Design, Photography, & Fashion

What Is Lens Flare Photography? Tips and Tricks for Achieving Perfect Lens Flare

Written by MasterClass

Mar 15, 2019 • 5 min read

Understanding light is the most valuable skill you can learn as a photographer. Lens flare can be accidental or deliberate. Some photographers like the look of lens flare because it can add a touch of realism and heighten artistic drama; others don’t care for it. It depends on your photography style and what look you hope to achieve with your images. In any case, it’s helpful to know what causes lens flare so you can learn how to prevent it—or, in some instances, learn how to deliberately achieve it.

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What Is Lens Flare in Photography?

Lens flare is a photographic phenomenon in which bright light enters the camera lens, hits the camera’s sensor, and scatters. Lens flare is a response to a bright, non-image forming light like the sun, a full moon, or artificial lighting which appears on the photo in the form of a haze or a starburst. Lens flare can also happen when a bright light source becomes partially obscured by an object or person.

What Does Lens Flare Look Like in a Photo?

Lens flare can affect a photograph in one of two ways.

  • It can appear like a haze over a photograph, washing out and changing the contrast of the photo, giving it a washed out look.
  • Or, it can appear in a starburst(s). The placement and shape of the lens flare starburst are determined by the shape and size of your camera’s aperture.

What’s the Difference Between Lens Flare and Bokeh?

Have you ever played with the focus on your camera and noticed background lights blur into a haze? That’s bokeh, a photography effect in which out-of-focus areas of a photo are blurred because of how the camera renders them. Bokeh is different from lens flare, as bokeh is rendered by the camera, while lens flare is caused by the placement of a bright light source.

Learn more about bokeh photography with our comprehensive guide on the technique.

bokeh photography technique through the trees

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What Do You Need to Achieve Lens Flare?

If you’re looking to elevate your photography, give lens flare a try. Here’s what you need to achieve it:

  • Light source: The single most important requirement for achieving lens flare is a bright light source. The sun is the easiest and most accessible (and most affordable) option. You can still produce lens flare on a cloudy day, but the brighter, the better. Other options include bright moonlight and artificial lighting.
  • Camera lens: Certain camera equipment lends itself to achieving lens flare more than others. For example, zoom lenses are more likely to produce lens flare, because they have a wider internal surfaces for light to reflect off of.
  • Older equipment: Older camera equipment is less likely to have the anti-reflective coatings and protective flare measures that today’s newer models do. In addition to experimenting with lighting and equipment, why not try experimenting with different cameras, too?

9 Ways to Get Lens Flare in Photography

When you’re ready to experiment with capturing lens flare, here’s what to do:

  1. Shoot directly facing the bright light source. Whether you’re pointing into the sun or a studio light, make sure the light gets into your camera lens.
  2. Place your subject in front of the bright light source. If they can block the sun, it’ll diminish the harshness of the light, but you’ll still see a hint of flare in the corners.
  3. Shoot starbursts. Catch either sunrise or sunset and use different focal lengths to get familiar with how that affects the size of the rays. You’ll likely find that wider lenses give you more of a distinct burst.
  4. Play with your camera’s aperture settings. Set your camera to the smallest aperture and then open up. Take a few different photos so that later, you can compare the different ways the lens renders the sun flare.
  5. Use camera filters and lenses. You’ll be amazed at how different a scene will look just by using different lens types. UV filters, polarizing filters, and graduated neutral density filters can help you create controlled sun flares.
  6. Try experimenting with the sun when it’s partially obscured. See how the sun affects the flare when it’s partly behind a mountain or tree.
  7. Experiment at night. Shoot discrete points of light—for example, a streetlight. Later, when you’re processing the images, make notes about which lenses and f-stops give you the nicest looking flares.
  8. Give yourself options. Always look for ways you can get alternates or varied images by shooting with different lenses and compositions. You’ll give yourself more options when it’s time for editing.
  9. Practice, practice, practice. Like any art form, capturing lens flare with artistic intent requires a lot of trial and error. The more you work at it, the more you’ll learn how to maximize and minimize it.

How to Create Artificial Lens Flare While Editing Photos in 5 Easy Steps

In addition to achieving lens flare naturally, you can also create an artificial lens flare while editing and processing. In terms of editing programs, Adobe Lightroom is a very deep and powerful tool, and combined with Adobe Photoshop, you can do pretty much anything you can think of while processing—including adding lens flare.

Here’s how:

  1. Open the Develop Module in Lightroom and select the Brush tool.
  2. Set the exposure to about +3, the flow to about 80%, and the feathering to about 15.
  3. Click the brush tool where you’d like to create a lens flare on the photo. Keep clicking to make the lens flare stronger.
  4. Shrink the size of the brush and add more strokes across the image. Experiment with size and strength until you achieve your desired effect.
  5. If any part of the image becomes too blown out, lower the highlights and boost the shadows.

3 Ways to Avoid or Minimize Lens Flare

While many camera lenses have an anti-reflective coating designed to minimize flare, it can’t be eliminated entirely; even the most expensive digital camera and digital SLR camera can produce lens flare. Still, there are some ways to minimize it:

  • Shoot with the bright light source behind you. If the sun or another light source is directly hitting your lens, turn away from it and see if that helps.
  • Use a lens hood. Since putting the bright light source behind you isn’t always possible, a lens hood can also help block lens flare. If you don’t have one, you can try cupping your hand around the side of the lens closest to the bright light source.
  • Strategically time your photoshoots. Plan to shoot around the sunrise or sunset to avoid bright light.

The best way to learn about lens flare is with practice. The more you learn about light, play with composition, and explore depth of field, the more you’ll be able to maximize and minimize lens flare in your photography at will.