What is lens flare?
- From a technical point of view, lens flare (or light flare) is a reflection of stray light on your camera lens, causing streaks of sunlight along with a decrease in the contrast and saturation in your photo.
- From an artistic point of view, lens flare is a special photography effect that adds drama and individuality to your photos. Light flare is technically an error, but it can be a beautiful one and can add an ethereal, dreamlike effect to your photos. Once you understand how it works, you’ll see why professional photographers use lens flare on a regular basis.
Artistic lens flare is a good technique to spice up your photography. Start creating dreamy pictures with this ultimate beginner’s guide.
Step 1: Shoot during the golden hour
Sunrise and sunset are the best times of day to achieve the softest, most desirable natural light. They’re the ideal time to get great lens flares. In photography, we call this period around sunrise and sunset the golden hour. At these early and late hours, the sun is at the optimal angle for achieving quality lens flare, and light streaks and orbs are clearly visible.
Another advantage of shooting during the golden hour is that you don’t have to be in an awkward yoga position to get the desired effect, as you would during other times of the day.
Step 2: Get rid of the camera lens hood
What does a lens hood do? Normally, the hood protects your images from flare. It’s actually a very important thing, but not when it comes to shooting golden lens flares. By removing the lens hood, you’ll most likely achieve fairy light flares in your images.
Step 3: Pick a proper lens
To make lens flare images with light orbs, streaks, and tear-shaped blobs, it’s best to use a wide or extremely wide-angle lens. Ensure that your glass is absolutely clean. A greasy surface will blur the image, if not spoil it completely. Meter with the sun in your image, then adjust the focal length if necessary – set it to f/11 or even f/16 to maximize the effect. The lens diaphragm and the number of blades your lens has will have an effect on the sun rays – the more blades the better. Go, for example, with a nine-bladed diaphragm.
To get the desired results, try capturing flares in the forest or framing individual trees. But shooting in a variety of situations will breed authentic images. In the photo below, the neon pink circles of stray light unveil the unique atmosphere of Hong Kong.
Where it won’t work so well is when the sun is relatively weak, behind clouds, or setting into a hazy horizon.
Step 4: Shoot into the sun
Lens flare can be instantly achieved by shooting into the sun. Just allow the sunlight to hit the lens at the right angle. What you need to do here is to redirect the light so that instead of directly reaching the sensor it reflects several times internally before hitting the sensor.
This is what makes the magic happen. If you’re shooting indoors, use a window as the source of sun rays.
Step 5: Partially block the light source
You can create optical flares by shooting right into the sun or any other light source. But if you want to add some creativity, you can partially block the natural light source. If you’re using the sun as your light source, that will be even more magical. But even for an indoor photoshoot, the partially blocked light coming through the window will still have the same effect.
Step 6: Play with your angles
Once you’ve chosen a subject and placed it in the desired position, start shooting a series of test shots to find out which angle will give the best optical flares. Keep in mind that when capturing lens flares with the sun as your light source, they’ll change dramatically and quickly as the sun constantly moves.
Step 7: Set the aperture to create lens flare
Your aperture can affect the appearance of the lens flare. If you close down the aperture, you’ll create lens flares that look like sun-stars. On the other hand, if you decide to shoot with a wide open aperture, the background details will smooth out and the dreamy, hazy effects that lens flare creates will be visible.
The easiest option is to shoot with your camera in aperture priority mode (AV on a Canon, A on a Nikon). This way, you’ll be able to easily adjust the aperture. And if your camera is set to automatically select the ISO, it will also automatically choose the shutter speed.
This allows you to quickly switch between apertures and see the difference it makes to your golden lens flares.
Step 8: Experiment with focus
When you shoot directly into a light source, your camera will have a tough time focusing and will blur background. To prevent this:
- use manual focus and take back control (this will work, but it’s not exactly the first choice);
- use a focus lock to lock the focus on your subject with the sun blocked, then recompose slightly;
- close your aperture; when you have lots of light, you can shoot with a narrow aperture, which allows for a deeper depth of field.
Step 9: Enhance your lens flare images
Professional post-processing isn’t rocket science anymore. With Luminar 3, a robust and powerful photo enhancer and editor, any photographer with any skill level can make amazing images. In the photo below, you can see how to boost the lens flare effect using just the Sun Rays filter and a signature preset by Evgeny Tchebotarev called Nomad L 1 Hint of Pink. The result is awesome and takes only a few minutes to achieve.
