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Lens Flare in Landscape Photography


If you tried to shot in the sun direction (or some other strong light source) a few times during your photography sessions, you probably already noticed that sometimes a weird effect is occurring in your shots; the effect I’m talking about appears in the form of some colorful circles (or rings) all over your picture, often giving a sort of soft color cast all over the frame. This effect is called “lens flare”, and that’s what we’ll discuss in this article; we’ll see what it is and when it appears, but mostly we’ll see how to use it in landscape photography and how to deal with it; sometimes it’s a really annoying effect that you’ll have to avoid at all costs if you don’t want to ruin your shot, other times instead it’s a very pleasant effect which gives a nice and soft color cast to the whole scene, adding a lot of atmosphere and drama to the photo. With this article, we’ll help you figure out which are the cases where it’s nice to have some lens flare and which are not.

Sunrise at the Alpe di Siusi in autumn photo tour

1. What is Lens Flare in Photography

Lens flare it’s an effect that occur when a strong source of light (generally the sun in landscape photography) hit the lens and this light is scattered in the system, creating some unpleasant artifacts all across the image; generally, lens flare is due to some unwanted reflections between the glasses inside the lens (that’s why lenses with more elements tend to be more sensible to the flare) or just some lens imperfections.
As I was saying in the intro, this effect can present in two ways in your pictures: either as small circles or rings all across the frame, or as a spreaded “hazy” effect that will give a washed-out look to the whole image.

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2.1 Situation in When it might Occur

2.1.1 Starbursts and Sun Stars

One of the most used techniques when we talk about lens flare is the “starbursts” or “sun star”; basically, this technique consists in closing down the aperture to the minimum (generally f/22 on wide angle lenses) to get those light rays around the sun as you can see in the picture above. The more you close down your aperture, the more these rays will become visible in your photo; the “beauty” (sharpness, length, etc) of the rays generally depends on the lens and the elements that are inside it. Some lenses have an incredibly sharp sun star, while in other lenses it’s not that nice and the rays are not well defined.
This is one of those cases where having the sun flare isn’t annoying, since it can add a lot of interest to your shot; generally, having such a strong light source in your background, creates a sort of visual path between your foreground subject and the light source. The observer will be projected much more into your photos if you play nicely with your foregrounds and a sunstar!

2.1.2 Shooting Directly in the Sun Direction

With the photo above I want you to see the “washed out” effect that I was talking about earlier in the article; in this case I was shooting lavender fields. I’m probably stating the obvious, but lavender fields are normally blue/magenta and definitely not red or orange-ish; this sort of warm cast all over the shot came out because I was shooting in the sun direction when the sun was low on the horizon. In the raw file there was a bit of the sun too, which I cut out later in post-production. If what you are looking for is a really warm soft atmosphere, well, you should definitely try this effect; instead, if you are looking for a sharp, detailed picture you better try to avoid it at all costs!
Luckily, there are a few techniques that we can use to avoid or ehnance the lens flare as we like it, and we’ll see them right now in the next chapter!

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3. How do You Prevent Lens Flare?

If you see photos like the ones in this article (or whatever other photo with the sunstar in it), you probably think by now “hey, those pics are cool! He said that I just need to close the aperture to f/22, so it shouldn’t be that hard to replicate it”; and it’s not that hard, but you’ll probably encounter a few issues along the way of getting a result like those. The most problematic of them all is going to be all the circles and rings (generally with the iris colors) that will spread all over your frame; sometimes they are easy to clone out, sometimes you can spend hours in the process.
Let’s see now a few techniques and tips with which you can avoid, or at least control, the lens flare.

