Lens Flare with Natural & Artificial Light

I took this shot on my phone while my subject stepped away for
a wardrobe change. Behind the Nikon camera is a large bank of
floor-to-ceiling windows, the flare is caused by the highlights    
being overexposed to see the shadow detail.                               
With its iconic bursts of light or cloudy overexposed haze, lens flare is everywhere these days. Between your favorite magazines, new movies, and the TV commercials you fast forward through on your DVR, you may not get through even one day without subconsciously being influenced by well-placed lens flare. You may or may not notice it, but something about it affects your perception of the image or scene it dances through. With the attention to detail that goes into a commercial photoshoot or video production, lens flares are rarely accidental. Why?

First, let me say this, I absolutely love lens flare, I play with it more often than not when I’m shooting. That said, it’s a tool of the trade. Whether it’s a portrait, product shot, or landscape, I believe flare lends a certain amount of drama to an image. Something about lens flare makes the scene look honest, raw, unprocessed.

Lens flare is easily controllable; it’s a matter of allowing or blocking a light source from entering your lens at certain angles. Most new lenses have specially coated glass elements to cut down on the light’s refraction, plus, the lens shade designed for the lens you’re using will block light from entering your lens at shallower angles. Even without a lens shade, shading your lens from direct light with a piece of paper, or your hand, just out of the frame will do the job as well. 
This FedEx Express Cessna 208 was photographed near sunset
at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport. The sun is flaring in the frame
here because, believe it or not, only a small sliver of actual sun-
light is spilling over the top of the aircraft. The plane is blocking
most of the sunlight.                                                                     

Now, if we know what reduces lens flare, we also know how to create it. Lens flare happens when the light entering the lens from a shallow angle refracts and bounces around inside of the lens before striking the film or digital sensor. The most common manifestations of flare are bursts of light with circles or rings of light spread throughout the frame and the classic over-exposed haze that tends to blow out details in any highlights and revealing detail only in the shadows. Lens flare manifestations vary from lens to lens, can be affected by the shape of your aperture, and the type of lens you are using.

A simple way to experiment with lens flare in your own photography or videography is to begin with a backlit subject. Watching how the lighting changes as you move the camera in relation to your subject and light source, pay close attention to the light source as it nears the edges of your fame and then is just out of your frame. It takes just a small piece of light grabbing the edge of your frame to create strong flare. Comparing the same scene with and without flared light can help you see the contextual difference the style can create.
The first two images, above, were taken just for fun while shooting unrelated projects and assignments. I put those images in this post to help illustrate two examples of common lens flare. The next set of images illustrates intentionally created flare on two different editorial assignments that I felt were contextually appropriate to the shoot and the story.

The side-by-side comparison shots above are from a recent editorial shoot for JEMS Magazine. The backstory to that image set is about firefighters treating a heroin addict in a dirty urban alley. Knowing that flared light can add a sense of drama and realism to a photo, I chose that location and time of day to have the option to flare or not flare the setting sun against the Phoenix skyline. The first image, on the left, was carefully composed to show the story. I liked the composition, I liked the story, but it looked too choreographed. The second image, on the right, was taken just a few seconds later and all I did was position myself in such a way that the setting sun just caught the edge of the frame while coming through a tree. This image seemed raw and emotional. It was real. It had energy. All I did was step to the left, but it was done knowing the shallow angle of light would create that lens flare.
The next example of using lens flare in a real assignment is from my editorial shoot with Ballet Arizona Chairman of the Board Ken VanWinkle. Up until now, I’ve only shown examples of natural light being used in lens flare, Ken’s portrait, however, was entirely lit by studio strobes set up on-location at the Ballet Arizona building in downtown Phoenix. If getting lens flare from sunlight is easy, flaring strobes is a walk in the park. You can move your light source anywhere you’d like to control every aspect of your lighting and the final look of your portraits.

Ballet Arizona Chairman of the Board Ken Van Winkle
I needed to shoot a simple headshot of Ken that had strong context, but I had to do it in a small practice gym that had no context. I needed to use lighting to create my context so I decided to place a blue-gelled rim light just out of my frame to the left. The blue rim was ok, it set the image apart from a regular headshot, but there was still no context. It needed something more, something that screamed ‘theatre’ and ‘performance.’ I thought moving the rim light closer to the edge of my frame would give just enough blue lens flare to give Ken’s portrait that pop, that little touch of context it was missing. It completely transformed the image. I knew we were close to what I wanted at that point. I ended up adding a second rim light, with a CTO gel out of frame to the right. I asked him to look up into my main light and DONE. The little details sold the shot, but the lens flare definitely bears the brunt of the context weight.
lens flare might be a passing trend, but it will always be a tool in your photography/videography toolbox if you know when and how to use it. Check out the collage below for a few more recent example of lens flare with natural and artificial light and play around with it in your own work.



  1. A great improvement on the rush-light was the candle a wick of cotton enclosed in a pillar of hard and solidified fat; but the final development of the rush-light is the lamp, burning a mineral oil (such as kerosene) and often giving a hundred-candle- power light. So far, the principle of all artificial light was the same-they were all oil lights. But the discovery of the illuminating quality of coal-gas in the beginning of the 19th century, led to a new form of artificial light, namely, gas.

    Let There Be light


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