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What is Lens Flare? 6 Ways to Deal With it in Photography

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Written By Nate Torres

This is a guide covering lens flares.

A lens flare can either be your best friend or your worst enemy depending on if you want it in your image or not.

In this guide, we’ll be discussing both sides — how to get rid of it and why some people might want to use it.

With all that being said, let’s dive in!

What is Lens Flare in Photography?

Lens flare is a photo effect caused by strong, non-image-forming light such as the sun, a full moon, or artificial illumination that looks like a haze or a starburst. The light enters the camera lens, hits the sensor, and scatters creating the effect.

When light rays from a bright source of light (such as the sun or artificial light) strike the front element of a camera lens, they can reflect and bounce off different lens elements, diaphragms, and even the sensor, potentially degrading image quality and introducing unwanted objects into images.

Simply put, it usually appears as a haze over a photograph. The shot was washed out by altering the contrast and washing it out. It can also appear as a starburst.

The shape and size of your camera’s aperture dictate the location and shape of the lens flare starburst.

The effect, also known as “lens flare,” can have a variety of effects on images: it can drastically reduce image contrast by introducing haze in different colors, it can add circular or semi-circular halos or “ghosts,” and it can even add odd-shaped semi-transparent objects of varying color intensities.

lens flare example
lens flare example

However, flare is not always undesirable in photography; it can be used creatively to add artistic elements to images. In fact, lens flare is often used on purpose in movies and computer games to add realism and enhance the viewer’s visual experience.

Theoretically, when a point of the light source, such as the sun, is much brighter than the rest of the scene, it either happens to be in the image (within the lens angle of view) or simply hits the front element of a lens without being present in the image.

It can result in a lot of haze/lack of contrast, orbs and polygon artifacts spread throughout the image, semi-round forms with rainbow hues, or a mixture of all of the above, depending on the position of this intense light source.

Internal reflections within the lens, as well as reflections between the imaging sensor and the lens, cause this.

What Causes Lens Flare?

All cameras, except the simplest, have lenses that are made up of many “lens elements.”

Non-image light that does not pass (refract) directly along its intended path but instead reflects internally on lens elements multiple times (back and forth) before reaching the film or digital sensor causes lens flare.

Anti-reflective coatings are commonly used on lens elements to reduce flare, but no multi-element lens can completely eradicate it.

Light sources will still reflect a tiny portion of their light, and this reflected light will appear as a flare in areas where the intensity of the refracted light is comparable.

Light reflected off the inside borders of the lens aperture causes a flare, which appears as polygonal forms.

Although internal reflections are theoretically the origin of flare, it often requires very bright light sources to become noticeable (compared to refracted light).

The sun, artificial lighting, and even a full moon are examples of flare-inducing light sources. Even if there are no bright light sources in the photo, stray light can enter the lens if it hits the front element.

Outside-the-angle-of-view light does not normally contribute to the final image, but if it reflects, it may follow an unanticipated path and reach the sensor.

To further explore the subject of what causes lens flare, check out this video by Pixel Prophecy:

Lens Flares [1]. What causes them and why.

Is Lens Flare Good or Bad?

Lens flare is not for everyone, and that is understandable. You have spent a lot of money on the best gear you can buy, and manufacturers have worked hard to create lenses with nano-crystal coatings to reduce flare and ghosting.

If you do not like it, you can use the lens hood that came with the camera. There is a reason it is there.

It never fails to amaze me how many photographers use lenses with the lens hood flipped over the lens barrel. Perhaps they are all going for the artistic flair look?

If you are using filters and the lens hood will not fit over them, protect the lens with your hand or, if you have a baseball cap, position it over the lens and fitters with the brim sticking out a few inches over the end of the lens.

It is as simple as that: protect the lens from direct sunlight, and you are done.

Lens flares are viewed as undesirable and disturbing by some photographers, while others believe that when used properly and judiciously, they can be beneficial.

