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Capturing Lens Flare

by Samantha Lee (follow)
Blog (395)      Articles (166)     
Image taken by Jerry Ferguson

Digital technology has made it easier for photographers to add effects to their images with a touch of a button. For anyone who has read my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m not the biggest fan of heavy editing. I am a strong advocate for capturing an image right in camera, and only using editing tools to complement the image.

Lens flares are one photography feature that can easily be manipulated through editing. They’re caused by the sun entering the lens, hitting the sensor directly and scattering the light across the frame in different shapes, and they’re found most often in backlit photos. Being that the sun is generally too bright, the best time to shoot them is in the early morning or late afternoon. They are created naturally depending on how you compose a photo and where the light source is, and can be unwanted or an intentional effect. Flare used to be considered a technical error but is fast becoming a feature used by lots of professional photographers.

However, flare can also be haphazardly added into images in post-production without knowing the principles behind a flare. This most often results in photographs with flares that may look realistic to the untrained eye but are actually scientifically impossible (such as flares originating from the opposite direction of the light source). It’s better to try and capture flares while shooting, but there are several different types of flare and different techniques need to be used for each one. I would recommend using a DSLR if you’re trying to capture flares as this gives your greater flexibility when it comes to adjusting the settings to achieve your desired effect.

Star Bursts

Image taken by Bruce Franklin

Star bursts are created by a small source of light or a light coming from one location that is brighter than everything else in your image. This is usually achieved by obscuring the source of light through different elements in your composition. For example, when shooting in an open field, trees (and their leaves, branches and trunks) are the best elements to use to obscure the sun. Once you’ve gotten the right composition, stand in a spot where the sun is directly behind your chosen tree. Reposition yourself until the sun is just beginning to peek out from behind the tree and click. A narrow aperture setting such as f/22 closes down the blades inside the lens which results in a very small opening for the light to pass through. This means that the light that enters in actually takes on the shape of a star. Shooting with your camera in aperture-priority mode will allow you to focus on the aperture while letting the camera do the rest of the work for the other settings.

Haze and Streaks

Sun haze gives a light, airy, summery, almost dreamlike vibe to an image. Haze happens when the light source is much brighter than the rest of the elements in the image which results in a general reduction in contrast. In simple terms, the image appears glowy and diffused, with very few shadows, and light “streaking” across the frame. Unlike shooting star bursts, you’ll need to open up your aperture to f/8 or even wider if you want to capture this type of lens flare, though. Just be careful the entire image doesn’t appear overexposed though, like the photo below. This type of flare is called veiling glare, because it’s so strong that it obscures the subject.

At night, this effect can also be achieved with street lamps or fairy lights, like in the image below. One difference between shooting haze and star bursts is because these artificial light sources are not as strong as the sun, there is no need to partially obscure them.

Image taken by Sam Lee


In technical terms, ghosting occurs when the reflected light is close to the focal plane which is the area of the photograph that is sharp in focus (which can be shallow or wide, depending on the aperture you are using). This makes it different from ordinary lens flare because these reflections are more distinct and defined in the final image. Ghosting often manifests as circular artifacts/orbs in different sizes, shapes and colors, like in the photo below. These were often mistaken for ghosts before camera technology was fully understood, hence the name.

Since the source of light will be reflecting off multiple elements within your camera lens, thing such as dust particles and smudges on the lens glass and sensor will be more obvious with this type of flare, compared to a normally lit photograph.

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