Cinematic lens-flare filter comparison
Apr 7, 2021
Cinematic lens-flare filter comparison
Clearer, sharper, brighter!
In recent years, we’ve spent a lot of money investing in expensive camera tech and lenses that produce flawless and crystal-clear imagery (ironically, that’s a dated expression given that we actually want images to be a lot clearer than crystal). But, is it really necessary? Do we really need to remove all traces of the image making process from our photographs? Have our images lost some of their uniqueness along the way?
Many modern lenses are now so clear that they’ve taken absolutely every visual optical characteristic possible from the image. No vignetting, no optical distortion and no depth thanks to superior optical clarity. There is certainly a time and a place for this look and architectural, crime scene photography and certain product photography can benefit from this somewhat clinical approach that purposely adds no story or bias to the scene in front of them. When you absolutely have to have a handheld photocopier, these new lenses are perfect.
But, there are times when our images can feel a little too ‘perfect’ and soulless. Sometimes we want to inject emotion into the shot by adding, rather than simply removing. If you have access to older editorials in magazines like Vogue or Harpers Bazaar (old as in 90’s), take a look at the images housed within. You’ll quickly see that the images have a certain visual quality that we can sometimes miss today.
Another discipline that has always coveted this more organic-looking image, is cinema. Even big-budget IMAX movies are often shot on lenses that are purposefully not perfect. A while back, I spent time at Panavision HQ here in London, and they routinely had directors of photography in their testing, adjusting and hiring their old Panavision lenses. In fact, these lenses are so coveted by certain production houses because you simply cannot buy them anymore…. legally. Many old Panavision lenses were made with lead lens coatings that give the final image a gorgeous sheen. Due to health and safety concerns though, you can no longer sell these lead-coated lenses anymore…. but you can rent them.
Cinema is absolutely rife with lens distortions, and although JJ Abrams did his level-best to single-handedly put everybody off of lens flares in 2009, the more subtle depth and flare is still present in nearly all modern films today.
But what can we do as photographers to add a little personality back into our lenses? Do we really need to hire lead-coated lenses from the dark web? Thankfully, like with cinematographers, there are lens filters we can place on our fancy, modern ‘perfect’ lenses to give them a little more personality and in this article I’ll go over a few new lens filters that I recently picked up from Prism Lens FX and I’ll compare them to my more traditional LEE lens filters.
Prism Lens FX
I only recently heard of this company and a community member mentioned that I should check them out as they knew I was interested in all manner of ways to ruin a perfectly good lens. Prism FX is a relatively new company and they only started in 2018, but since then they’ve released a whole host of lens filters that range from the very apparent crystal prisms to the more practical and subtle chromatic and anamorphic style flares.
Please note: This is not a sponsored post. I have no affiliation with Prism Flare FX and I was not sent these filters to test.
I jumped on the Prism Lens FX site a few weeks ago and picked up their ‘Flare FX’ filter, the ‘Chromatic Flare FX’ and the ‘Dream FX’ lens filters. Sadly, due to lockdowns it was a little tricky to test them out as much as I’d like, but recently I finally got to try them out on a shoot alongside my current lens filters to see how they compared. For those of you who may have missed previous articles, I often use the LEE Diffusion filters (Softs) and the LEE Low Contrast filters.
New Lens-Filter Test
Briefly, here’s what each of the new Prism Lens FX filters looks like and a crude example of what they do when they are on your lens.
To get these initial test shots for you, I simply fired a strobe with a partially covered gridded reflector dish attached, directly into the lens.
I was using a Nikon D850 with my 24-70 2.8 lens and all of these test shots were taken at f8. For reference, the initial shot being displayed here is what the image looked like with no lens filter at all attached.
Dream FX Lens Filter
This filter is the most subtle one I purchased and it’s the closest to what I currently have with the LEE Low Contrast filter. The Dream FX is almost like having a crappy piece of glass in front of your high-quality glass and although I’m likely oversimplifying it, you get the idea of how the resulting image will look. The resulting effect is a slight glow around the edges of high contrast areas.
Chromatic Flare FX Lens Filter
This filter adds red-ish streaks across the image where we see specular points of light. This effect is dramatic when we have a point of light in shot, but without a light in shot, the filter is very subtle. Note: This lens filter can be rotated to ensure the streaks go in whatever direction you want.