Before - Photo by Sabina Iljasova
After - Photo by Sabina Iljasova
There’s one more way to create mind-blowing images with artistic flares using Luminar 3. The texture overlay technique lets you blend two images. Apply one image with flares on another one you want to get creative with. Change the amount of the texture effect, and use blend modes for more options.
This tool allows you to play with different colors of flares. If you’re fond of red flares or maybe want to add a blue lens flare, just find a suitable picture on the internet and blend it with yours.
Photo by Juliana Chyzhova
Step 10: Create a lens flare in Photoshop
You can create a lens flare artificially using other photo editing software like Photoshop. Photoshop allows you to play with colors and create a red lens flare (or maybe a blue lens flare) with a gradient tool or a special filter. And it allows flexibility in adjusting your flare after it’s been applied. Let’s see how it works.
Step 11. Play with some filters for artistic effect
When catching optical flares, filters can be helpful.
- Graduated filter with neutral density – These filters are darker at the top and lighter at the bottom. They can save the image from looking washed out, which usually happens when shooting into the sun.
- UV filter – When shooting directly into the sun, a UV filter can protect your camera’s sensor from damage.
- Polarizing filter – This filter gives different effects as you pivot it and can help increase color saturation – which can be diminished by flares – and decrease reflections.
Play around with filters and find out how they affect the golden flares in your images.
You can get incredible photos as a result of shooting into the sun + selective focus + shallow depth of field + lens flare. Follow these easy steps and you’ll automatically get a high-quality shot.
Step 12. Use extra equipment to ensure image quality
Tripod and remote shutter controller
The smaller the aperture, the sharper and clearer the flare. But using a small aperture also means it will take more time to take the photo. And the longer it takes, the more possibility there is for the camera to shake and cause blur.
A tripod eliminates blur due to camera shaking. Using a tripod will help keep your photos sharp and your sun flares crisp. By using a remote timer trigger to control a shutter release, you’ll reduce camera shake even more.
A reflector is used to reflect light back onto your subject. Reflectors are usually made of white, silver, or gold fabric. You can hold a reflector in your hand, hang it on a freestanding base, or place it on the ground.
Using a reflector can be effective if your model stays in the shade. It will aid in brightening the model’s face, making the photo look more pleasing.
Now let’s talk about when optical flares should be used and when they shouldn’t.
Lens flares for portraits
When it comes to portraits, lens flare has been considered an annoying flaw that damages photographs and should be eliminated with the use of a lens hood. But just like the bokeh effect, optical flare has become popular among photographers for shooting individuals. It adds a dreamlike haze to portraits. It’s also easy to achieve; all you need is a source of bright light (the sun in our case) and a willing model.
The key to getting amazing lens flares is in the positioning, namely in the angle at which light bounces off the front element of your lens. Positioning yourself so that the sun is about 45º from the front element is a good starting point. Then, while peering through the viewfinder, slowly turn the camera away and towards the sunburst, avoiding looking directly at the sun, until you achieve the desired optical flare.
The size of the front element of your lens will play a role in the type of lens flare you achieve. Larger lenses tend to generate a soft haze, while smaller lenses provide clear rings and orbs of light. Experiment with your lenses, discover which provides the most attention-grabbing flare, and create images that leave everyone speechless.
When is flare bad?
There are still cases when lens flare is not desirable. It’s unlikely you want lens flare to cover a person's face, especially their eyes, forehead, and chin. You don’t want your subject to be washed out by flare and become unrecognizable.
You still have a lot of creative freedom in your decision to include lens flare. That’s why it’s so important to take multiple shots whenever you decide to include lens flare as part of your composition. Moreover, you can’t know for sure which camera angle or subject position will work for achieving a great lens flare shot. If you have multiple shots, you can choose the best, whether with or without flare.
- Shoot during the golden hour when the sun gives a dreamy, soft light.
- Remove the lens hood to ensure your camera will produce flares.
- Use a proper lens: wide or extreme wide-angle.
- Shoot into the sun, but don’t look directly at it.
- Partially block the light source to get new effects.
- Enhance the light flares in your photo with Luminar 3.