Mastering Lens Flare For Beautiful Images With Impact

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Most photographers try to avoid flare. It occurs when a light source, like the sun, is positioned in front of your camera. If direct light from this source hits the front element of your lens, it bounces around inside the lens producing a hazy fog on the image and often large and small colored spots.

Camera lens flair

Camera lens flare pretty well ruins a sunset image.

This haze lowers the contrast and masks out detail. If the spots are present, they can make a real mess of your image. That’s all bad, right? Well, maybe.

I have come to realize that many aspects of photography that I thought of as mistakes are actually creative opportunities. Slow shutter speeds, soft focus, moving the camera during the exposure—they all have their uses, just like flare.

The late afternoon sun is patially obscured by fall aspen trees

The late afternoon sun is patially obscured by fall aspen trees to eliminate lens flare in a photograph.

Over the years I came to realize that I could control flare by placing the light source, usually the sun, half way behind an object. If I split the sun in half by placing a building, tree or sail in front of it, I created a dramatic star burst with very little flare. Easy!

The sun is partially hidden behind a sailboat spinnaker to create a star burst effect and eliminate lens flare in a photograph.

The sun is partially hidden behind a sailboat spinnaker to create a star burst effect and eliminate lens flare in a photograph.

It wasn’t until I started shooting with a drone that I was forced to truly embrace flare.

My DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone has a built-in camera with an effective focal length of 24mm. It’s a pretty good wide angle lens. There is no lens shade however. Flying with a lens shade would not only be exciting but downright suicidal. That lens shade would catch the air and introduce all kinds of problems flying. I love shooting backlit subjects, but with my drone, that always causes flare to some degree.

The sun is placed on the edge of the ruins of a Spanish Mission

The sun is placed on the edge of the ruins of a Spanish Mission to create a star burst effect and eliminate lens flare in a photograph.

I have learned to accept the flare in my drone images, even embrace it. I still hate the color dots and blotches and try to get rid of them in post production. The haze, on the other hand, can add a wonderful moody feel to an image.

sun is allowed to peak under a Farmers Market awning

The late afternoon sun is allowed to peak under a Farmers Market awning, creating a soft haze of light from lens flare .

Flare can add drama as the sun breaks through morning fog in a valley or define the warmth of late afternoon sunlight at a Farmers market. At times, flare even creates the effect of God rays streaming down over a beautiful mountain landscape scene, as in the Featured Image above.

The sun peaks over a mountain ridge at sunrise, backlighting the morning fog

The sun peaks over a mountain ridge at sunrise, backlighting the morning fog with little lens flare effect.

Shooting with the drone’s aperture wide open gives me rounded dots and blobs which I then circle with a soft-edged selection tool. I then color correct, de-saturate and lighten or darken the selection to match the background. Some shots are beyond help, of course, but many others correct easily. It just depends on the subject.

Now don’t get too carried away with this. Flare is like a rich dessert—a little is plenty. There are times, however, when a little extra drama or atmosphere can really improve an image. Try adding flare to some of your images and see if it works with your subjects. “Embrace The Flare” sounds a bit zen, but you may find it adds another layer of emotion to your photographs. Take control of flare and add another item to your photographic toolbox. You really can’t have too many tools. Right?