Flare FX Lens Filter
The Flare FX is actually very similar to the Chromatic Flare filter in that it really only comes to life when there is a point of light in the shot. With light sources in shot, this filter creates blue streaks that are aesthetically similar to that of cinematic anamorphic lenses. Obviously, the blue streaks is not the only factor to an anamorphic lens, but if you’re a fan of sci-fi lens flares, you’ll immediately recognise the look this filter is going for. Note: This lens filter can be rotated to ensure the streaks go in whatever direction you want.
For your reference, here is what my current LEE lens filters look like too.
LEE Diffusion (Softs) Filter
This filter adds a lot of flare to the image and again this filter tends to flare more noticeably nearer a point of light.
LEE Low Contrast Filter
In recent shoots, I’ve fallen in love with this very clean and more subtle look the low contrast filter can offer. It is also less prone to flaring around points of light in the shot and gives a more overall misty effect to a shot. Like the other filters, it reacts well with points of light in shot, but it still has an effect even without light sources in frame.
I didn’t do anything particularly unique to test these filters, but I did want to ensure I had at least one point of light within the actual image so I could see how each of these filters reacted with those specular highlights. As you will see from the images below, I achieved the light in shot by having a standard lamp behind the subject and for many of the images, I was also conscious that I needed to duck down a little, so that the lens could see the actual bare bulb in the image. Keep an eye out for how the flare effect changes when we can’t see the bare bulb in the image as this dramatically effects how the shot looks.
One last note is that both the Chromatic and Flare filters create streaks of light. The orientation of these streaks is solely dependant on how you have the filter rotated on your lens and you’ll notice that sometimes these streaks appear vertical and horizontal. Just remember that this can be adjusted as you shoot by simply turning the filter on the lens itself.
Stupidly, I barely shot any images at all without a filter on the lens. Subsequently I only had a few lighting test shots to show you before I added the filters to test. This is one of those shots.
But, for the sake of comparison, this is the scene with no lens filter at all and all of these images are shot on Nikon D850 with a 24-70 f2.8 lens.
Chromatic Flare FX
Below you’ll immediately see what the introduction of this new filter is doing and you can clearly see the effect it creates with those red streaks. As I mentioned above, the orientation of those streaks is purely dependant on how you rotate the filter on the lens. It’s also worth noting that the size of the streak is also very dependant on the size of the light source in the shot and by that I’m referring to the actual bulb. In the horizontal streak below, I only have a tiny bit of bulb showing, this results in a very small streak. In the vertical streak shot ( I rotate the filter on the lens), a far larger area of bulb is showing and this results in a more powerful streak.
Other things to note is how the rest of the image is affected by the filter and by that I mean areas that are not directly affected by the streak. There is a small amount of flare noticeable throughout the shot and the filter has introduced a little warmth, as well as lifting the blacks slightly too. Personally, I have no problem with any of that and I think it helps bed the streak into the shot over simply looking like it may have been added later on in post.
This is the bluer, more anamorphic looking filter and although it produces a similar look to the Chromatic filter (albeit a blue streak instead of red), the physical filter itself does look very different by design.
By looking at the filter itself, you’ll notice that its entire surface is covered in blue lines compared to the Chromatic filter that just has one chunky line in the middle. I’m no filter expert, far from it, but it appears that the blue streak one here has more overall flare throughout the filter and as a result, you get a little more of an effect, even when you don’t have a point of light in shot.
Here I’ve included a shot where I don’t have the actual bulb in shot, but you can still see how the surrounding light in the lampshade is enough to start creating the horizontal flare effect, albeit subtle.
Again, I also took a shot with the filter rotated vertically for comparison too.
This was the third filter I got from Prism FX and it’s definitely the most subtle. The other two filters clearly do a very distinctive job and that’s very apparent with their coloured streaks. The Dream FX filter however is about creating a softer, more dreamy look (obviously). The Dream FX filter basically takes 50 years off your lens and gives the image a more analogue look thanks to the image having softer edges and blown highlights.
I only took a few shots with this filter though as it didn’t grab me as much as the others did. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with this and it’s doing what it says it’s supposed too, but for me, this is a little too ‘middle-of-the-road’. It’s not doing anything distinctive like the streak ones, but it’s also not doing a strong enough job of reducing contrast or flaring highlights.
If you’re a fan of the analogue look, then this is a great way to get it with your modern camera. Personally though, I think if I wanted this, I may actually just use a vintage lens and go all-in on it. This Dream FX filter will get you close to that, plus it’ll allow you to retain all of the lens control you’re used to, most importantly among them being auto focus!
