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Creatively Using Lens Flare

Lens flare occurs when a light source shines directly into the lens. It can happen with pinpoint sources or broad, diffuse sources, and in practice, it occurs when you’re pointing your camera toward a light source such as a strobe, lamp or the sun. Not sure if you’re getting lens flare? You can try to place your eye near the camera and look toward the offending light source, but this provides only an approximation. For an accurate gauge, you have to look through the lens. A shortcut, however, requires nothing more than putting your hand a few inches in front of the lens and lifting it up and down. If you see a distinct shadow appearing on the element, you’ve got lens flare.

The good news is that removing lens flare is almost equally simple: putting something between the lens and the light source to cast a shadow on the glass. Most lenses come with a lens hood, and those are always a good idea for this very reason. Simply utilizing the lens hood that came with your kit, or purchasing one designed to fit your lens, is the easiest solution for fighting most incidental lens flare. In practice, further protection can be had with a strategically placed hand or flag, which might be a proper studio flag on a stand, black cardboard held up or even just a warm body standing near the camera.

If you don’t flag your light and instead allow lens flare to occur you’re going to do some damage to your exposures. First and foremost, you’re going to notice an immediate lack of contrast. Lens flare turns blacks into grays and brings down highlights too. It can also rob an image of sharpness—particularly evident in edge definition—and cause colorcasts and desaturation as well. In general, all of these reasons are why photo instructors for generations have tried to help their students prevent lens flare.

But then something happened. Lens flare, long a signifier of the less-than-perfect, became a popular visual style. Perhaps as a reaction to the “authenticity” of Instagram and other social sharing applications, photographers began to purposely incorporate lens flare into their photographs.

This deliberate use of lens flare has become an increasingly popular visual style, signifying authenticity and natural beauty as expressed through curated imperfection. It’s employed often in wedding and family photography, and frankly, it can be quite beautiful when applied with a skillful touch.

The examples shown here illustrate the dramatic difference in contrast, color and sharpness between an image captured with lens flare and without. While shooting, using the hand as a flag resting just above the lens offers the perfect tool to control the amount of flare allowed in. You see, it isn’t simply an on/off choice. By moving your hand in minute increments you can quickly see the difference between lots of flare, no flare and everything in between.

You can also cheat a little bit and capture all your images without lens flare, then simply create that flare in post. To do this, I like to use Photoshop’s Adjustment Layers to add a photo filter—specifically a Warming Filter (85) set somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent. This creates a hint of warmth that looks great in portraits and implies the type of glow that’s caused by a natural sunlight flare. For more glow, just dial up the dosage to 30 percent, 40 percent or more.

Next, use Photoshop’s Lens Flare filter, found under the Render heading of the Filter menu. It works simply enough: just drag the icon to set the point of origin for the faux light source and watch how the halation pattern moves around the frame. I tend to prefer putting this light source near where the actual light source would be in the shot—typically near the top edge of the frame. You can modify the brightness of the flare by dragging the slider and change the nature and quality of the flare by changing the lens setting from 50-300mm zoom to 35mm prime, 105mm prime or Movie prime. When you’re happy with how it looks, click Okay to render the flare in the scene.

If you’d like to add one more level of control, consider duplicating an image to a new layer before performing the Lens Flare filter. Then, after it’s completed you can create a new layer mask on the layer with the flare, then paint away the effect fully or with a low opacity brush to subtly tone it down. This way you really can have the best of both worlds: the visual effect of lens flare without damaging essential areas of the image and without sacrificing all that important color, contrast and sharpness.

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