Friday, December 09, 2011

Lens Flares: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Lately, more and more, I see photographers embracing lens flares. I don't know if this is an across-the-board trend/fad/whatever, encompassing portraiture, nature, et al, or it's limited in its scope to pretty girl pics. For the most part (and for some odd reason) I find myself mostly viewing photos of pretty women. Certainly more often than admiring, as an example, well-executed landscape images. But maybe that's just me?

There's nothing new, of course, about seeking lens flares rather than avoiding them. The trick, of course, is capturing the perfect lens flare and in ways where the flare adds an interesting creative touch without ruining the intent of the photo. I see some photographers making terrific use of lens flares. Others make ugly, bad use of them. Course, who am I to judge? Just because I think one use of a lens flare adds to an image while another subtracts from it really doesn't matter. It's a subjective call. It's simply my opinion and we all know what opinions are like.

I'm not convinced everyone who posts an image with a lens flare -- good, bad or otherwise -- purposely captured the lens flare. Sometimes, I'm guessing the lens flare was unintended and unnoticed when the image was captured. Later, while processing the images, the photographer noticed the flare and thought, "Gee. That's looks kinda cool. I think I'll keep it."

I've shot both kinds of lens flares: Intended and unintended. Heck, there's been times I've taken advantage of a third kind of flare by adding a faux-flare in post. I'll also admit to liking some of my unintended lens flares and, later, when others expressed some kind words about the image, neglecting to tell them, "Well, you see, I actually fucked up and didn't notice the flare when I was shooting but, later on, I thought it was pretty cool so I went with it."

None of this is to infer that shooters who post flare-adorned photos are all capturing unintended flare-adorned photos. Some photographers go out of their way to capture the perfect flare and some of them do it near perfectly.

In my e-book, Zen and the Art of Portrait Photography, I mentioned an old Egyptian proverb a few times: A beautiful thing is never perfect. I wrote a fair number of words discussing that notion as it applies to portrait photography. Some photo-purists act as if lens flares almost always represent unwanted imperfections in the technical quality of a photo and, often enough, I suppose it's true that they do. Obviously, those folks aren't aware of that bit of Egyptian wisdom I just mentioned here and in my e-book, especially when they seem to label most all photos which include a lens flare as being imperfect... and not in a good way.

The key to great lens flares, of course, isn't so much about the technical aspects of the flares themselves (although, to some extent, it is) but whether the flare helps make for a better image or if it detracts from what could have been a good image. As with many of a photo's elements, that's a personal and subjective call.

It's a bit hard to teach someone to have a good sense of artistic aesthetics. For many people, they either have it or they don't. That's not to say shooters can't increase the likelihood of their artistic judgment being effective. To do that, they probably need to spend some time learning what works and what doesn't and why: Viewing the work of photographers whose images are generally considered to possess terrific artistic elements will help photographers learn what works and what doesn't. Reading about why one thing generally works and another doesn't is also helpful. Feedback from your images' viewers should also help hone one's artistic sensibilities, assuming you try to learn from the feedback rather than simply gloating over it when it's good or getting defensive about it when it's less than positive.

Back to lens flares: In my opinion, lens flares, at a minimum, work well as often as they don't. The intent of a photo should dictate when and how a shooter might use effects like lens flares. Since all the photos you snap don't have, as their primary purpose or intent, a requirement that says you must always showcase, in quite obvious ways, your artistic sensibilities, there are many photos, especially in portraiture, where including a lens flare might not serve the photo well. While it might make you feel all artsy, you feeling all artsy doesn't always make for a photo that meets or exceeds the intent of all your images.

As I sometimes do, I'm brain-farting on the name of the model I'm featuring with this update. Also, my apologies for posting a pic which doesn't include a lens flare; intended, unintended, or faux. I wanted to post a lens-flare adorned image (even though I don't shoot them too often) but that would mean rummaging through a bunch of hard drives and folders to find one that's suitable. I'm simply feeling a bit too lazy to do that at the moment.

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