Running from the Law: Capturing Sun Flare in your Photos

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Capturing Sun Flare in your Photos

Since this month's photo challenge theme is "Sunshine," I thought it'd be fun to come up with a little tutorial on how to get cool sun flare in your photos.  Sun flare is caused by light entering the lens and scattering before it reaches the camera's image sensor and results in light streaks, beams or shapes in an image.  It's also called "lens flare."  And it seems to be all the rage right now (according to my Pinterest feed, at least).  

I think sun flare can be so beautiful and add so much to a photo, if done properly.  I've always been so happy when I accidentally end up some pretty sun flare in my photos.  I was never exactly sure what I did (or which settings I was using) when I captured them though, and it was never really intentional.  

Accidental sun flare! (above)

However, I've scoured the web for some tips, tricks and advice for capturing sun flare in your photos and armed with that in mind, I've done a little reconnaissance to see if I could capture sun flare (on purpose) so I could let you all know what actually worked for me (and what didn't).  Like I've said before, I am a total amateur photographer and don't really know what I'm doing most of the time, so bear with me.  That's my disclaimer in case what I say below is total bullshit.  Anyway, here's a summary of what the tutorials (written by people who actually know what the hell they're talking about) say...

1. Shoot directly into the sun.  Put the subject of your photo in between you and the sun and then move around to place the sun on the edge of your photo, just outside the photo, behind something or just on the edge of something.  This should provide nice backlighting and make the focus point look like it is bathed in light.  Play around with angles and just look for the beams of light.  I've found that I usually have to shoot from a low angle to get the subject and the sun in the shot.  It helps if your subject is adorable.  Also, look at that hair!  Those curls!  Lady-killer. 

If the sun isn't directly behind something, you get a blown out expose bathed in light (above).

If the sun is partially hidden by something, you get a more accurate exposure (above).

Here's another example.  

When the sun is partially blocked...picture perfect (below).
Awww.  Arent' they the sweetest?

But when the sun is in my direct line of sight, it blows out the photo (below).  
Also called: how to safely decapitate your husband without all the mess! 

2. Don't focus on the sun.  Similar to above, make sure that your camera is focusing on the subject, not the sun (so focus on the son, not the sun...bah!). Sometimes if there's too much light, your camera has trouble finding the contrast or what to focus on.  What I've done is to hold my hand up and shade the sun from the camera, focus on my subject (press the shutter button half-way), then take my hand away  and press the shutter all the way down.  Seems to work well.  Some of the tutorials say you might have to use manual focusing, but I never found that to be the case (thank goodness, because everything would be out of focus with my crappy eyesight).  

3. Use your kit (cheap) zoom lens.  Remember last month when I told you to buy a nice prime lens with a really wide aperture?  Yeah, scratch that for just a second.  Apparently the makers of really nice lenses don't want you to have a bunch of broken light and flare in your photos (rightfully so).  The nicer the lens, the harder it is to capture good flare.  So the crappier the better!  Aren't you so glad you just spent all that money on a nice lens (yes, you should be).  I used the Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens that came with my camera. 

4. Experiment with aperture.  Most tutorials I found say that you should use a narrow (larger number) aperture when shooting sun flare.  I found that the smaller my aperture (larger number), the more my light source had that sunburst looking effect.  So when I used the highest aperture my lens would do (f/25), I got that sunburst with a rainbow/light arch and when I opened my aperture up (f/6), I got more diffused light with some flare spots.  Notice how everything in the background is much less blurry with a more narrow aperture (higher number).  

5. Longer shutter speed.  Because you're using a narrower aperture (smaller opening that doesn't let in as much light), you want to use a longer shutter speed to let in more light.  If your subject is moving, this might mean that your focus is blurry.  Play around with it until you find a setting that freezes the subject, but still lets in the light.  (It also helps when the subject of your photo can hold still for one hot second and doesn't want to tackle you in the middle of the road so you will give him an airplane ride.  Just saying.)

Blurry! (above)

Better! (above)

6. Expose for the subject, not the sun.  The sensor on your camera is going to expose the photo for the total amount of light coming in your camera.  That means that unless you are shooting in manual or one of the priority modes, you're going to end up with the subject of your photo turning into a silhouette (all blackened out with sun all around) or way over-exposed.  I love a good silhouette (and I love over-exposed photos), but if that's not what you're going for, you need to make sure that you're exposing for the subject instead of the overall scene.  So put your camera on Manual or one of the priority modes (Av or Tv) and make sure you are exposing for the subject.  

 I guess these photos above should be an example of what not to do, but I kind of love them anyway.

7. Experiment!  Have fun with this.  Play around with your settings, your angles and your subject.  Doing it wrong will help you figure out how to do it right.  And sometimes I end up liking the "wrong" ones the best!  I recommend going outside in the evening (just before sunset), with a strong cocktail in hand (vodka and lemonade) and play around.  Try not to stare directly into the sun too long or you'll get a headache (the vodka helps if this happens).  

Other great sun flare tutorials:


  1. Thanks so much for this tutorial! I love all your sun flare photos!

  2. Can you come practice your photography on my kids? Pretty please...

  3. Great tutorial. I love it. And natural sun flare is so much better than adding it post processing. ;)

  4. This is so cool! Definatly on my weekend play around with list! I love the top photo where the sun is coming between Mac's head & shoulder and the ones with Dad holding him and their backs to you are just precious!

  5. I keep reading these, but will I practice them?! Oy.

  6. Since you mentioned having problems focusing manually due to eyesight... have you already tried changing your diopter? Google it. It will change your (photography) life ;)

  7. I absolutely love sun flare photos! These are all so cute!

  8. This is an awesome tutorial! I'm still learning my DSLR and doing manual settings is a challenge! This is so helpful! now if only we would have some sun around here to practice with. The rain keeps coming!

  9. Thank you so much for these tips! We've had our DSLR for a few months & at times it can be so overwhelming learning all the tricks that go into it! So, glad I found your blog via one of my blog friends Ashley!

  10. Keep posting these camera tricks! I will have to refer back when I'm no longer pregnant and so tired I can't process anything...but I'm really looking forward to trying them all someday!

  11. Great post! I love it:)

    Win a pair of sunglasses:

  12. Is it possible to come practice your images on my kids? pls.!:)