To achieve an artistic appearance, some photographers purposefully shoot with a lens flare. It is also vital to consider where the lens flare is with respect to your subject.

lens flare example sun over mountains
lens flare example

It is possible that you do not want a lens flare to appear on your subject’s face in a photograph. As a result, the angle at which you turn will determine where you see a lens flare in your image.

It all comes down to your personal photographic style and whether or not you like it.

How to Get Rid of Lens Flare in Photography?

1. Lens Hoods

Flare generated by stray light from outside the angle of vision can be nearly eliminated with the use of a suitable lens hood.

Make sure the hood has a completely non-reflective interior surface, such as felt, and that there are no rubbed-off areas.

While it may appear that employing a lens hood is a straightforward solution, most lens hoods do not extend far enough to filter all stray light.

Because lens hoods were designed for a wider angle of vision, this is especially problematic when using 35 mm lenses on a digital SLR camera with a “crop factor.”

Furthermore, zoom lens hoods can only be constructed to block all stray light when the lens is at its widest focal length. Unfortunately, when it comes to light-blocking abilities, the larger the lens hood is, the better.

It is still important to make sure the hood does not obscure any of the image lights.

lens hood example
lens hood

2. Influence of Lens Type

Lens flare is less common with fixed focal length (or prime) lenses than with zoom lenses.

Aside from having an insufficient lens hood at all focal lengths, more intricate zoom lenses often have to include extra lens elements.

As a result, zoom lenses have additional internal surfaces where light can reflect.

Wide-angle lenses are often intended to be more flare-resistant when exposed to intense light sources, owing to the fact that the sun will most likely be inside or near the angle of view.

Anti-reflective coatings are more common in modern high-end lenses. Some vintage Leica and Hasselblad lenses do not have any special coatings, and as a result, even in soft lighting, they can flare up quite a bit.

3. Use Your Hand or Another Object

Just hovering your hand over the lens can easily block off sunlight and can completely eliminate ghosting and flares.

It is simple but works every time!

4. Use High-Quality Lenses

High-quality, pro-grade, master lenses are expensive. But every item comes with a price and also brings extreme quality with it.

These expensive lenses often come with amazing coating technologies that help significantly reduce or even eliminate flare issues.

5. Use Prime Lenses Instead of Zooms

Prime lenses, on the whole, feature simpler optical formulas and fewer optical parts than zoom lenses.

The fewer elements you have to work with, the less flare you will see in your photos.

6. Change Perspective/Framing

Change the perspective/framing of the scene. Same with facing problems in our lives.

Just changing the position of the light source in every shot can make a big difference.

7. Minimizing Flare through Composition

Flare is thus ultimately at the photographer’s control, depending on where the lens is aimed and what is in the frame.

Although photographers should never sacrifice their artistic freedom for technical considerations, certain compositions can be extremely effective in reducing flare.

The best solutions are those that combine aesthetic aim with technological excellence.

One useful strategy is to position items in your shot to block any flare-inducing light sources partially or totally.

Even if the problem light source is not in the image, photographing from a position where it is occluded can help prevent flare.

Of course, the best method is to photograph with the problematic light source behind you, but this is usually either too restrictive for the composition or impossible.

Even a minor shift in the lens’s angle can alter the flare’s appearance and location.

Minimizing Flare through Composition
altering lens angle

8. Visualizing Flare with the Depth of Field Preview

Depending on the aperture setting of the photo, the look and position of the lens flare fluctuates.

The scene appears in the viewfinder of an SLR camera only when the aperture is wide open (to supply the brightest image), thus it may not be a realistic reflection of how the flare would appear after exposure.

The depth of field preview button can be used to mimic how flare would appear at different apertures but be aware that it can drastically darken the viewfinder image.

The depth of field preview button is normally found around the lens mount’s base and can be used to create streaks and polygonal flare forms.

This button is still insufficient for modeling how “washed out” the final image will be, given the flare effect is also dependent on the exposure length.

