DIY: The J.J. Abrams Lens Flare

    Widely regarded as one of the best directors of our time, J.J. Abrams has risen to the top of the filmmaking world. He has successfully rebooted the Star Trek franchise and the Star Wars universe, plus he also directed Mission: Impossible 3 and Super 8.

    But with massive success also comes criticism. And one of the biggest points of criticism against Abrams is his use of lens flares. They feature heavily in Abrams’ films and many believe he overuses them.

    Love them or hate them, lens flares have become a common element in Hollywood films, especially in science fiction. While some lens flares are the product of visual effects or computer generated imagery (CGI), there are some surprisingly simple ways to add lens flares to your own projects.

    Shoot A Light

    The easiest and simplest way to put a lens flare in your film is to shoot towards a bright light source.

    For this particular example I shot towards the brightest possible light source: the sun. A quick note on shooting into the sun, however, if you shoot directly at the sun without anything separating the lens and the sun, it may not work well. It’s preferable to shoot the sun through another object.

    But as you can see, the sun is streaming through the branches and creating a beautiful lens flare. This effect can also be achieved by shooting into other lights even film lights.

    Sometimes you can set up a scene in a way that allows you to shoot towards a light you may be using to light a scene. If done well, this technique can give you that nice lens flare you’re looking for.

    This first technique, shooting towards a bright light source, is the most practical way to get a lens flare, as it does not require any extra film equipment. As long as you’re shooting outside and there’s sun, you have the opportunity to get some lens flares.

    The Flashlight Effect

    Another way to get lens flares in your films is by using a flashlight. J.J. Abrams and his director of photography Dan Mindel consistently use this technique, especially in the Star Trek films.

    So as you can see above, J.J. Abrams is shining a high powered flashlight into the side of the lens on the camera. A big handful of lens flares you see in these films are achieved in this way.

    One thing to note, however, is this technique works differently depending on the lenses you are using.

    In the photo, Abrams’ camera is using what’s called an anamorphic lens. For these lenses, it is much more effective to shine the light from the side of the lens. Anamorphic lenses are speciality lenses that are actually oval shaped rather than the normal circular design. So when you shine a light from the side of these lenses, you get those elongated lens flares that stretch across the screen.

    As you can see from the photo above, you can also shoot the light from in front of the camera as well and get the same result.

    If you are using a non-anamorphic lens, shooting the light from the side will not work nearly as well. To get a lens flare that looks nice, you will almost always have to direct the light into the lens from the front.

    You can still do this without having the light in the shot. Much like the picture of Abrams above, you can do the same thing by standing just out of frame and shining your light directly into the lens.

    Light Leaks

    This technique is slightly more complicated than the last two, as it required some digital manipulation in post production. But don’t worry, it’s actually quite simple.

    First what you’ll need is what’s called a light leak. Light leaks are overlays for your footage that you can download from a number of different places on the internet, many places for free.

    Here is a link to one of those free websites:

    After you have you’re light leak, you can start manipulating your image.

    Above is my original image. This is freeze frame of a dolly-in shot. There is actually a light just off screen that the camera passes by. My idea was that as the camera passes by the light, a lens flare could quickly wash over the screen.

    Place your light leak footage above the frame of footage where you want your lens flare. You will have to change you light leak’s opacity blend mode.

    Usually this option will say ‘Normal’, but you will need to change it to ‘Screen’. And that is all you need to do.

    This overlays the light leak properly and gives you that lens flare you’ve been looking for. So you can see this technique is a lot easier than you probably first thought.


    So there you have it. Three ways you can recreate those J.J. Abrams-style lens flares in your work. I hope this helped and you now can add in those lens flares you’ve always dreamed of.

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    • Connor Campbell


      Connor Campbell is a writer/director, who lives in Calgary, Canada.


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