Mastering Flare in your photos

Flare has become insanely popular over the past decade or so. You can see extensive use of it in feature films (Star Trek might have taken things a bit too far….) and it fits very well with the never ending Instagram/vintage/throwback/real-life aesthetic too. There’s something almost accidental about it, and using it in images taken with modern cameras helps create a vintage/1970s/polaroid feel. Having shot thousands of polaroids over the years back in the days before digital, I don’t quite have the same attraction to it, but I still employ it carefully from time to time.

Different amounts of flare
Use flare sparingly – sometimes all you need is a gentle touch of it, like the image on the left, and sometimes it’s OK to let more of it spill over the place.

Let’s be clear about one thing before we get too excited – flare is defined as “non image-forming light”, and as such, you really don’t want too much of it. It happens when a light source is very close to the lens axis, and the light from it starts to affect your image. The relation of your lens to the light source is crucial, and makes all the difference between a gentle bit of light spilling across the frame, and your image becoming unrecognisable. Too much flare will also totally flatten out any contrast in your shot.

Here’s how to control and work with flare to get the best results:

Keep your lenses clean. Flare is accentuated by dirt on the lens – this can be dust on the front, or smears of grease, or if you’re really unlucky, dust within the lens itself. If your lenses are clean you’ll be able to control flare much more, and you’ll minimise those authentic “spots” that you get along the shaft of light too.

Watch the angle of your camera to the light very closely. In the two images below I moved the camera only a few inches, to let more of the light out from behind the model. Note how little adjustment is needed to alter the character of the shot.

Flare - Camber sands
I’ve moved the camera an inch or two between these two shots – when you’re shooting straight into the light, the smallest moves can make a big difference.  Note how much less contrast there is in the left hand image.

Besides adjusting your angle in relation to the light, the other way to control flare is to use something to block, or partially block, the fall of light onto the camera. If you’re using an artificial light f some sort, you may be able to close the barndoors around it (if it has them) or place some sort of gobo or flag on the light housing. Even better, if you’ve got the means, a flag stand (otherwise known as C-stand) an arm, and a flag, is the perfect solution – designed exactly for this purpose. Plonk it down somewhere between the light and your subject and camera, and then position the arm exactly where you want it to shade as much or as little light as you can from the lens. However, flag stands are a bit big and heavy if you’re on location, and you can do a similar job with almost any object you come across – a large piece of card, some dark cloth and so on. At a pinch, you can even use the camera one handed, and use the other hand to shade the lens.

flag stand - flare
A flag stand (C stand) arm, and flag in the studio. Great when you’ve got the time, and can cart them about the place, but perhaps less handy when you’re half-way up a mountain

Like so many effects, flare is very easy to augment after the shoot in Photoshop. It’s certainly easier to take a small amount of flare in an image, and “dial it up” rather than have to “dial down” an image with too much flare in. There are dozens of online tutorials of how to create flare in photoshop out there – I’m not going to add to the pile – but make sure there’s some there to build on in the first place. Don’t make your image look artificial and just start adding flare in areas where there clearly wasn’t any light!

Flare in post production
The image on the left is the original, and the one on the right has had more flare added in Photoshop. Be very careful to add it in the right place to make it look realistic.

If you’re keen to retain detail in the shaded areas, I find a reflector works better than a flash head, it gives a slightly more natural light, and a powerful flash fill-light can overpower the feel of the flare. I’ll confess that I didn’t use one on this shoot, I just exploited the massive dynamic range on the D850 on this shoot, along with the natural reflectance of the sand

Flare and reflectors/sand
No need for a reflector when the sand is nice and bright, but normally if you want to keep any detail in the shadows when shooting straight into the light, add a reflector of some sort.

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