Shooting toward a light source reduces the overall contrast and color saturation of your image. It underexposes your subject if you set the exposure for the background and overexposes the background if you set the exposure for the subject and the effect introduces odd color and shape artifacts in your image known as lens flare. As photographers, we’re usually told that shooting into a light source is bad and that lens flare in your photos is an undesirable effect. In fact, lens flare is considered so undesirable that lensmakers use antireflective coatings, such as Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coating to reduce the effect.
Oddly enough, in cinematography these same principles are often applied to achieve a certain effect. In just about any feature film, you’ll often see a wide panoramic shot panning across the scene with lens flare sweeping through the frame—the quintessential epic Hollywood setup shot. So, if it’s good enough for Hollywood blockbusters, why not try adding some cinematic flare to your still photographs?
So, what exactly is lens flare? The short answer is that lens flare is the result of errant light being reflected internally among the glass elements that make up the optics of the lens. Lenses that are more optically complex tend to have a higher incidence of lens flare than more simple lenses.
Lens flare can be used effectively in all kinds of photography from portraiture to still life, landscapes and more. The great thing about this effect is that it can be done utilizing just about any camera system, from your high-end DSLR all the way down to the most inexpensive compact camera, and since it’s an optical effect, it can be viewed in real time whether looking through a viewfinder, or on an LCD monitor.
Creating lens flare in your image is a relatively easy affair. Simply compose your image facing towards a light source. A small, extremely bright, directional light source such as the sun, a streetlight, spotlight, a simple indoor lamp or even a flash are ideal for creating lens flare.
Here are a few tips for making lens flare easier to introduce into your images:
1 | Compose with the light source at the edge of the frame. Placing the light at the edge of your composition or just outside visible edge of the frame increases the likelihood of flaring and also increases the amount of flare.
2 | Lose the lens hood. Lens hoods are designed to reduce the amount of stray light that enters the lens, thus reducing the amount of flare in your shot. Removing the lens hood increases the probability and amount of lens flare in your photos.
3 | Use a wide-angle lens. Wide- and ultra-wide lenses tend to flare more easily due to the fact that stray light is more difficult to block (the light is coming at a steeper or more obtuse angle than with a longer lens). The wide curving optics also reflect light to a greater extent, creating more flare. Note, however, that more expensive wide-angle lenses often have more and better optical coatings to help reduce lens flare.
4 | Shoot wide open. Using a wider aperture allows more light into the lens, which in turn, increases the amount of stray light that’s available to be reflected amongst the lens elements to create flare. Conversely, using a smaller aperture focuses the light coming in from the lens toward the sensor in a tighter pattern, controlling it better and reducing errant light rays.
5 | Use older and/or inexpensive lenses. Since film doesn’t reflect any light back into the lens barrel, older film lenses usually don’t have coated rear elements. The shiny glass filters in front of digital sensors reflects light and can cause flare with older lenses. Inexpensive lenses also tend to have coatings that are less effective at reducing flare than more expensive lenses.
6 | Use a UV filter. UV filters (especially inexpensive ones) are notorious for exacerbating lens flare. You can use this to your advantage.
When adding lens flare as an effect to your images, as I mentioned earlier, photographs tend to have reduced contrast and color saturation. So, these types of images often need to be post processed to achieve the best results. At the very least, increasing the contrast using curves or levels in your software is a good place to start. You can also boost the vibrance and/or saturation to bring up the colors. When using Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom, I find that the Clarity slider works especially well to help bring out some definition in the photograph.
So, get out there and break one of the golden rules by shooting directly into the sun!