What Is Lens Flare?
Lens flare is created when you shoot into a bright light source. Light that is too bright to form an image hits the digital sensor after a series of internal reflections within your camera, and ends up creating some coloured speckles, the shape of which depends on the shape of your lens diaphragm, and “veiling flare” which are a series of hazy rays that seem to emerge from the light source.
Doesn’t sound all that bad, right? Actually, this sounds like it could be used for some pretty cool effects…
Shoot The Sun
If you’re shooting outdoors, chances are that this bright spot is the Sun. This means your shot will need a little sky in the image, so play around with compositions that get both the Sun and your subject put together in a pleasing manner. This might involve some unusual angles, like shooting from near the ground, or waiting until the sun is nearer the horizon.
The Sun may not necessarily need to be in your photo to create the lens flare, especially on bright days and/or around noon. This will create a mini lens flare, which may not be as nice looking as the larger, more exaggerated ones you would otherwise get, but can still be played around with to good effect.
There are other light sources as well. Think about those bright lights above the stars during rock concerts, powerful car headlights, reflections off of especially shiny surfaces, or streetlights. There are many sources of potential lens flare (and potential fun.)
The Subject As Silhouette
So, about that subject…
The subject will most closely resemble a silhouette, as the background will likely be washed out and very bright. So, your subject will need to be really dynamic, really eye catching, as you can’t rely on many other usual techniques to make them stand out. So, play around with techniques specific to silhouettes.
That hazing we mentioned earlier comes in handy here: by position the actual flare over the subject, you can have a well backlit subject with some added visual interest, compliments of those coloured shapes.
If the flare overwhelms your subject, then try eclipsing the flare by having it partially covered by another object. For instance, having the lens flare peak over a corner of the subject is a great way to add a little drama to the picture.
Remember that with such a touchy technique, experimentation is best. Look around to see what other people have come up with. Play around with those weird angles, try positioning that lens flare all over the composition, seek out a variety of settings and subjects!
Go Manual: Exposure, Aperture, ISO and Focus
Don’t be afraid to overexpose the background if it means that your subject will be properly lit! This will probably mean fiddling around with the exposure in manual mode, as the auto mode on your camera will probably be confused by the brightness of the sun. Overexposure is not necessarily a bad thing.
Aperture is another setting you’ll want to toy around with. While it also adjusts the general light and dark of the photo, it also will mess around with the array of speckles of the flare.
Because of the sheer brightness inherent in lens flare photos, a low ISO is probably best.
Be mindful of auto focus as well - manual focus is probably a better bet. Your camera will want to focus in on the best lit object, which with lens flare most assuredly will not be your actual subject.
Be aware that the preimage may not be what the image will actually look like. Lens flare is deceptive, and will not appear in the LCD or the viewfinder. You need to take a picture to find out whether your settings are really what you want them to be.
Not Always A Good Thing
As you’re probably already aware, lens flare is often a bad thing. So, while this article covers some great things you can do with it, there’s also some pretty big no-nos.
Having such large overexposed spaces in your composition can create a feeling of imbalance in the photo, and make it difficult to really see the rest of the photo for what it is. A photo with lens flare is too often just the lens flare.
Don’t want lens flare? Well, there’s plenty of tools and techniques out there to help you avoid it altogether. A lens hood is the best place to start, as it will prevent unnecessary light from coming into the sides and causing mini-lens flares. Avoid shooting into the Sun or any other bright sources of light, and instead try to shoot away from them.
For more details of how lens flare works and some general tips, check out this tutorial.
For beautiful example photos and more artistic lens flare tips, check out this Digital Photography School article.