Unfortunately, while keeping the lens cover on and knowing that you can block the light with your hand or other items is a smart idea, shooting directly into the sun and including it in the shot will negate your efforts.

In certain cases, either entirely adjust the perspective/framing or use only high-quality lenses with multi-coated lens components.

Types of Lens Flares?

1. Veiling Flare

When a bright light source is outside the lens’s angle of view, i.e., not visible in the image, yet its light rays still reach the front element of the lens, veiling flare develops.

This causes a haze/lack of contrast, with dark portions of the frame becoming brighter with bleeding colors and seeming washed out.

Veiling flare can be reduced by using high-quality lenses with multi-coated lens elements.

Nikon’s unique Nano Crystal Coat technology, which is used on professional-grade lenses, for example, aids in reducing veiling flare.

Unfortunately, a variety of reasons can exacerbate veiling flare, including dust inside the lens, a dirty front element, a filthy/low-quality lens filter, a lack of anti-reflective multi-coating technologies, and so on.

In some situations, the impact might be quite unappealing in photographs.

veiling lens flare example
veiling flare

2. Ghosting Flare

Unlike veiling flare, which creates hazy images with little contrast, ghosting flare, or simply “ghosting,” represents all apparent artifacts in the image, whether they are bright source reflections or shapes that resemble the lens diaphragm.

These orbs of all colors and shapes appear in a straight line from the light source and can span the entire screen, containing dozens of different artifacts.

The lens diaphragm can also create internal reflections when a lens is stopped-down.

When the lens is stopped down to its smallest aperture, the impact is exacerbated, which is why aperture ghosting is often not evident at large apertures like f/1.4, but rather obvious at f/16.

So, if you see ghosts in your photos that seem like polygons, know that they are originating from the lens diaphragm.

ghosting flare example
ghost flare

Why Do Some People Use Lens Flares in Photos?

First of all, flare is not always a bad thing in photography; it may be employed artistically to add artistic features to photos.

In reality, lens flare is often used in movies and video games to increase realism and enhance the viewer’s visual experience.

A lens flare is often used to create a dramatic effect. A lens flare can also be used to give realism to a fake or changed image composition, claiming that the image is an unedited original shot of a “real-life” scene.

Using Lens Flare or not, well it does depend on the image. The form of the flare itself takes and can be used for a story.

It can be one of those things that people get too hung up about and think it always needs “correcting”. Sometimes images need those “imperfections” and effects of lens characteristics to give them life and atmosphere.

It could also add a sense of realism to a photograph, and it always looks wonderful when applied to motion picture making.

Last, it can emphasize the meaning of the shot. And those shots can be where the flare was appropriate rather than ruined by flare.

To further explore the subject of using lens flare creatively, check out this video by Lindsay Adler:

Stay Out There Challenge #3 - Use Lens Flare

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Final Remarks

Lens flare can both be a hindrance and a help to photographers. It is caused by the reflections created by the components of the lens and is particularly prevalent when a point light source is present.

There are many ways to avoid lens flare including lens hoods, choice of lenses, and composition.

If you are a bit more daring, you can make artistic use of this effect. So, why not give it a go and see how you can add that extra wow to your photos?

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes a lens flare?

Lens flare is caused by the scattering and reflection of light within the lens elements or filters. It occurs when direct or stray light enters the lens at certain angles, resulting in unwanted artifacts such as bright spots, streaks, or a hazy glow in the image.

What does lens flare look like in a photo?

In a photo, lens flare appears as bright, ghost-like shapes or streaks of light that can vary in size, shape, and color. It often creates a washed-out or hazy effect, reducing contrast and overall image quality.

Can lens flare be avoided?

Lens flare can be minimized and avoided to some extent by using lens hoods or shades, which help block stray light from entering the lens. Additionally, adjusting the camera angle or position, using a lens with good anti-reflective coatings, or shielding the lens from direct light sources can also help reduce the occurrence of lens flare.