Lens flare is caused by external light sources that do not pass directly through the lens, but rather are reflected on internal components within the lens before passing to the camera sensor, producing haze over the final image, geometric circles and/or off-color streaking.  Usually this happens when shooting directly into the sun or from having the sun or other light sources just out of frame.  The more elements that are present inside the lens, the more exaggerated the effect will be, and it will be particularly problematic with longer zoom lenses for that reason.  Polarizing filters may help to some degree, but in general, adding filters will likely compound the problem since you are essentially erecting another element for light to reflect on. Glass used in modern lenses are coated with anti-glare material that is designed to reduce lens flare but will not remove it completely.  Sometimes lens flare can be desirable.  Photoshop and Lightroom actions that add lens flare as well as cell phone apps that can add lens flare artificially are popular trends right now, ironic considering a camera on a phone will be less likely to produce lens flare than a camera with an interchangeable lens.

Sunset taken from the top of Spruce Knob in West Virginia. I liked the lens flare in this shot and so I kept it.
Sunset taken from the top of Spruce Knob in West Virginia. I liked the lens flare in this shot and so I kept it.

Sometimes, it can just be distracting and obscure the elements in a scene that you really want to show with a better level of clarity.  Here are some ways I deal with lens flare.

1.) Lens hood

This first line of defense starts in the field before and during shooting and it begins with using a lens hood.  I’ve not found any good reasons to ever remove my lens hood, except to add filters or adjust them.  Not only does the hood help prevent stray light sources from creeping into the sides of your shot, but it serves as a physical barrier of protection for the glass itself.  It can also help prevent rain from reaching the lens, and if you’re shooting in humid conditions or drastic temperature changes, it may slow down condensation on the glass allowing you to shoot longer (I don’t know if this is true in practice, but I feel like it helps!).

2.) Physically block the source of light in front of the lens

A lens hood can only guard so much against lens flare, if the light source is in frame, shooting into the sun, for example, a hood will do nothing.  This next option requires a little blending in Photoshop.  You only need to know the basics of layers and masking but if the lighting is complex, it may require some advanced blending techniques that are too broad to cover in this post, but this little bit of knowledge can help get you started.

You’ll need to take at least two shots in the field.  One with the light source covered (you can just use your hand or lens cap for this, if shooting a landscape, try not to cover up any part of the landscape itself) and a second shot taken normally.  What I normally do is take a few bracketed exposures, adjusting only the shutter speed with the light source covered and uncovered; one metered for the sky, another for the landscape and the second in between the two (for example; -1, 0, -1EV).  This will ensure that you have enough source material to blend everything smoothly later.  Here is an example of how I blended an image in Photoshop using 3 shots.

This is what this scene looks like before I removed the lens flare using multiple exposures blended in Photoshop. The highlights in the sky are completely blown out in this shot, some detail is lost in the foreground, and there is a muddy/hazy cast over the entire scene.
Before blending and removing lens flare. The sky is completely blown out, detail is lost in the foreground, and there is a muddy/hazy cast over the entire scene.
The first shot was exposed for the foreground and mid-ground while covering up the sun with my lens cap.
The first shot was exposed for the foreground while covering up the sun with my lens cap so lens flare isn’t obscuring details in the rock and the light looks more clean overall.
This shot was taken to expose for the mid-ground - the mountains in the distance and to leave enough to recover the sunburst. The sky is still blown out and needs to be recovered using a third shot.
This shot was taken to expose for the mid-ground – the mountains in the distance and to leave enough to recover the sunburst. The sky is still blown out and needs to be recovered using a third shot.
This final exposure was taken to expose the sky correctly and recover the blues we lost in the upper portion of the sky and the oranges on the horizon.
This final exposure was taken to expose the sky correctly and recover the blues we lost in the upper portion of the sky and the oranges on the horizon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A screenshot of my layers panel. These are the masks I created and the way I ordered the layers in Photoshop to paint out the lens flare and recover other details in the image.
A screenshot of my layers panel. These are the masks I created and the way I ordered the layers in Photoshop to paint out the lens flare and recover other details in the image.

