For those who know me or follow my work, you know this article is one that has been a long time coming, but if you don’t know, I’ll just tell you. A good artistic sun flare is my jam. I spent years trying to find the best lenses, the best techniques, and most importantly, a look that not only I love but also my clients. Sure, it’s not for everyone, I get it; there’s a reason most lenses these days are covered in fancy coatings to help limit or completely prevent the sun from creating any sort of lens flare.
But while most photographers love these lenses for that very reason, and often add a lens hood to further prevent lens flare, I have always welcomed it. I never use lens hoods, and have always loved shooting in the bright sun. While there are times when I do try to avoid it, creative lens flare is something that I have become known for. I mean, I even have my own SLR Lounge “Jay Approved Flare” stamp, ha.
The purpose of this article is to try and show you how I use lens flare artistically to enhance an already good image, rather than having it be a distraction. Lens flare is simply the result of light hitting your lens straight on or at an angle, and the effect is different from lens to lens. I’m not going to get into any more detail of how lens flare occurs, but rather how to use it to your advantage in an artistic way.
I am often asked the question of how I can get accurate focus, what lenses are best, as well as how I can control the flare rather than having it be a guessing game. Well, I’m going to try and cover all three of these topics as well as some others. If you hate sun flare, this article will be a painful one, so I strongly suggest not scrolling any further down.
The answer is simple: when done right, I love lens flare. Not fake lens flare done with a pipe or in post production, real lens flare. When I first started taking my portrait/wedding photography seriously, just a little over 4 years ago, I tried to do a lot of things that most photographers weren’t doing to help make my work stand out. Some things worked, some didn’t. I decided to push the creative boundaries early on as I wanted my work to be artistic and have my clients seek me because of it. I was an artist long before I was a photographer, and I wanted my work to reflect that.
A year into my portrait/wedding photography adventures, I had started to notice lens flare in some of my images. Unsure exactly of how or why it was happening, I started to study the ‘phenomenon’. I also started to pay attention to how most other photographers looked at lens flare and noticed a lot of photographers hated it, some were creating it in Photoshop, and some were showing off their images with it yet having no idea how it got there. I set out to master it.
I found myself, early on, just getting excited when I was able to get the flare to look good. The problem, was that the more important aspects of the image suffered. The pose, composition, and emotion were often missing, or the lens flare did more harm than good to the image. You never want the flare to be on your subject’s faces or be a distraction, like in the images below. These are some of the mistakes that I see a lot of photographers making.
When used correctly, lens flare should help bring attention to the subject, not be the subject itself. Much like a vignette, it’s something that should be used to enhance the image, rather than be a distracting focus of it.
When I bought my first Leica rangefinder, the Leica M9, it finally clicked. I shot the M9 and the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 at a wedding and with one image realized just how good lens flare can look when used to draw the viewer’s attention to the subjects.
Just like anything else, knowing how to do a technique the right way can help you decide when, and when not, to use it. When the sun is shining bright, I try to incorporate lens flare in only a handful of images. I also typically get an idea of what my wedding clients are looking for, and whether or not lens flare is something they like. Some of my clients love it and pray that the sun is out on their engagement shoot and wedding day, and some don’t like it at all. I’m always mindful of what my clients are looking for. Even when my clients give me full creative control, I never go overboard with it.
The first lens I found that created a pretty artistic looking lens flare was the Canon 50mm f/1.2L. Being that I started off as a Nikon shooter, and most Nikon lenses don’t allow lens flare at all, I quickly fell in love with the Canon 50L when I added some Canon gear to my bag. The problem I found with the 50L was that the flare looked very good sometimes, while other times it didn’t. Today, the 50L is still one of my favorite lenses, and one that I go for when I want to add a little flare to my shots.
Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 Nokton Classic
This was the lens that made it ‘click’ with me, and one that can create some of the best looking flare I’ve seen. Yes, it is a lens that is used on a Leica M, but it’s not expensive and it works just as good with an adaptor on a Sony bodies. Not sure about the Fuji bodies, but I would assume the same thing.
Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH
This is hands down my all time favorite lens, and for many reasons. It’s a bit pricey, but when it came down to deciding on whether or not to buy it, its flare capabilities were what honestly made me not even hesitate. Aside from being able to create some of the most artistic lens flare I’ve ever seen, the 50mm Summilux is sharp, handles backlighting extremely well, and has great character. It was when I started shooting it on the Sony A7II a couple years ago, I noticed how much control I had with the flare using LiveView. Now that I no longer have any Sony bodies, I shoot the 50 Summilux on the Leica M (type 240) using LiveView and have the same control.
If you’re shooting this lens for portrait or wedding work, you’re most likely using it for creative purposes. This was the first tilt-shift lens I fell in love with, and even more so once I realized that it also created some really nice lens flare as you can see below.
There are definitely a lot of others out there that I have used and just can’t recall, so I would love to have anyone reading this throw one of your favorites in the comment section. I still haven’t found a Nikon lens that creates a nice looking flare, even with some of the older lenses. I own the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 and surprisingly I haven’t been able to get it to create any nice flare. Other Nikon glass that does create flare, the flare typically doesn’t look that good.
FOCUS & CONTROL
When aiming to get good lens flare, the sun needs to be above and behind your subject. With a bright sun backlighting your subject, nailing the focus can prove to be difficult. There are a few things you can do to make focusing a lot easier. If you have tried backlighting your subjects with a bright sun, you have noticed your AF often has trouble finding enough contrast to lock on. You can try manual focusing, which may or may not make it easier for you; you can try using LiveView and zoom in, but manual focusing is much easier. You can also focus and recompose. You can place your subject directly in front of the sun to block the sun from hitting your lens, get your AF locked on, and then recompose.
I use different focusing techniques depending on the gear that I am using. If using my Leica, there is no AF, so I have gotten very good at focusing manually in backlit situations. With that being said, the technique I use most is focusing via LiveView. Not only does zooming in help with nailing your focus, but it also helps give you more control over the flare itself.
With both my Leica M and my DSLR bodies, using LiveView will give you a preview of what the lens flare looks like. This allows you to move your lens until you get the flare to look exactly how you want it to. I can make sure it’s not covering my subject’s faces, as well as getting it to work well with my composition. I highly recommend using LiveView if you are going to give lens flare a try.
The other factor in having control over lens flare is knowing how your aperture affects the look of the flare. When shot wide open, lens flare takes on more of a circular shape (as in the image above). As you stop your lens down to a higher aperture, the flare quickly takes on the shape of a star that streaks out from the center of the sun (as in the image below).
As I mentioned in the intro, I love me some good lens flare. I know it’s not for everyone, and as with any other special effects technique, it should be used carefully and intentionally. If you are like me, and like the artistic look that lens flare can give an image, give one of the lenses I listed a shot. If you have a lens that does create a good flare that I didn’t mention, let me know. It takes practice to get good at nailing the focus, and even more practice to get more control over the flare.
Remember to have it be an addition to an already strong image, to help bring focus to your subjects, and don’t make the flare itself the subject of your image. Hopefully, you enjoyed reading this as it’s been an article I’ve been wanting to write up for a long time now. As always, any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section and I’ll be more than happy to answer them.