LEE Low Contrast Filter
This filter is always going to be a winner for me and although I use it a lot, I wanted to use the low contrast filter again here to compare it to the others. For reference, LEE make this filter in different powers too. They make a 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and 1. These images here were all taken with the most powerful version, the 1.
This filter does a truly excellent job of lifting the shadows (appearing to add light to the shadows by scattering in light from brighter areas) and with modern cameras today, those lifted shadows now contain enough detail to be accessible and usable in raw software if you need it. The beauty of this filter though, is that it lifts these shadows with almost no noticeable flare at the highlight areas. Look at the bare bulb in shot below and you’ll see that it has no flaring around it. The resulting images whilst using the Low Contrast filter is beautifully clean, and although it’s flaring, it’s flaring all over the shot very evenly.
LEE Diffusion Filter (Softs)
The LEE Softs, or diffusion filters as they’re more commonly referred to, again do a more global job of affecting the entire image. This is another filter that I regularly use and have done so for many years, but the reason I use this as well as the Low Contrast filter is that it offers something unique. For me, the key difference between the Low Contrast and Diffusion filter is how they deal with highlights and points of light. The Low Contrast filter does an excellent job of spreading the flare very evenly throughout the image, whereas the diffusion filter here is very clearly showing more flare the closer you get to the point of light. In fact I often use the diffusion filter with the light source out of shot as this still creates flare even though you can’t see the light source in shot.
This is a final bonus point for you to consider. The Prism FX Filters are screwed onto the front of your lens so you can also simply stack them on top of one another. Below I’ll show you what the results were from stacking the Dream FX and the Flare FX together in a single image.
By all means draw your own conclusions, but for me, this is probably a bit much and I think I’ll stick to just one or the other in the future as they are starting to appear a little too soft here.
As always with these reviews/tests, I tend to shoot a bunch of shots and let you see the results for yourselves, but that being said, I’m happy to talk about what I learned along the way.
Personally, I really liked the Flare FX filter. The blue streaks look pretty legitimate if you’re a fan of that anamorphic flare and they integrated into the shot well without looking fake or stuck on in post. As I mentioned, I’m a big fan of anamorphic lenses and the effect those types of lenses produce, but sadly, there is no particularly affordable solution to an anamorphic lens, especially for us digital stills shooters. One of the more prominent characteristics of the anamorphic lens is those blue flares and in my mind, this filter does a pretty good job emulating that. Will it fool a director of photography? Not likely, but it can certainly add a little something extra to your shots.
The one biggest downside to this filter, as well as the Chromatic filter, is that you really need a light source in your shot. This is fairly common in cinema, T.V. and with many environmental shooters, but for studio shooters like many of us, you can have this filter on your lens, but without light coming directly into the lens, you won’t even know it’s there.
The Chromatic FX filter was also cool and there was nothing wrong with it, I just don’t know when I would use it over the Flare FX version. I personally shoot a lot of colder toned shots and my camera barely ever leaves 4500K. The blue streaks of the Flare FX simply appeal to me a little more, but I think that if you’re a natural light shooter or want a warmer effect in your shots or simply shoot at a warmer white balance, the Chromatic FX Filter may resonate a little louder with your vision.
The Dream FX is probably the filter I will now use the least. To be clear though, this is through no fault of the filter and it does exactly what it’s supposed to do, it’s just that I personally prefer other methods of getting to that same effect. The Dream FX does a great job of emulating that older vintage style lens look and it does create images that are very reminiscent of an 80’s pop video. That is not a jibe at it though and there is definitely a time and a place for that. If you want that very distinctive look, then great, but for me, I think I’ll stick to either actually using a vintage lens, or I’ll use my Low Contrast filter to give me that slightly cleaner look.
Overall I was pretty impressed with Prism FX filters. They shipped to the U.K. from the U.S. pretty quickly and they were well packaged and each filter came with its own individual, well-padded Velcro pouch. Another nice feature of the lens filters is that the actual glass of the filter is mounted in its own independent metal ring. What this means is that you can screw the filter on tight to your lens, but you can then still easily rotate the glass filter separately to get the look you want.
As many of you know who have been following my work recently, I’m exploring a lot more cinematic lighting within environmental setups and I can certainly see filters like the Flare FX making it into the shots when I have light sources within the frame. I’ll keep you posted on how they turn out, but until next time, stay safe and stay creative.
About the Author
Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too. You can also sign up for the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his brand new, free 50-page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.
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