To blend these 3 exposures, I ordered them in the order shown here and added a white layer mask to the first image and with a soft, black brush at 100% opacity painting over the areas that I did not want to keep – this is everything but the foreground rock.  In the layer beneath that, the second image shown here, I did the same thing; added a layer mask and painted black over the sections that I didn’t want to show in the final image – this is just the sky, as I wanted to keep the mid-ground and the sunburst.  Beneath that layer, is the correctly exposed sky, which will now show through due to the previous layer masks.  Just a few curves and saturation adjustments were added and I’ve reached the final image shown below…

The sun dips below the mountains painting its golden light on the many textured layers of the New River Gorge in West Virginia. Taken from a rocky outcropping of Beauty Mountain.
The sun dips below the mountains painting its golden light on the many textured layers of the New River Gorge in West Virginia. Taken from a rocky outcropping of Beauty Mountain.

3.) Nature as a barrier

Sometimes you can find things in the environment to diffuse the sun’s light.  Trees are often used for this purpose.  Alternatively, sometimes its best to wait for the sun to be obscured by clouds or until it reaches the very edge of the horizon.

The sun shines through the evergreens and rhododendrons in the middle of winter at the New River Gorge in West Virginia.
The sun shines through the evergreens and rhododendrons in the middle of winter at the New River Gorge in West Virginia.
The sun's rays leave behind an explosion of colors as the storm clouds break over the New River Gorge from Beauty Mountain.
The sun’s rays leave behind an explosion of colors as the storm clouds break over the New River Gorge from Beauty Mountain.  Here, both the horizon and clouds worked to diffuse the light.

4.) Color Correction

If all else fails, the lens flare will have to be fixed in software.  For small flares, you can simply use the spot healing tool in Lightroom or clone stamp in Photoshop.  However, larger more intrusive flares will require some color correction.  For awhile, I was doing this with an adjustment brush in Lightroom, changing the white balance to match the surrounding area of the flare, making local adjustments using Color Balance or Hue/Saturation in Photoshop, or using a 50% gray dodge and burn area and painting over the areas with color that matches the original subject.  These methods work but are often difficult to match the colors precisely.  I’ve recently found a much better method that simply paints in the color from a nearby area over the textures that already exist in the image.  This quick video tutorial by Zack Ahern explains how to use this method.  Here is a recent example how I’ve applied this method.

This is an unedited version of a full moon shot taken recently. It was very foggy and the diffraction of light was producing all kinds of color variations that you can see in the middle of the image, below the moon. I would have tried to correct this when I shot it, but the flare is so subtle that I didn't notice it in the preview on my camera's LCD screen.
This is an unedited version of a full moon shot taken recently. It was very foggy and the diffraction of light was producing all kinds of color variations that you can see in the middle of the image – in the trees and fog/lake area below the moon. I would have tried to correct this when I shot it, but the flare is so subtle that I didn’t notice it in the preview on my camera’s LCD screen.
The Spring thunder storms break and the full moon makes an appearance to cast its light on the enveloping fog over the marsh of Green Bottom, West Virginia. Fully edited shot with lens flare removed using the method described in Zack Ahern's video.
The Spring thunder storms break and the full moon makes an appearance to cast its light on the enveloping fog over the marsh of Green Bottom, West Virginia. Fully edited shot with lens flare removed using the method described in Zack Ahern’s video.

BONUS

I’ve found the above method works for other things like water spray on the lens as well! It may not be perfect at recovering everything, but as long as some detail shows through you can still clean up the image a bit.

Before editing. Water spray from the waterfall can be seen on the lens, especially in the green areas of the image.
Before editing. Water spray from the waterfall can be seen on the lens, especially in the green areas of the image.
After editing and cleaning up the water spray. Some of the water droplets are still apparent but you have to be looking for them to notice. High water at Big Run after a round of fresh spring rains just before it meets with the Blackwater River in West Virginia; the dark, golden colored water is a natural result of the tannins that leech into the water system from the vegetation in the area.
After editing and cleaning up the water spray. Some of the water droplets are still apparent but you have to be looking for them to notice.
High water at Big Run after a round of fresh spring rains just before it meets with the Blackwater River in West Virginia; the dark, golden colored water is a natural result of the tannins that leech into the water system from the vegetation in the area.

 

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