Lens flare is when bright light enters the camera lens, hits the sensor and flares outwards. It can draw a viewer into an image or add visual excitement to an otherwise static composition.
It’s easy for lens flare to distract from your subject. When it’s unintentional or not done right, it can wash out and ruin an image. There are also photography situations perfect for it. Understanding what lens flare and what causes it can help you avoid or control it in your photography.
Lens Flare Explained
Inside a camera lens, there are elements that work together to bend and focus the light onto your camera sensor. These elements almost always have an anti-reflective coating, but it’s not perfect.
Sometimes, when there is a particularly bright light source pointed at the front of a camera lens, a significant amount of light will start reflecting and bouncing around all the glass elements.
When this happens, the light that gets reflected leads to bright patterns or spots in your image, called lens flare.
What Does Lens Flare Look Like in a Photo?
There are three general types of lens flare, and you generally see some combination of all three when it happens. Lens flare may appear as:
- Hazy blob radiating outwards and getting weaker as it moves away from its center.
- Streaks or bands like in a drawing of sunbeams.
- Polygonal spots, typically with between 5 and 8 sides.
Ways to Avoid Lens Flare
In order to prevent lens flare, you should know how it happens. There are two factors that lens flare: when bright light hits your lens directly or when the light source is at a specific angle to the lens.
Generally speaking, the closer the light source can get to the edge of your frame, the more pronounced the lens flare will be. Follow these helpful steps to minimize lens flare:
- Shoot with the light source behind you
- Use a lens hood to block the flare
- Plan your shoots near golden hour to avoid bright light
Is the scene evenly lit? The chance of lens flare is low. Is there something significantly brighter than anything around it? Lens flare might be possible. To avoid lens flare, make sure that there’s not a direct line of sight between the front lens and the light source.
A common example where lens flare will happen is if you’re shooting in direct sunlight. If you shoot into the sun or with the sun just out of frame, there’s a good chance of lens flare.
Either change your angle so the sun is farther to the side or even behind you or make sure that something is fully shading the lens from direct sun. This can be a person, a tree, or a lens hood.
How to Use a Lens Hood
One of the best ways to avoid lens flare is by using a lens hood, which can help protect your camera lens in other ways. Many lenses come with lens hoods by default while others have a connection, but require you to purchase one separately.
Attaching a lens hood to a lens is very easy. Typically, there will be a very short set of screw threads on the lens. Simply put the lens hood on the end of the lens and twist it to connect the two. Some lenses will have a basic locking tab to hold the hood in place once it’s connected. To remove it simply push the tab and twist the lens hood off.
Lens hoods work like the bill of a baseball cap. It extends beyond the front of the lens in order to cast a shadow across the front of the lens and prevent flaring. As long as it fully blocks the light source from directly hitting the front element, you shouldn’t have any flaring. However, it’s always possible to put the light source in a position that will be impossible to block, so be aware and thoughtful of where light is coming from.
Generally speaking, lenses from the same manufacturer with the same front element diameter can fit the same lens hoods, but that doesn’t mean that they will be fully compatible. Different focal lengths use lens hoods of different lengths in order to accommodate their angle of view.
A lens hood from a telephoto lens might be fairly long because the lens has a narrow field of view. But this same hood might intrude on the edges of an image taken with a wide angle lens. Ensure that any lens hood is compatible with the lens you want to use it on.
How to Photoshop Lens Flare
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In most cases, it’s far easier to avoid lens flare than removing it after the fact.
But what happens if you don’t realize it happened until after you get home and start processing your photos? Or what if the composition you want to use makes it impossible to avoid?
There are a few approaches you can take to remove lens flare in Photoshop, but most of these are going to be somewhat tedious and time-consuming.
In some situations, it’s easier to let the sun flare happen. Then, take a second shot while covering the sun with a finger or some other obstruction. The flare will be eliminated, restoring the saturation and detail of the image (aside from the portion where your finger is).
When processing the image:
- Stack the two shots and mask your finger out of the flare-less image keeping both the better exposure of the landscape and the unblocked sun and sky portion.
- Alternatively, depending on the shot you might even be able to use a content aware fill to remove your finger and get the image you want from a single shot.
How to Remove Flare From an Image
There are helpful tips to try to remove the flare from an image:
- Use a tool such as a clone or spot healing brush to automatically replace the flare spots.
- If you’re trying this technique on a part of the image that needs extra care to look natural (such as the skin of someone’s face), try to put the corrections on a separate layer with a lowered opacity and layer the correction a few times to try to achieve the most realistic results.
Larger beams or hazy portions of lens flare can be more challenging to remove but can be approached using similar methods.
- Use adjustment layers to recover saturation and correct exposure or colors and then mask in the corrections. You might be able to clone in larger portions and carefully mask and blend multiple layers to erase larger areas of flare as well.
- If you have more in-depth experience with retouching skin, such as with portraits and models, you can use some of the same techniques that you would use to even out skin tones. Frequency separation can be used to adjust color and saturation while keeping underlying textures.
As with most tasks in Photoshop, there are likely many ways to achieve the same result. The results you achieve are going to depend on the specific image, how extensive the flare is, and your skill level with Photoshop. There are always going to be times where the flare proves impossible to satisfactorily fix.
Lens flare is a natural part of photography, and like most things, it can be either good or bad. As a photographer, you should understand what causes and how to prevent it. Once you have a strong understanding of lens flare, you can make informed decisions about whether or not you want to use it and how to control it when you do.
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