Lens flare in anime

November 4, 2012

If you've watched anime for long you've probably seen a scene with lens flare in it, either in the form of streaks of light or as sharp diamonds. Lens flare is commonly used in beach scenes and other situations where the animators want to communicate that the sun is very bright; they'll pan a shot up to include the sun and as the sun enters the picture, throw in the flare. Generally the single callout in a single shot is the only time you'll see lens flare in the scene. As I mentioned last entry, lens flare is a really striking case of the anicamera deliberately emulating (old) cinematography for the aesthetic effect.

Here is the thing: lens flare is a lens defect and artifact, an undesirable property of camera lenses. It's not how we see bright lights with our bare eyes and it's not something that photographers want (and they go to some effort to avoid it). Old camera lenses could flare badly but modern still camera lenses go to significant effort to reduce or almost entirely eliminate lens flare; such a lens used in the same situation in real life would be unlikely to flare anywhere near as much as anime depicts (and real lens flare is often significantly less attractive than the lens flare that anime depicts).

(I don't know directly about modern cinematography lenses, but I suspect that they too do not flare very much these days; there's no reason that the improvements from still camera lenses would not have carried over to them.)

This makes anime's use of lens flare very clearly an aesthetic decision; it's not imitating how we see the world or even how a good modern camera does. Anime is doing extra work and deliberately invoking something that still photographers avoid either because the animators think it looks good, because they want things to look cinematographic (in a cliched way), or because they're using it as a signal that means 'this is in bright sunlight'.

(In anime, as in cinematography, all well lit scenes have pretty much the same apparent brightness level so true 'real world' brightness has to be communicated by other cues. Part of it is environmental, where we just know that a scene outdoors in sunlight is brighter than a scene indoors under normal artificial light, but sometimes anime throws in explicit indicators. Even artificial ones like lens flare.)

PS: this is where I direct interested parties to the tvtropes entry on false camera effects.

Written on 04 November 2012.
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Last modified: Sun Nov 4 21:52:26 2012
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