3.1 Bracketing

First of all, you should start by doing a bracket of different exposures when you are shooting with a strong source of light in your frame. Even before to think about avoiding the lens flare, you probably need more than one exposure to get all the dynamic range of the scene.
How do I know this? Well, it’s easy: if you are exposing for the light source (let’s say the sun) you’ll have a really dark shot, with almost no details in the rest of the landscape (or at least in the shadow parts of the frame), while if you are exposing for the landscape and the shadows, you’ll probably end up with a very bright shot and clipped out highlights, specially in the sun area (and no sun star at all!).
So, the procedure to make a multiple exposure (or exposure bracketing, same thing) when shooting with the sun in your frame is:
Take a shot exposing for the highlights at f/22, so that the light rays become very visible;
Change the aperture to a wider setting, in the f/9-f/13 range, and take progressively as many shots as you need to get the whole dynamic range of the shot. Sometimes you just need two shots, sometimes you need five or six!
I highly recommend to use f/22 just for the sun star shot, since such a close aperture can result in a less sharp photo (due to diffraction).

3.2 The "Hand/Finger Method"

Now that you know how to properly bracket, let’s see this commonly used technique among landscape photographers to avoid lens flare, called “the finger method”. Basically, it consists in taking a shot with a finger or even the hand (depending on the size of the flare) over the sun; by covering the light source the lens won’t be affected anymore by the flares, and you won’t get any circles and/or color casts in the photo.
You are probably wondering “okay, you are right, now I don’t have any flares anymore in my shot.. But I have a finger in it! What can I do with a photo of a finger?”
In the shot with the finger (well, finger or hand) there won't be a single flare, while in the other shot the whole landscape is compromised, you’ll hardly manage to clone all those circles. Later in post production you'll have to merge the two shots together in order to obtain a final result with as little lens flares as possible.

3.3 Use the Live View and the Tripod

Well, this is a very simple tip; with the live view mode turned on you’ll be able to see better all the artifacts created by the lens flare, and with the tripod you’ll be able to bracket multiple shots without moving your composition. Shooting hand-held in the sun direction will be really hard since you won’t see the artifacts from the viewfinder (unless they are really big) and you won’t be able to bracket and use the finger technique.

3.4 Keep Your Lens Clean

Another quick tip is to keep your lens as clean as possible when shooting in the sun direction. Don’t get me wrong, there’s not a situation where you shouldn’t have your lens clean, but here it’s really important because every imperfection, every bit of dust will be enhanced by the direct light in the lens. Make sure to have a cloth with you and clean the front lens right before to start taking the shots!

3.5 Aperture and Exposure

We already briefly talked about this earlier in the article, but it’s good to spend a few words about it again. If you are trying to get the sun star, you have to close down the aperture to f/22 (generally) for that shot. I normally tend to underexpose a lot in this shot to have all the details in the highlights, so play accordingly with the exposure times. After this shot, I open up the aperture till around f/10 and by slowing down the shutter speed I take as many shots as I need to have the full dynamic range of the scene.

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4. Making Use of Lens Flare to Enhance a Photo

As I told you earlier, there are a few times where the lens flare can come in handy to add some atmosphere to a dull shot. For example, as you can see from the shot above, I played with the sunlight during a very cold sunrise in Lapland to get that warm glow in the higher part of the frame; that glow is “natural”, not added in post-production. And that’s the result of a controlled use of the lens flare. Same as for the shot below, the only difference is that in that case I placed the sun on the left edge instead of the higher part of the photo.
I think you already got by now how I managed to get those warm glows in the shots, but let me put it into words: you just need to put the sun right at the edge of your photo, and that glow will appear in the shot. You don’t need a specific aperture or shutter speed in this case; the only thing you need to control is the position of the sun in your frame.

Sorapiss lake in summer at sunset


Hopefully by now you should have improved your knowledge about the lens flare, knowing what it is and possibly how to avoid it. My goal with this article though was more about making you understand how to control it and not just how to avoid it, since sometimes the flares can create a beautiful atmosphere, and the sunstar can add a lot of interest to your shots; it’s all about knowing when it’s right to include some flare in the frame and when you should exclude it at all costs.

Leonardo Papèra

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