What is lens flare? It’s probably appeared on some of your photos or footage. Sometimes it ruins images, and sometimes it surprises you and makes you feel like you are the greatest photographer in all the land. If you’re an aspiring photographer or filmmaker, though, you’ll probably want and need more control over your images. So, once we determine what is lens flare, we’ll provide some suggestions for how to avoid it and how to capture it.

Lens Flare Explained

Inside the lens flare effect

The camera lens flare. For some, it's a mistake to be avoided; for others, it's an aesthetic choice. Depending on the project you may want to see a camera flare, or you may find yourself trying everything to eliminate them. We're going to talk about lens flare photography and the lens flare effect in movies as well.

Before we just to our examples and techniques, we have to answer the obvious question: What is lens flare?

Lens Flare Definition

What is lens flare?

Lens flare is caused by a bright light source shining directly into the lens. Also called lens glare, or light flare, a lens flare is a non-image forming light that is scattered in the lens system after it hits the front element of a lens. It reflects off the glass surfaces in the lens. Lenses with a large number of elements like zoom lenses are often most susceptible to lens flare. Flare is usually thought to be damaging to an image but there are times when it can be used to enhance the quality of the picture.

How to eliminate lens flare:

  • Try using a lens hood to avoid extra scattering light
  • Use lenses less susceptible to flare, like prime lenses
  • Block light and adjust angle of camera to light source

Camera manufacturers have used nano-crystal coatings in their designs to limit ghosting and flare, but unfortunately, light flare is still a very real thing.

To lessen light flares in your shots, consider following these suggestions:

A beginner’s guide to lens hoods

What is a lens hood for?

Shooting into the sun is a surefire way to create unwanted lens flare. While flare can sometimes be used to great effect, it’s mostly to be avoided. 

One way to avoid light flare is with a lens hood. The hood acts as a kind of shield blocking any scattering light from hitting the lens. The lens hood purpose: to prevent the sun from getting in your eyes, just as you would by placing your hand over your forehead. 

What is a lens hood for when you’re out shooting? It’ll protect your lens from any damage. Below are some examples and useful tips for how and when to use a lens hood.

Lens hood purpose: When and how to use it

Side note: If you’re using filters on your lens, a lens hood may not fit over it. In that case, you can try using your hand to shield the lens from the sun’s rays. 

Try prime lenses

Of course, you can get camera flare with any lens. But prime lenses are considerably less susceptible to camera flare than zoom lenses

While zooms are extremely convenient and offer a wide range of focal lengths, the complex system of many elements moving back and forth can cause tons of flare when extra light enters. Better quality prime lenses are a safer option if flare is a concern. 

For a deep dive, check out our guide about choosing camera lenses.

Adjust angles and block light

Blocking your light source is an easy way to avoid sun lens flare. Try using trees or even mountains if you’re shooting in these kinds of conditions and if you have enough light without it. 

You can also simply adjust your angle. Light hitting the sensor is what causes sun lens flare, so avoid shooting directly into the sun. By only obscuring some of the light, you can produce more dynamic and creatively lit images. 

Remember: Adjusting angles and blocking light is also a way to capture and control lens flare if you’re choosing to work with it. As long as it’s not red lens flare from the eyes of your relatives in a family portrait, you can create some pretty interesting worlds with flare. 

What is Lens Flare’s Cinematic Quality?

Using lens flare to your advantage

Despite the problems lens flare can create, there are certain kinds of desired lens flare that can help filmmakers and photographers create dynamic shots.

When considering what is lens flare’s narrative or stylistic purpose, such films and series as Star Wars or Star Trek come to mind as examples. Lens flares come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the shape of the glass in your lens. But there is one type of flare that is the most welcomed in cinema. 

Have you ever seen this effect?

Lens Flares in Movies

Of course you have.

It’s often used in sci-fi films and most non-sci-fi movies set in space. It’s called an anamorphic lens flare, and it usually looks pretty epic. It’s so prevalent that some filmmakers are criticized for using it too much. (Cough, J.J. Abrams, cough.) We’ll let you be the judge of that:

Whereas red lens flare botches images, anamorphic lens flare has cinematic qualities

Anamorphic lenses were engineered many moons ago, when television started taking over living rooms. Anamorphic lenses and their widescreen capabilities were introduced in order to better distinguish cinema from small television screens. With the anamorphic lens, wide shots could be stretched and then fit to standard 35mm. 

Flares from these lenses give you that streaking look. You can learn more from the pros that work with and engineer these lenses in the video below.

A brief history of the anamorphic lens flare

Of course, we can’t all be J.J. Abrams: Learning how to control your lens flare isn’t always easy as he makes it look. Still, it is necessary. 

Controlling light flare allows you to produce images and shots with intentionality, so you’re not relying on dumb luck. When done well, this can really enhance your story or image.

Without Photoshop lens flare is still controllable

So, what are some takeaways for capturing flare?

Feel free to keep your lens hood on. Just because lens hoods are helpful for blocking flare, you’ll still get the warm glow of the sun or studio light but in a much more controlled way. 

Place your subject to the side of the light source and adjust camera and angles to control how much light you’re blocking. The amount of light you choose to block gives you control of the flare. 

Now that you’ve captured your flare, what can you do with it?

Photoshop Lens Flare Tutorial

How to Photoshop lens flare

Because light flare has the ability to create striking imagery in both photography and cinema, adding flare in Photoshop has become common.  

Photoshop recommends applying the lens flare effect to an image with a light source already visible in the photo — be it the sun, studio light, or whatever type of light you might be using. 

In Photoshop lens flare and the image are separate. So if you don’t like the added flare, you can always get revert to your original image. 

This video has the step-by-step process of how to add lens flare in Photoshop.

To Photoshop lens flare, apply effects to an image with a visible light source

Prefer using After Effects instead of Photoshop? No worries. You can also use the tools to add lens flare After Effects provides.

Take a look at that process below.

How to get that After Effect lens flare effect

So, what are you waiting for? You don’t need fancy gear to work with flare. If you’re shooting outside, try taking your shots around sunset or sunrise, see if you can use the golden light to your advantage.  

Up Next

Capture warm tones at golden hour

If you’re trying to use flare to your advantage when shooting outside, warm tones can be your best friend. And the ideal time to capture golden flares is, of course, golden hour. Let’s learn when this time strikes so you can anticipate it on your next shoot.

Up Next: When is Golden Hour? →
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