Some of the most dramatic landscape photos are the ones where the camera is pointed directly into the sun. Sunsets and sunrises are when the most dramatic light happens. Shooting into the sun presents a wide variety of challenges for landscape photographers. Cameras do not see things the same as the human eye. Their ability to see and capture the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows of the scene is limited in comparison. When people look around, their pupils are constantly dialing to control the light. Today's best cameras can capture about 14 stops of light while the human eye can see about 30 stops of light. This means we are much more capable of seeing the bright scene than the camera. Also, the camera is capturing one single image, which can only be properly exposed for a specific range of luminosity within its capability.
Another challenge when shooting into the sun is lens flare. A lens flare happens when light is scattered or flared in a lens system, often in response to bright light, producing a sometimes undesirable artifact in the image. In this article, we will look at the unwanted effects of lens flare and how to avoid it when shooting into the sun.
Lens Flare Reveled
Let's take a look at a single raw exposure that I took here on the Big Island of Hawaii while shooting a sunset seascape photo.
(0 EV) The middle image has no adjustments made to it. We can tell by the left side of the histogram that we have clipped shadow detail. This is because the darkest shadows of the image are underexposed. You can also see that we have some highlight clipping by looking at the right side of the histogram. Anytime you see this U-shaped histogram, you should take note that you are shooting a very high dynamic range scene that will most likely require exposure blending.
(- 1 EV) In the photo on the left, I have dropped the exposure by one stop. As you can see, the brightest highlights in the sky around the sun have been lost and cannot be recovered. This is from overexposing the sky in the image.
(+ 2.50 EV) In the photo on the right, I have raised the exposure 2.5 stops which allows us to see the shadow details in the rocks in the foreground. We can now see the lens flare that was hiding in the underexposed foreground. You will see a rainbow-colored orb of light, also known as lens flare. You might not notice the lens flare when reviewing your images in the field. It can be hard to see on the back of your LCD or in your electronic viewfinder. Lens flare is not a great look in a photo and is impossible to remove completely.
Lens Flare Can Ruin Your Photo
Taking a closer look at the damage caused to the image, you can see that the lens flare has created a mess. There are methods of cleaning up lens flare in Adobe Photoshop, but none are easy and won't completely fix the issue. It is simply better to avoid bringing home images with a lens flare in them. At first glance, you might think that the lens flare is only affecting a small portion of the image, specifically around the rainbow-colored orb. I will show you that, in fact, the entire photo has suffered degradation of color, detail, and contrast from the flaring. First, let's look at a way to prevent the flaring in the photo in the first place.
Cover The Light Source In The Photo With Your Hand
A simple and effective trick is to cover the sun with your hand in the image before snapping the shot. As you put your fingers in front of the lens to block out the sun, you will notice the lens flare should be removed or greatly reduced. Depending on the direction of the sun doing this should be effective. It is the best chance you have to remove the flare in the image. Otherwise, you will have to try to remove it in Photoshop. In the photo above, you can see the lens flare is gone. I have raised the exposure 1.65 EV in the photo on the right to reveal the shadow area in the foreground where the lens flare was.
A Closer Look At A Much Cleaner Image With No Lens Flare
Lens Flare Or Bokeh?
Having a landscape photo that looks like it is covered in Christmas tree ornaments is usually not the look I am going for. In this example, you can see over 20 roundish orbs of light scattered around the photo. I am not certain if they are part of the lens flare or bokeh. Either way, I would try everything you can to eliminate them from your photo because there will be no fixing this in photoshop. Near the bottom of the photo, you can see the actual lens flare. When I cover the sun, the lens flare at the bottom disapears, but the roundish orbs still remain. This photo was taken many years ago. I was using the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM. This lens handled lens flare worse than Canon's current lenses. I also might have been using a lens filter. Filters can create flare and ghosting issues—especially low-quality filters. So if you are experiencing lens flare, try removing your filter. If nothing else works, try pointing your camera in a different direction.
Make Sure To Cover The Entire Light Source
It might be hard to tell if you have your fingers blocking the light source good enough to remove the lens flare. It's hard to tell by looking in the viewfinder or on the back of your camera. Try taking a fiew extra shots with your finger in different positions.
Comparing A Photo With And Without Blocking The Light Source
Let's look at two photos of the same scene, one using the light blocking lens flare removal and one without using it. Both photos were taken with the same settings, lens, and camera. I took the photos within 3 seconds of each other, so the light did not change. The only adjustment that was made was I matched the white balance. In these comparisons, I will show you that not only is the lens flare a problem, but the entire image is suffering from loss of sharpness, color, and contrast.
Example # 1 The Obvious Lens Flare
Most people would immediately notice the lens flare issue in this example. Some might say that you could easily remove it with various tools in Photoshop, such as the clone tool, patch tool, spot healing brush, content-aware fill, and so on. But if you look at this comparison, you will see the issue with the color of the image. There is a distinct greenish tint to the rocks that is unnatural. The sharpness of the rock looks as if it is almost out of focus. This comparison shows that the image is affected even outside of the area of the obvious flare.
Example #2 Middle Of The Frame
As you can see, far from the obvious lens flare in the image, we still have a noticeable loss of image quality from sunlight hitting the lens. You can see far better contrast, image sharpness, and more saturated colors. This image on the left looks washed out. In the image on the right, where we blocked the sun out of the image, everything looks better.
Removing Your Hand In Photoshop
Now that you have removed your lens flare from the image, you will be left with the problem of having your hand or fingers in different parts of the photo. You can usually get away with simply stacking the image without your hand with the image with your hand in Photoshop and painting your hand out using layer masks. You will have to get creative and use whatever photoshop skills you know to remove your hand from the image.
Knowing when to use these methods is key to getting the best image quality for your camera and lenses. Tons of different shooting situations were not shown in this article where these methods of flare removal may or may not work. You will have to use your best judgment whether to deal with the flaring, use these methods to remove it in the field, or possibly deal with it in Photoshop. In some cases, you might just want to find a different composition there, and you do not have to deal with the direct sun. When the sun briefly goes behind a cloud, you can shoot much easier without having to deal with lens flare. Fixing Lens Flare In Photoshop
Fixing Lens Flare In Photoshop
Knowing how to remove lens flare in photoshop is the next best and still an important skill to possess. At some point, you will likely have to manually remove lens flare in Photoshop. Here is a video by landscape photographer Sean Bagshaw that will show you some methods of fixing it in Photoshop.