Lens flare is something that can either ruin, or add some drama and artistic look to your image. Historically, it was considered a technical error. However, the world is changing and so is photography. We are breaking boundaries, challenging the rules, searching for new ways to do things in almost every field. So, the problem of lens flare became a solution for many photographers. And it extends way beyond photography. We can see it in countless movies, video games, graphic designs of all kinds and so on. If you ask me, lens flare is overused and we can see it way too often. While it can be a great way to convey certain stories, it shouldn’t be used just because it can be cool.
Anyhow, it is an individual choice how and when to use lens flare. But, to achieve advanced levels of any skill, one should know basics first. You must know your enemy to win your battles. If you are an aspiring photographer you should learn why is lens flare an undesirable effect, how and why it happens, and how to avoid it. Once, you figure it all out, you can choose to use it.
What is Lens Flare Exactly
Lens flare occurs when you take a photo into the sun or any other source of bright light. The source of light doesn’t have to be in your frame. As long as the source of light is in front of the camera or behind your subjects or whatever you are shooting, chances are you will have some lens flare. Almost all lenses consist of several elements. Lens flare happens when stray light reflects and scatters back and forth between these lens elements before it reaches the image sensor. Or film, if you have an old-fashioned camera. So, it is flawed refraction that changes your image.
Lens flare manifests in a photo in two ways. It appears as a haze across the image, and as circular spots. Actually, these flare spots usually take shape of the aperture blade, so if your aperture is hexagonal, the spots will be hexagonal as well. As a result, contrast and color saturation are reduced and you get a washed out image. It looks like your image is bleached to a certain degree.
So, it is obvious why it has been considered a technical error: because lens flare is just that. The light enters the camera in the way that your lens can’t refract it and direct it in a normal way. You get a hazy image with artificial spots that don’t exist in your view. And you can’t control it. Well, you can avoid it, this is what this article is about. But, even if you want it in your image, you can’t know precisely how it will turn out.
“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.” – Aaron Siskind
How to Avoid or Reduce This Flare Issue
There are numerous ways to prevent and avoid lens flare. However, if your composition requires shooting directly at the source of light, you probably won’t be able to avoid it completely. If that’s the case you can use some tricks to reduce it to an acceptable level.
1. Check Out Your Gear
Make sure that your lens is clean. A dirty lens will cause way more flare. Moreover, any wear and tear on your lens coating will allow the flare to occur. Also, some lenses are more prone to flare than the others. Prime lenses are better in preventing the lens flare. Generally speaking, high-end lenses usually provide better coating and their design is more flare-resistant.
2. Use Lens Hoods
Lens hood can eliminate most of the flare as long as the source of light is out of your angle of view. There are two types of lens hoods – petal and round hoods. While both types block the light, petal hoods are more efficient when it comes to flare. Improper lens hoods can cause vignetting, so make sure that your hood is compatible with the lens.
3. Golden Hour Rule
When shooting outside, avoid the brightest sun. Light is much softer and nicer around sunrise and sunset. It is called golden hour for good reason. Golden hour is the best period for most of the outdoor shooting. Actually, at this time lens flare can be gentle and discreet, and desirable.
4. Search for Angles
This should probably be the first trick to try. Change your position, play with angles. Sometimes, it is possible to avoid shooting directly to the sun, while still preserving your composition, more or less.
5. Block The Source of Light
If you forget (!) your lens hood, or if the hood is not enough, you can improvise. Use your hand or a piece of paper to block the sun. It is a little bit awkward, a sort of ‘yoga shooting technique’. But, sometimes it can save the day! As you know it, capturing a great image requires all kinds of creative skills.
6. Reduce the Flare Through Composition
In certain cases, you can use objects from your composition to obstruct the source of light. Try to reframe your image and use a tree, or a large rock or hills to partially or completely block the source of light. This can eliminate or reduce flare just enough to capture a great image. Remember the rule of thirds to maintain a good composition.
7. Use Filters
This is a little bit of controversial advice because generally, filters cause or enhance the flare. So, be very careful with this one, because the filter is another refracting layer. Stay away from UV and clear filters as they offer only mechanical protection. However, filters with multiple anti-reflection coating can reduce flare, especially graduated ND filter.
There are several ways to remove lens flare after shooting. Depending on the software you use there are several tools to get rid of the flare. If you use Photoshop you can choose stamp tool, brush tool or the spot healing brush tool to cover up the flare. You can also use the frequency separation technique. You can do it in Lightroom or GIMP as well.
Don’t Avoid It
Now when you know how to prevent lens flare, you can change your mind and use it. Lens flare can imply some drama and enhance the impact of the scene. But, be careful not to overuse it. It is not the effect that improves every image. If you choose the right situations this ‘error’ can become your creative tool. When and how to use it best, it’s another story for another occasion.
Lens flare is a technical error, but it can do miracles in some photos. As an aspiring photographer, you should know when and how it happens. Then you can make your own decision if it degrades a certain image or gives it something special. I believe in rules, but I like to break them.
“To insure peace of mind ignore the rules and regulations.” – George Ade
It is sort of like improvisation in music. To do it well musicians need to have knowledge about scales, keys, chord progressions, and so on. In a nutshell, they must know basics in music theory. And from there they play seemingly random notes that sound great. But only because they know how and where to go with a tune. Back to photography, you need to know the rules before you start breaking them. That way you will know why you chose to ignore the rule and what you will get out of it.
Now you know why lens flare is a mistake and how to avoid it. But, you can turn it into a beautiful mistake.