I could earn some serious cash if I started betting on the fact that every lens announcement in my inbox includes some version of the phrase “flare suppression” or “reduce flare and ghosting.” I get it — photographers want to be able to shoot towards the sun and still maintain some semblance of contrast. But, at a time when even mobile apps like VSCO have introduced digital filters that add flare, are lens manufacturers out of tune with what photographers really want? Lens manufacturers, if you’re reading this, know that not every photographer considers flare suppression a good thing.
By definition, lens flare is an imperfection. Flare is created when light doesn’t pass through the lens on its intended path and instead reflects inside the lens. Most modern lenses want to reduce imperfections — they are sharp to a fault, reign in colored fringing, and build bokeh largely free of onion rings and soap bubbles.
For many manufacturers, flare is on that list of faults. Coatings are added to help reduce and at times all but eliminate those internal reflections. A lens with heavy flare suppression can be pointed directly at the sun and yet only have a short bloom of light concentrated only around the light source.
More modern lenses choose to suppress flare rather than embrace it. Not every company is this way — when looking for photos to accompany this article, I literally searched for Laowa because every lens that I’ve tried from this brand has some sort of quirky flare. I mean, look at the circle flare from the Laowa 10mm f4 above.
And yet, apps like VSCO have several flare effects filters. Desktop programs like Boris FX Optics have an entire library of flares built off actual vintage lenses. A Google search for “Photoshop lens flare brushes” turns up more than a million results. Clearly, flare isn’t always a bad thing.
But what makes a flare “good”? As with any art, good flare is subjective. My favorite kind of flare is streaks of light. I often find the most extreme light streaks when the front of my lens is dirty. But, ideally, even a clean lens could get a bit of streaky flare when shooting into the sun at golden hour.
I also love the flare that can be created when cutting off half of the sun with the edge of the image or standing on the line where the shadows from trees or buildings start. This creates less shape, yet still adds a pop of color at a corner.
Color matters too — I love flare that has a more golden tone. I don’t mind ghost spots — if they are the right color. I’ll embrace warm-toned ghosting spots. But I’m not a big fan of green UFOs.
Flare can also wreck the colors in the rest of the image, which is where I start to take issue with flare. When I pop in some flash, I can usually get both great color and flare. But I recently just shot in a conservatory where tripods — and thus off-camera flash — weren’t allowed. I spent a lot of time getting the colors in the images with flare to look right.
For me, flare is about finding balance. I want to shoot backlit golden hour photos with soft colors that still have some contrast. I want streaky flare and gold-toned ghosting. But I don’t want green or purple flare. I don’t want to spend hours trying to fix colors. Yet, those standards have some flexibility. I aim for golden tones in my portraits. But, if I’m shooting into a DJ’s colored lights on a dance floor, in which case, all colors of flare tend to be pretty fun.
That brings me to my next point — whether or not a photographer wants flare is going to vary based not just on personal style but genre too. Understandably, a photographer capturing product photos or images for a wildlife identification field guide is going to want all details intact and flare minimized. Having the option to purchase lenses that heavily suppress flare isn’t a bad thing. What’s bad is when every lens follows that standard and photographers have to scour for pricey vintage lenses or resort to Photoshop brushes one hundred percent of the time. (I’ve used Boris FX Optics flare brushes on occasion when the sun isn’t in the right spot to create the right kind of flare.)
For me, that middle-of-the-road flare suppression is ideal. I want some contrast yet with a bit of streaky light or fun ghosting spots. And if the flare isn’t hitting the subject in just the right way, if the flare is detracting rather than adding too, well, there’s always a lens hood for that.