Creating Artistic Landscape Photographs Part 1: Flare is Beautiful

Landscape & Environment

April 29, 2019 ·

Alain Briot


Seek not perfection for you can never reach it.
-Salvador Dali

Flare is Beautiful

1 – Introduction: constructing images

I construct images. This is what I do. I don’t just capture raw photographs, process them and convert them. I alter them, warp them, and reformat them. I change their color palette, I dramatically modify their contrast and I use every digital means available to me to make them look the way I want them to look. I like to joke that I do unspeakable things to them. Except I am not joking. For me these things are not unspeakable. They are enjoyable, liberating even. But for those who continue to follow a strict film paradigm, a rigid way of processing images that is limited to adjusting color and contrast, the things I do -are- unspeakable. However for me, for someone who was never happy with the limitations that film imposed on my creativity, for someone who was trained as a painter and did not understand why shapes and colors couldn’t be molded to my desire instead of being fixed by the film they were recorded on, these things are a dream come true. A godsend. A response to my prayers. A medium that opens the doors to a full set of creative tools. I make no secret that if it was not for digital capture and processing I would have quit photography long ago. I may have gone back to painting, since this is the medium I was first trained in, or I may have done something completely different, but I would not have pursued using a medium that had so many limiting and frustrating aspects.

But this is now, digital is here and I make full use of it. This is also the start of a new series of essays, a series focused not on the how but the why of what I do. Focused on explaining the thinking process I go thorough when I create digital images. This thinking is non-verbal. It takes place in my mind and I am not necessarily aware of it when I work. Neither do I need to be. Only the result counts. If the image turns out to be what I want it to be, I am good. However, in order to talk or write about what I do, depending whether I am teaching a workshop or writing an essay like I am doing now, I have to make this process conscious. So I started taking notes when I work on my images and I started saving photographs of the process I follow as it goes through its different stages. It is these notes that are behind this series and it is these photographs, both good and bad, that illustrate it.

In addition to manipulating my images I also keep an eye for happy photographic accidents, things that happen without my awareness and that offer artistic opportunities. This is the case with the image featured in this essay, a photograph in which flare imparted an unintentional artistic dimension.

2 – What is flare?

Let’s move on to the subject of this essay: flare. Flare is the result of light entering the lens at a steep angle. Flare can take several aspects. For example it can be a light area at the top of the image, due to light entering the lens and creating a sort of washed out area. This happens in slot canyons for example because you are basically in a dark cave shooting up towards the light with the lens pointed upwards towards the light source, either the sky or the sun, causing light to enter the lens at a steep angle and creating flare.

Flareless


The same scene as in the first illustration but this time captured without flare. For me this photograph lacks the dynamic quality of the one with flare. It is the flare that makes the image. While technically flareless this one lacks the dynamic quality of the flare-filled version. Notice that this image was not processed to the same extent as my featured image and is shown as an example only.

3 – Sun stars

Flare can also take the look of a sun star, A sun star is created by shooting straight into the sun with the lens diaphragm closed to its’ smallest aperture. Using a wide-angle lens and a small f-stop while shooting straight into the sun causes the sunrays to diffract along the edge of the aperture blades creating a sun star. The more aperture blades your lens has the more spikes your sun star will have. A lens with six aperture blades will create a six pointes star, one with eight blades an eight pointes star and so on. In addition an even number of aperture blades will give you a number of rays equal to the number of blades, while an odd number of aperture blades will result in twice the number of rays. For example a seven blade lens will create a fourteen points star. Finally straight aperture blades create sharper stars than curved blades.
Sun stars are easy to create because there is a known methodology, a workflow we can use to generate them: use a wide angle lens, point it towards the sun, close the aperture to the smallest f-stop, diffract the sun against an element or keep the sun alone in the middle of the sky, underexpose significantly and shoot. It works because we know how to do it.

