How to use lens flare properly
It gets a bad rap, but flare can be used to tell a story or enhance the summery mood of landscapes and portraits. Jeremy Walker and Tom Calton show how
Lens flare; we’ve all seen it, and most of us don’t particularly like it. Let’s face it, we regularly try to eliminate flare from our pictures, and lens manufacturers go to great lengths to reduce the possibility of it ever occurring by using super coatings on their glass, and designing very effective lens hoods. But what is lens flare exactly, and how can we use it creatively in our landscape imagery?
Flare is non-image-forming light, and it’s usually considered detrimental to a picture. It’s caused by light hitting the front element of a lens at an oblique angle, and then reflecting and bouncing off the surfaces of the glass elements that make up the lens. Zoom lenses are especially prone to flare due to the amount of elements and number of groups used in their construction. Despite our negative perceptions, there are several ways to turn this ‘flaw’ to our advantage when shooting certain types of landscape.
Image flare can take several forms – the most obvious is bright, often tear-shaped blobs of light that are particularly noticeable when using an ultra-wideangle lens with the light coming from the extreme corner of the frame. Areas of desaturation and low contrast in an image are also an indication of flare and can be subtle and hard to fix during post-production. The third most noticeable form of flare is a multiple repetition of the shape of the diaphragm across the image.
So why introduce flare to an image when manufacturers have spent vast amounts of money trying to eliminate it? Well, if flare helps to convey a story or add a certain mood or feeling, it’s worth experimenting with. Many modern movies have flare added digitally to convey a sense of heat, wilderness or arid desolation, for example, so why not try it in your photography?
Different types of lens, and different focal lengths, react differently depending on the light falling on them. To use flare in a landscape you need to shoot into the sun, or at least have the sun positioned towards the edge of the frame. A good quality prime lens will handle flare far better than a zoom, and success is often a matter of getting to know your lenses and what they are capable of – or, more pertinently, what they aren’t capable of.
My favourite form of flare is when the sun forms a starburst or ‘ping’. Putting a starburst filter over your lens can look too mechanical and perfect. Of course, you can use software to add a ‘ping’ after the event, but again it can look too perfect and, in my view, false. A ‘ping’ caused by flare will have a slightly soft unevenness to it, which can look more natural.
So how do you achieve a ‘ping’? Well, the weather plays an important role: a clear crisp day with blue skies is the ideal – you don’t want high-level hazy cloud – clear, sharp and bright is the order of the day. The most important part of the technique is to try and partially hide the sun behind your subject, be it a building or a tree, to reduce its intensity – but avoid looking directly at the sun through your lens.
The technique works best with a wide or extreme wideangle lens, but make sure that your glass is completely clean. Grease and muck on the surface will lessen the effect, if not blur it completely. Meter with the sun in your image and then adjust as necessary – you’ll need to stop the lens down to f/11 or even f/16 to maximise the effect. The lens diaphragm and the number of blades your lens has will have an effect on the sunburst ‘ping’ – the more blades the better. I have achieved great results with a nine-bladed diaphragm, but maybe that’s just me.
For the best results, try shooting in woodland or framing individual trees – you can also use the technique on architecture or people, too. Where it does not work so well, if at all, is when the sun is relatively weak, behind clouds or setting into a hazy horizon. Experiment by shooting in a variety of situations.
Shooting at sunrise
Another technique is to photograph a landscape at sunrise, and shoot just as the sun hits the horizon. Again, weather conditions play an important role: you need a clear sky for the sun to rise into, although if there are clouds around they will help to pick up the early morning colour. Start shooting as the sun creeps over the horizon, but meter just before the sun shows itself. As the sun appears, you may well get a sunburst ‘ping’, but you will only get a few seconds to shoot before the sun is too intense. Again, mind your eyes.
If you’re lucky, depending on where the sun is placed in your image (toward the edge is better), you may get flare in the shape of the lens diaphragm. This can really give that feeling of intense heat or bleak remoteness (most good western films use this technique). The only problem with this type of lens flare is that it’s very difficult to predict how the lens, and any filters attached to it, will react, but it’s worth experimenting with.
To flare or not to flare
Lens flare is not to everyone’s taste, and understandably so. You have spent a great deal of money on the best kit you can afford and the manufacturers have done their best to design lenses with nano-crystal coatings to limit flare and ghosting.
If it doesn’t appeal to you then use the lens hood supplied by the manufacturer. It’s included for a reason. The number of photographers I see using lenses with the lens hood reversed over the lens barrel never ceases to amaze me. Maybe they are all going for the creative flare look?
If you’re using filters and the lens hood doesn’t fit over the filter system, shield the lens from the sun with your hand, or if you have a baseball cap, place it over the lens and fiters with the brim sticking out over the end of the lens by a few inches. It’s very simple – shield the lens from direct sunlight, job done.
Why it works
This panorama of Death Valley at sunrise works because the lens flare helps to tell the story of a bleak, hot and desolate location. Not only is there a slight sunburst ‘ping’ that adds strength to the sunrise itself, but it also takes the eye to the illuminated patch of desert with the bush in the foreground. The flare caused by the shape of the diaphragm running across the image helps to lend an air of heat. I shot the image just as the sun breached the horizon – another 30 seconds later and the sun would have been too bright. The diaphragm shaped flare was a good, if unpredictable, bonus.
Why it doesn’t work
Having scouted the location and worked out where the sun was going to rise, I was all set for Glastonbury Tor. I waited until the sun was just on the horizon, but on this occasion there was wispy hazy cloud blocking the full strength of the sun and it resulted in no sunburst ‘ping’.
Added to this disappointment, I had some muck, grease or possibly condensation on the front of my lens, which has resulted in a large yellow and orange soft spot at the centre of the image – not what I was after. To be honest, the clouds and vapour trails are pretty ugly and spoil the shot anyway, regardless of the flare.
Jeremy Walker is an award-winning professional photographer and Nikon Ambassador. He has years of experience in high quality landscape and location photography. Visit www.jeremywalker.co.uk.
Lens flare for portraits
Traditionally lens flare has a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to portraiture too. It’s often regarded as something damaging to your photographs and should be guarded against with the use of a lens hood. Although in some instances this way of thinking has its merits, flare can also be viewed in a more positive light (pardon the pun) and can be used to add a dream-like haze to portraits, giving them a real wow factor. It’s also simple to achieve; all you need is a source of bright light (the sun in our case) and a willing model.
The key to achieving great lens flare is in the positioning – or more specifically, the angle at which light glances over the front element of your lens. Positioning yourself so that the sun is approximately 45º from the front element of your lens is a good place to start, then whilst peering through the viewfinder, slowly pivot the camera away and towards the sunlight (but don’t look directly at the sun) until you achieve the desired effect.
The size of the front element of your lens will play a role in the type of lens flare you achieve. Lenses with larger front elements tend to generate a soft haze, whilst smaller lenses will produce concentrated rings and orbs of light. So, experiment with your lenses and discover which provides the most appealing flare.
Tom Calton is a professional portrait photographer and videographer. He travels the UK capturing the best side of people, both for commercial clients and as a wedding photographer. Visit www.tomcaltonweddings.co.uk.