Tuesday, December 12, 2006

What is the Meaning of Lens Flare?

Lens flare is an equipment artifact in photography. Pointing the lens directly at a light source can illuminate hexagonal lens elements within the camera, producing ghost images in the picture. It is actually an error, but it is often used, especially in movies, to mean “really hot,” or “really bright.” It’s common in desert scenes to see the camera swoop past the sun, producing streaks of lens flare. We don’t think, “Oops, they really goofed up there.” Instead, we take it to indicate extremes of temperature and brightness.

With lens flare, we attribute an equipment malfunction to the environment being portrayed. It has acquired a conventional meaning, even though most people have no idea what lens flare is or what causes it. It’s as if you had a crack in your glasses but interpreted it as a fracture in the world. That seems an odd thing to do, but we do it with photography.

What’s amazing is how adept we are at seeing through the technology to the scene represented, yet keeping our awareness of the technology. A movie clip with dancing vertical lines and discolorations means “old piece of film.” We accept that. A shaky camera can mean rough road or first person point of view. A blurry image can mean the character is drugged.

When photography is first introduced to a society, people are amazed and frightened at how the real world is “captured” in an image. But by now, we are so jaded that we incorporate the technology of taking pictures into our understanding of the images. Is there any possible error you could make with a camera that could not be interpreted as part of the meaning of the image? Probably not.

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