Sun stars are a classic use of flare, a use considered acceptable by the photographic community. So much so that even though sun stars are a type of flare and are caused by the same optical phenomena, they are not referred to as ‘flare’ but have their own name: ‘sun stars.’ This shows that sun stars are ok, that they are considered ‘pretty’. This is nothing new. Sun stars were considered acceptable in film days, before digital capture came about. They have been ‘washed’ by the powers that be and accepted as an acceptable element of landscape photographs by the photographic community. This is easy to test: submit a photograph with a sun star to a magazine that fosters the film paradigm aesthetics and it has an excellent chance of being published. Submit a photograph that features flare in other ways, such as the image which is the subject of this essay, and it will most likely be rejected as NMQ, Not Magazine Quality or worse, as NBQ, Not Book Quality.

Sun Star

A sun star photograph taken the same day at the same location as the other images in this essay. This image is not a textbook-perfect example of a sun star because it features both a sun star and octagonal lens flare. However I decided to feature it because this essay is not about seeking perfection and because this image was captured during the same shoot as the other photographs in this essay.

4 – Going beyond sun stars: sideways flare

Flare is not limited to sun stars. It can happen in all sorts of ways, with or without the photographer’s awareness, and it can take many aspects depending on the combination of optics, light angle and which way the lens is pointed. When flare happens without having the sun in the photograph it often results in creating a ghost-like pattern of the aperture blades, a shape with five straight sides and five angles, a pentagon.

Sideways flare happens when the sun is off to the side of the lens, letting the flare enter by the side rather than the front of the lens the way it does with sun stars. Sideways flare is present in the image featured in this essay. Sideways flare is usually considered ‘bad’ by the film-paradigm photographic community and is usually removed by cloning or content aware. If removing it is not possible the photograph is not published.

5 – No control

Sideways flare is not something easy to control. Little information is available about using it and there is no workflow to create it. In fact I did not notice the flare in the images featured here when I captured them in the field. Either I did not pay attention, did not care, or just overlooked it. In any case it is here and I like it. I like the yellow orange color and the fact the flare adds a dynamic element to the image. It makes the image more luminous by bringing light that otherwise would not be present. With it the image features a light shaft, or more appropriately, a flare shaft. On top of that this flare shaft is positioned diagonally, starting at top left and ending at bottom right. I feel as if flare wanted to improve my composition by adding a dynamic element, a diagonal line, to strengthen my composition.

The lens I used, a Hasselblad 40 mm C without the T* coating, may have also been part of the creation of this flare shaft. This lens appears to have powerful flare abilities, maybe because of its lack of T* coating, maybe because of its optical design. This shoot was the first time I used this lens and I discovered the flare when I converted the captures. Some will say that this lens is not good since it ‘flares up’. I say it is more artistic. It has imperfect qualities that emphasize the non-documentary and the accepted-imperfection aspects of my work.

Fickle Flare
Flare is fickle, as demonstrated by this capture that does not exhibit the same amount or quality of flare as the one I selected.

6 – Why does it work?

Flare works for the image featured in this essay. Why? For one even though it was accidental (I may have tried to shield the lens, I honestly don’t remember if I did or not, but in any case I was obviously unsuccessful) it is an inherent element of the photograph. In other words it does not come across as accidental or as something I missed seeing before publishing the photograph. One would have to be blind not to see this. So yes I did see it, yes I published it and yes I did so with the awareness that I did not mind that it was here. Beyond all this I was aware that flare was an important part of the image, an element I wanted to have in there because I see it as what creates the interest of that image. Without flare it is safe to say that this image would be just another photograph of this location. Nothing wrong with that but nothing unique either. With it this image is unique, being not just an image of that location but also an image of that location with spectacular flare. Not just flare mind you, spectacular flare. Once in a lifetime flare. Flare so outrageous you tell your neighbors about it even though they are not photographers and have little interest in fine art landscape photography. Flare so bad optical engineers peer over it wondering how a lens can be that flawed, or can encounter a situation so dramatic that it fails to render an acceptable image to such an extent. Flare so bad it goes viral. Flare so bad it becomes aesthetically appealing and the photographer writes an essay about it titled ‘Flare is beautiful.’

