts is relatively simple. First, find a scene with some nice bright points of light in it. Set your camera up on a tripod—remember you're going to be using very narrow apertures for this, which means that slow shutter speeds will be necessary, and that's especially true since you're shooting at night. You will also need to have a remote release so that you can avoid touching your shutter button and introducing camera shake into the image. Stop down to a very narrow aperture of, say, f/22. Meter the scene and take a test shot. Just like with those lens flare images, your meter isn't going to perform at its best in dark conditions, so you can't really trust what it tells you. That's why your camera screen and histogram are going to come in handy—check out the resulting image and histogram (if your camera has that ability). If it seems to dark, use an even slower shutter speed. Try to keep your ISO low if you can, but remember that low ISOs mean even slower shutter speeds, and once you start to use very slow shutter speeds you could be introducing thermal noise into your photographs. Thermal noise is going to make those starbursts look less sharp and glittery as they will in a noise-free image, so you may find yourself adjusting the ISO to compensate. I know that seems a little antithetical, but remember that modern cameras can take very good, noise free images even at those mid-range ISOs, so it's best to do a little bit of experimenting until you find the settings that work best.
These are the sorts of photo shoots that are great for dull afternoons or evenings when you're itching to take pictures but aren't sure about your subject. While you're in the learning you phases don't be afraid to take lots of photos—remember that digital frames are free and if you don't like your results you can always hit that little trashcan icon. Take your time and try lots of different subjects, settings and lighting conditions. It's probably not going to take very long before you start to get really awesome results with these simple techniques.
- How to capture lens flare
- Remove your lens hood
- Include the sun
- Don't trust your meter
- Bracket your shots
- Check your histogram
- Combine multiple shots in post-processing
- How to capture starbursts
- Find a scene with bright points of light
- Use a narrow aperture
- Keep your ISO low
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