Beating Flare
On The Road Or In The Studio

I took the prism off of my Hasselblad to get this worm's-eye view. Light must have leaked into the mirror chamber and fogged the shot. Next time I'll compose, then place my hand over the screen.
Photos © 1999, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

Flare is one of those nagging photography issues that you always think you have control over, till it bites you on an important shoot. Flare, more properly referred to as veiling glare, is the haze that covers all or part of your image when extraneous light reaches the film. It is much less of a problem today than in the past. The advent of multi-coating, ingenious internal baffling and flocking, and computer-designed zoom lenses have almost totally eliminated flare from common flare-inducing subjects like bright white objects. Today if you use modern equipment the primary cause of flare is light shining directly into a lens, reflecting from internal lens surfaces and causing a bright haze.

Those of you who own vintage gear like old single or uncoated Leica glass, Hasselblad glass, or vintage large format lenses, already know what I'm talking about. I still use a bunch of old Hasselblad chrome lenses, which don't offer the latest in anti-flare multi-coatings. When well shaded, they produce excellent results. Get just a little bit of extraneous light into the front of the lens and forget about it--big-time flare. My 150mm Sonnar is so bad that even very bright white seamless will produce a softer, lower contrast image than the same shot with my nice multi-coated 150 CF lens. Besides bright objects that are in the scene, like sunsets, highlights on glass and chrome, or bright sunlight objects like white T-shirts, you can do an awful lot to reduce or even eliminate flare in your everyday shooting. Here are some tips.

One Source Lighting. Most of us shoot with one light source--usually the sun or an on-camera flash. While you can always eliminate flare by placing the sun behind you, you rarely find the best lighting with flat sunlight. The magic tends to happen when a subject is backlit or lit by strong sidelight. The lens shades that accompany most prime lenses do a reasonable job of shielding extraneous sunlight, but zoom lenses present a whole different problem. Even the most intelligently designed lens shade for a zoom lens leaves a good portion on the front element exposed most of the time. Shoot into a setting sun or in a situation where strong sidelighting exists and you run the risk of lighting up the front surface of the glass. While this may not create the kind of classic "zoom lens" hexagonal highlight flare, it will for sure lower the contrast of the scene. Flare like this is usually not noticeable in the viewfinder since it's such a fine difference. On the light box, it's another matter. If your client is expecting sharp punchy chromes, you're in trouble.

Whoops--I used my Polaroid extensively to set up this shot. Since I was hand holding I drifted out past the gobo I had set up and got hit with direct flash and lots of flare.

On-camera flash should be a cinch right? After all, the light source by definition is behind the lens. But beware, my friends, of the many sources for reflection in the room. It's the wedding photographer's nightmare--shooting those "table shots" of all the aunts and uncles one circular table at a time. Sooner or later you'll get those proofs back from the lab with the dreaded flash in the mirror flare. Even if your flash isn't reflected right back into the middle of the frame, a mirror just out of the frame can still ruin the shot. The solution? Get used to firing your flash once manually while looking through the viewfinder. You should instantly get a rough idea if a lot of light is bouncing back. Glass windows, chrome handrails, and even crystal chandeliers can create the same effect, so it pays to keep your eyes open.

Pros often use an adjustable bellow type lens shade. By dialing the bellows out as far as possible without intruding into the frame, you've just about guaranteed that a light source outside of the frame won't create any lens flare. Since there are adjustable bellows that have the familiar 2:3 rectangular format of 35mm film and your choice of filter thread sizes, you should be able to match one up to almost any 35mm lens.

Multi-Source Lighting. For you hot light or studio flash owners, you're probably already a member of the scrim and gobo society. Scrims--those small pieces of cardboard, plastic, or metal that get clamped to boom arms or light stands--are easy to position just out of the field of view of your lens, but between the lens and the offending light head. Gobos--the larger panels, usually mounted on wheels--can physically isolate the camera and keep all the extraneous light out of the field of view. I have a couple of old office partitions that I found in the commercial complex where my studio is housed. I had some metal supports fashioned with large 4" casters, and now I can wheel them all over the studio. I like to light large products with two large (4x6') light banks from slightly behind the product, with another large box overhead. The overhead bank is easy to shield with a camera-mounted scrim. The two large light banks are so tall that I need the gobos. I wheel one gobo on each side of the camera, and move them so they are just out of the frame. This keeps all the light off of the lens, and also makes it a little easier to focus.

Unexpected Sources Of Flare. You can generate flare in a number of different ways. I learned the hard way that a medium format SLR with no waist-level or prism viewfinder sitting in direct sunlight will sometimes allow a little bit of light to enter the mirror chamber. This kind of light leak creates a faint overall haze that essentially ruins the image.

The Zoom Problem. How do you efficiently protect a zoom lens, especially one of the new breed of wide to tele-zooms? Well, the built-in lens shades are of limited value, and there is no way to hang a scrim on the camera that will work for every focal length. I like to use one of those slick little "FlareBuster" devices that has a small circular scrim at the end of a short adjustable arm. The whole thing just slips into a hot shoe, so it couldn't be easier. If you have an SLR that shows most or all of the final image, you can set your shot up, move the scrim till it is just showing in the corner of the frame, and then zoom-in a hair to eliminate it from view, or nudge it slightly to just kick it out of the frame. This is a great solution if you're hand holding, since wherever you move physically, the scrim will stay in the same position relative to the lens.

Using Flare Creatively. Of course there are times where you want that classic flare look. Strong backlighting will most probably eat into your contrast too much, but that off-center direct sunlight with a multi-element zoom lens will create that classic step-and-repeat pattern of iris-shaped reflections. This look is so popular that it is now a built-in Photoshop effect. You can actually add lens flare to a clean shot. Go figure.

My favorite lens for this effect is the excellent Tamron 28-105mm f/2.8. This lens has such an effective combination of multi-coating and internal flocking that I can tilt it into nearly direct sunlight and grab nice images. By playing with the zoom ring and the position of the sun I can fine-tune the effect.

Here is the classic use of lens flare. If you look closely you can see the Iris-shaped reflection on the lower right of the frame.

The Point-And-Shoot Problem. If you're like me, you bring an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera with you when you're not carrying your bigger gear. For most happy snaps these cameras do a remarkably good job, but their lenses, especially those with long-range zooms, just don't have the same level of internal reflection control as pricier SLR lenses. I have been guilty of trying to get too cute with my fancy little point-and-shoot camera. I shoot into sunsets, backlight my subjects, and try to use the ambient light to my advantage. More often than not some of my shots have bright orange flare along one side of the image. It's tough to try and scrim the lens on a point-and-shoot, since the viewfinders are usually not too accurate. I still try and hold my hand up and block the sunlight, since these cameras are easy enough to shoot one handed.

How many times have you seen snapshots from your friends and family with a garish flare-ridden reflection of the on-camera flash ruining the image. Of course to them its par for the course. For you and me, it's unacceptable. Since you can't pre-flash with a point-and-shoot to see where the reflections are, you've got to be careful and examine the scene thoroughly. Even those little fixed lens point-and-shoot cameras can have terrible problems with flare.

Modern lens technology has made us lazy just like every other form of photographic technology. We shoot today with little regard for the direction of the main lighting, since nine times out of 10 the film turns out fine. Lens flare? Fix it in Photoshop.

Constantly looking out for the direction of the sun, the angles of your flash units, and the presence of reflective surfaces in a scene are what help make a really thoughtful photographer.