Zen Camera 5d

Lens Flare and Bokeh – some thoughts on how to use them

Both bokeh and lens flare have become very popular in modern digital photography, so much so that lenses are now advertised as having the ability to produce wonderful bokeh effects. I confess to loving both effects, and using them regularly – but I do wonder if they are becoming over-used!
The key to both bokeh and lens flare is that both are produced “in camera” as part of the shooting process. Ideally both are produced by the actual lens, and not applied later in post-processing. That is the ideal that I try to adhere to, but I do sometimes fall by the wayside, and ‘cheat’.

The Lens Flare

Lens flare was (and sometimes still is) seen as a mistake, an unfortunate side effect of the lens and the light source: see this article on the Wiki – but now it is often sought out for intentional use in a photograph. There are situations where I know I will encounter lens flare, and try to use it, others where I try to minimise its impact.
Shooting straight at the sun is a familiar situation….

dazzled by the sun
The path at Fyvie Castle. The sun shining straight at the lens

Low winter sun is a common problem in northern Scotland, where I live. So I either have to use the lens flare, as here, or try to position the camera so that some obstacle, (such as a tree trunk here) can block the direct sun. It took a bit of manoeuvring to get this balance right!
The technique of shooting straight at the light is called Contre-jour: from the French, literally: against day(light). It “is a photographic technique in which the camera is pointing directly toward a source of light and an equivalent technique of painting. … The sun, or other light source, is often seen as either a bright spot or as a strong glare behind the subject.” from Wiki
In the shot above, the position of the sun partially ‘blinds’ part of the tree trunk, and splits the shadows, casting the left-hand shadows to the left of centre, and the right-hand shadows to the right.

Another common lens flare situation that I find, is shooting in Infrared.
I use converted digital cameras, that have been modified to only shoot in the infrared spectrum…. but whether using an external filter or a converted camera, lens flaring does seem to be a problem associated with shooting in the infrared spectrum.

Deveron estuary - the bridge
The bridge across the Deveron estuary at Banff, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

At its best the lens flare can add some lovely effects – at worst it can completely swamp the image. Here the effect is lovely, but only after I removed a larger flare from the foreground!

Adding glass to the mix.
Another regular practice of mine is shooting through glass, either indoors with the sun shining through the window, or, as here, through the car windscreen as we drive along. Here the contre-jour effect is added to by the effect of the sunlight striking the car windscreen.

windscreen glass prism effect
Low winter sun through the car windscreen creates a prism effect.

The Lensbaby special effects.
And one reason I am passionate about the Lensbaby optical system is that it can produce the most amazing array of optical effects “in camera” using the construction of the optics. Quite where to place them between lens flare and bokeh is difficult to say, as the effects can be close to both – and at the same time!

Early sun on the Japanese plum tree.
Early sun on the Japanese plum tree. Lensbaby Sweet 50

The sometimes elusive Bokeh

The term ‘Bokeh’ comes from the Japanese meaning ‘haze’ or ‘blur’, and it has become one of the most sought-after effects in photography.
“In photography, bokeh is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens. Bokeh has been defined as “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light.”
The article here Wiki gives a good starting point to explore the technical side of the bokeh. What bokeh effect you can achieve will depend on the lens you are using and the F-stop you choose. Telephoto and macro lenses are both good in creating bokeh, especially with a shallow Depth of Field (typically F-stop 2.8 or lower) .