WTF Is With All The Lens Flare?


Lens Flare has become a staple of modern media. We see it in our apps, in games, in countless movies and of course in photography. It used to be considered a technical error, and as one of Vox’s latest videos explains, Cinematographers would usually call a halt to filming if flaring occurred. Just like vignetting or glitching, what some would consider to be a mistake is now seen as artful by many. But lens flare is becoming so ubiquitous that many of us now even fail to register it.

Lens flare is caused by light entering the lens of the camera and tiny photons bouncing around between the pieces of glass. This creates the effect that we’re all so familiar with by now, and although it was once a technical issue, many pieces of software now allow you to create it from scratch.

Digital lens flare in Interstellar

Citizen Kane, as pointed out by Vox, is a perfect example. During the shoot, Orson Welles wanted to keep multiple actors in focus at different focal lengths, and as any photographer will know, that means stopping down the aperture, which in turn means that you’ll usually need more light. To combat flares from the intense lighting, a anti-glare agent was used on the lenses. That was all very well, and we had perfectly good, flare-free movies for a couple of decades. That is, until the 60s came along and changed everything.Flares were used to create a documentary feel in the movie, making the film feel less carefully constructed and more spontaneous.

Movie aficionados will know that the 1960s and 70s were a period of enormous transition in cinema, as new forms of moviemaking began to be explored. With those movies came experimentations in cinematography. In particular, Conrad L. Hall’s camera work in Cool Hand Luke (1967) broke with tradition and began a new movement in cinema. Flares were used to create a documentary feel in the movie, making the film feel less carefully constructed and more spontaneous. “I feel particularly involved in helping make mistakes acceptable,” he said in 1992. If you’re sick of lens flare in modern cinema, you can probably blame Hall.

Movies such as The Graduate and Easy Rider followed suit and from there, flares began to be used more and more widely. Spielberg was the first to associate it with the mysteries of space in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As a mentor to JJ Abrams, this may have been something he passed down to the director of Star Wars Episode VII. Just as lens flare was once used to convey authenticity, it was used by Spielberg and others to lend that believability to aliens (in E.T.) and dinosaurs (in Jurassic Park).

Most cameras and lenses nowadays are made to eliminate flaring as much as possible, and yet we see it more and more. That’s because it’s become so ubiquitous with the mysterious and the otherworldly that we just add it in digitally wherever we feel like it. While actual flaring may be a thing of the past, digital flares are here to stay, although even JJ Abrams is getting sick of them.