Vertical Flare Composition
For this alternate version I used a vertical composition. However, while flare-filled this alternate version does not feature the dynamic flare quality of the image I selected.

The horizontal version and the vertical version feature two different color palettes. The horizontal version has a predominantly warm color palette, veering towards warm yellow-orange tones throughout the image. The vertical version has a predominantly cool color palette, veering towards blue tones both in the background and in the foreground shadows. I made no attempt to unify these two palettes. They came out that way because these are the palettes that each image called for. This choice is less about me and more about the images. The photographs are more interesting that way because they are more themselves. I did make the final selection call and that was for the horizontal version which I much prefer to the vertical one.

7 – Can flare be bad?

Flare is beautiful, sometimes but not always. It can be good and it can be bad, just like anything can. Depending on your personal taste and the look of the photograph, flare can be an annoyance or it can be beautiful. Flare can create an unattractive washed out area of low contrast or it can bring life to a photograph with an otherwise so-so composition by introducing a dynamic element, as is the case in the image featured here.

What matters is that you publish images that you like. If an image fulfills your personal aesthetics it is good, regardless whether it has flare or not. Personally I took many flare-filled images yet have published only a few of them. Most were not to my liking, not because they had flare but because the flare they had did not adhere to my personal aesthetics. I decided to publish this one because I find the flare in it to be beautiful, to fulfill my aesthetic taste.

In other words I consider it art. Whether an image is art or not is something I decide. Whether my audience finds my work beautiful or not is something viewers decide for themselves. Those who like my work become part of my audience. Those who don’t need to continue looking for work they like. I am way past the stage of trying to bring to my side viewers who do not agree with my artistic decisions.

8 – Conclusion

An image does not need to be perfect to be successful. This is the case with the photograph featured in this essay, an image that is shockingly beautiful not because it is perfect but because it is imperfect. It is its lack of perfection that makes it visually attractive. It is the presence of extreme flare, a feature most photographers seek to avoid, that gives it a dynamic quality and makes it unique.

I started this essay with a quote from Salvador’s Dali Diary of a Genius: “Seek not perfection for you can never reach it.” According to Dali I am doing pretty well because the photograph which is the subject of this essay is far from being perfect. As proof it is highly unlikely that it would be praised or published by those who follow a straight film aesthetic paradigm.

Why strive for perfection when defects can add artistic interest? Why not take advantage of beautiful imperfections when happenstance makes them happen? My work is not about documentation and neither is it about perfection. To paraphrase Dali I do not work towards creating perfection in my work because I believe I can never reach it. Art, not perfection, is what matters to me. For me imperfection is a source of creativity. For my audience it is a source of interest, the origin of something different, something that does not try to conform or duplicate what has been done by the masters or by those who came before.

Alain photographing at the same location but on a different day, in a photograph created by Jeff Schewe.
I am including it here because it also has flare, making the point that this location is flare-prone.

9 – About Alain Briot
You can find more information about our workshops, photographs, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to our Free Monthly Newsletter on our website at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com. You will receive 40 free eBooks when you subscribe to my newsletter.

I create fine art photographs, teach workshops with Natalie and offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing, business and marketing.  I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold.  All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website at this link: http://beautiful-landscape.com/Ebooks-Books-1-2-3.html. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.

10 – Workshops with Alain and Natalie Briot

If you enjoyed this essay you will enjoy attending a workshop with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie to the most photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on the artistic aspects of photography. While we do teach technique, we do so for the purpose of creating artistic photographs. Our goal is to help you create photographs that you will be proud of and that will be unique to you. The locations we photograph include Navajoland, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon and many others. Our workshops listing is available at this link: http://beautiful-landscape.com/Workshop-home.html

Alain Briot
April 2019

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Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, raw conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. Alain is the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition and Marketing Fine Art Photography. All 3 books are available from Alain’s website as well as from most bookstores. You can find more information about Alain's work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to Alain’s Free Monthly Newsletter on his website. You will receive over 40 essays in PDF format, including chapters from Alain’s books, when you subscribe.

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