Is Flare Always a Problem in a Photograph?

The spectacular Alexamder Column illuminated at night, Palace Square in St. Petersburg, Russia

Flare occurs when non-image forming light reaches the film or sensor via your camera's lens. The most extreme forms of flare result in strangely (usually polygonal) shaped orange/red colored artifacts on your images. However, less extreme forms of flare can also adversely affect the look and quality of your photographs. The result, usually considered undesirable, will be images that display lower levels of contrast, sharpness and color saturation.

Our Conservative Past

Back in the day extreme levels of lens flare were usually considered to be the death of a photograph. As a consequence of this belief you did all you could to eliminate the occurrence of flare. A lens hood or shade, which I use ever single time I make a photograph, certainly helps and photographing directly into the light was to be avoided at all costs.

Good advice? Yes! However, it's also just one example of how a so-called rule can be detrimental to the making of emotively powerful and, therefore, successful photographs.

Fashion Changes

Fashion changes and rules need to adopt with the times. Rather than avoiding flare, at all costs, consider embracing it, when its appropriate to do so, in the pursuit of creativity.

Both photos in this post were made, from the same original camera generated file, in Palace Square right in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. While most tourists to this amazing city were, no doubt, sitting in a restaurant enjoying a meal I was having the time of my life exploring the city at night.

The structure that dominates the photo, known as the Alexander Column, rises 47.5 meters (155 feet, 8 inches) into the sky and is topped by a statue of an angel. It's quite a sight, particularly at night when illuminated by artificial lighting.

A nostalgic view celebrating the glorious Alexander Column at Palace Square in St. Petersburg, Russia

To Flare or Not to Flare

It was a lovely summer's evening, though a little cool with a breeze coming off the nearby Neva River. There was some moisture in the air which, when illuminated by one of the nearby artificial light sources, created flare. The question as to how much flare is required is the trick. I love the atmospheric effect around the street lights on the bottom right hand corner of the frame, but can't make up my mind about the UFO-like flare occurring in the top left of the photo.

I've produced two versions of the original photo: one with all the flare intact, the other where I've removed the flare from the top left of the image. The thing is I like the flare, but feel it might be overpowering. However, having the flare on either side of the Alexander Column does add a sense of balance to the image.

The question is what's the photo about? Is it about flare or about the glory of days gone by? It's important to choose the version that works best visually but, due to the strength of the subject matter, I feel that the look and feel of the image needs to be sympathetic to the underlying theme.

I'd be very interested in your opinion. Which one do you prefer?

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru