4 Tips on Creatively Adding Lens Flares Into Your Mobile Photography

Raise your hand if this has happened to you: you’re out shooting some photos in the late afternoon. The light is beautiful (it’s that magic hour), your subjects are particularly photogenic and you just know you’re going to end up with some amazing pictures. Then, you open up your camera roll to chimp your shots, you realize that you failed to take one little factor into account: the sun.

Yes, the sun. It makes the grass green and tomatoes red. It gives us that beautiful, natural light. And it creates lens flare.

Now if you’re like a lot of mobile photographers (and photographers in general really), you try to avoid lens flare, and when you have a moment like the one described above, you probably just delete the photos, curse at them a little and then move on. But lens flare is not always the disaster that your Photography 101 instructor might have told you it was. In fact, some mobile photographers regularly use lens flare as a creative tool. There are even a few apps (one of which is LensFlare by Brain Fever Media) that creates lens flare and helps you use the flare for creativity.

So instead of avoiding lens flare, how can you rein it in and make it a part of your creative process? 

What Causes Lens Flare?

Lens flare happens when stray light reflects on some of the internal elements of your lens. This stray light can create light streaks, “sunbursts” or reduction in contrast and saturation. For most of the history of photography, lens flare has been a much-maligned anomaly. Photographers learned all sorts of little tricks to avoid it or minimize it. For some reason, it was not until the very recent past that someone noticed that under the right circumstances, lens flare is actually pretty cool. 

What Is a Lens Flare?

Lens Flare

Arthit Somsakul / Getty Images

Lens flare is caused by strong rays of light directly hitting your lens and causing a slight sunburst. Capitalizing on the direction of your light is the key to capturing lens flare. 

Think Silhouette

Woman playing tennis

Mike Kemp / Blend Images / Getty Images

Place your subject in front of you, with their back to the sun. Your subject will be backlit as though you were capturing a silhouette.

Use Manual Mode

People walking towards the setting sun

Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

Your mobile phone camera will expose the scene for the total amount of light in the photo. If you follow the mobile camera's "metering", you will be left with a silhouette as it tries to compensate for the amount of light it captures. Shooting using the "manual mode" will enable you to overcompensate for the backlight, so your subject is perfectly lit, even with the overexposed background. Another tip would be​ trying your mobile phone's flash unit, or better yet, an external unit such as the iShuttr.

Shoot at an Angle

Girl swimming on inflatable ring pad

Artur Debat / Getty Images

Because you want an image with lens flare — and not simply overexposure — you need to remember one thing: Camera position to the sun. This will largely depend on what time of day you shoot. In the mornings or evenings, you will have an easier time of shooting directly into the sun. But at midday, this changes. You will need to position yourself fairly low to the ground in order to shoot into the sun. Typically, 11 am or 2 pm is most conducive to midday Lens flare.