Photography is often referred to as the art of painting with light. Art, as a whole, as continuously evolved, as has the art of photography. With the idea of perfection so far gone, there are many ways that imperfection may add to your art. One of the ways that many modern photographs add to their photography is with the inclusion of what are known as light leaks.
Light leaks, as the name suggests, are patches, or ‘leaks’, of light that take part of a photograph. Some light leaks are subtle, while others dominate and shake up compositions. During the era of film photography, light leaks were often considered to ruin a photograph. This is because, when unintentional in creation, or even in look, light leaks can take away from images.
The name light leak comes from the idea that light would leak onto film in a low-quality camera, or the film itself may have been slightly exposed. This leads to color and value leaks on slides of film. This look, while back then usually unintentional, adds a feeling of creativity and nostalgia to your images. With analog photography, the general photographer didn’t intentionally add these effects to their images. This meant that a lot of the time, the image didn’t take well to the effects added.
Today, we can add or create our own light leak effects in a variety of manners. There are two main ways to create these light leak effects when attempting to incorporate them into your images. This guide will take you through both these methods. The first method is going to be creating light leaks while we take photos. The second method is going to be using photo editing software to embellish your images with light leaks.
What exactly is a light leak?
Before we jump into creating light leaks, however, let’s take a moment to get a better understanding of what light leaks are, and how they work. As mentioned above, they used to be caused by light getting into the film when it shouldn’t have. This is because of some form of damage or design failure in a camera, allowing a small amount of light to hit the film or camera sensor. This film or camera sensor is meant to be light-tight, and any small amount of light hitting it that is unintended will result in a light leak.
While, classically, this meant that light leaks were usually a diffused glow that lightly obscured part of an image, the category of light leaks has expanded. Now, light leaks include lens flares, random light patterns, and even the intent to have some form of abstract light be an impediment to a photo.
How can you create a light leak while taking a photo?
There are several distinct methods to create light leaks while taking photos. This section of the guide is going to go over some of the most common methods in which you can create light leaks or light leak effects in-camera. There are several benefits to this approach to creating light leaks.
Firstly, creating light leaks in-camera means that you can create really cool images without needing any editing. Additionally, this method is the hardest for others to replicate, because each light leak you create will essentially be unique. Even some of the more replicable methods require another photographer to know exactly how you achieved a look, and even then they may not get too close.
Furthermore, experimenting with light leaks in-camera will get you more practice when you want to add them in post-processing. Different types of light leaks look very different from each other. Learning what these differences are and understanding what makes a light leak look correct means that you can be more exact while editing in light leaks.
So, what are the different types of light leaks that we are going to cover? Here is a shortlist of some different light leak types that you can easily recreate:
- Glass obstruction light leaks
- Bright light source light leaks
- Stylized film light leaks
Let’s get right into the fun part!
Glass obstruction light leaks
First, let’s take a look at a cool light leak using a glass obstruction:
Using a piece of glass, such as a prism or crystal, is an easy way to create light leaks. For this type of light leak, all you need is a camera with manual controls and a piece of glass, crystal, or anything that refracts light a lot. To capitalize on this effect, try shooting with a directional light source, preferably one that can hit your glass obstructive element.
Look at the image above, and notice how the light bar is hitting the glass. The use of this light bar here is really strong, especially because the light that is going through the obstruction gives off such a mystical look. This, however, is not the only way to set up your lighting.
You can also use this piece of diffractive light to create mirror-esque style light leaks. Because of the way a prism works, you can use them as mirror-like objects, and create really interesting looking images. These are not always technically light leaks, but these are other creative projects in the same realm. Here’s a cool example of that:
To do this with your own camera, start with your camera, subject, and piece of obstructive glass. Then, set your aperture fairly low, and try to use a normal or telephoto lens. Using one of your hands or a stand, have the glass held in front of the lens. Slowly rotate it while looking through your camera’s viewfinder/live view, until you find it creates an effect that you like. Experiment with different distances between the front of the lens, the glass, and the subject.
Finally, there are some other things you can with glass. For example, you might want to use colored glass that creates different types of refractions. Another way that you can use glass obstruction is to add interest to portraits that are otherwise non-stylized. This can be a fun way to creatively spruce up an otherwise boring photo shoot.
Bright light source light leaks
Sometimes, the use of a bright light source going down the lens creates a light leak. This can either be in the effect of some cool rays, or something like lens flare. Although generally, lens flare is undesirable, you can use lens flare as a creative tool. Here’s a cool example of lens flare adding to a composition:
Lens flare is something that is often out of your control, but there are ways to make it come out in an image. The easiest way to do this is to use a bright light source. Place your subject between your camera and the source. To get the lens to create flares, try to move the light source around the edges of the frame, and try to keep your subject at a contrasting value with the light source. The more relatively overexposed the light source, the generally easier, and better, the light leaks will look.
Now, there are some parts of this that are out of your control. The first way is that some lenses, especially nicer and higher-end lenses, will be made to have as little flaring as possible. Another is that cheaper lenses, with fewer blades in the aperture eye, will have worse looking flares. This is why I find that prime lenses, that don’t have coated elements to stop flaring but are of high quality, create the best looking lens flare effects.
Stylized film light leaks
Because light leaks are naturally part of film or analog photography, you might want to recreate light leaks using that technology. You could accomplish this in a lot of ways, like letting light into your camera on purpose. The problem is, with that method, and many similar methods, that it is hard to know how much light you may need. In either case, you might end up with too much light, completely overexposing an image.
I find that there are two specific ways in which you can recreate a film style light leak with a lot of success. One of the methods is much more expensive than the other, but it also yields some of the best results.
This is what a typical film light leak will look like:
Light leaks with double exposure, in-camera
The first method to achieve this effect is going to be a double exposure. This is the cheapest way to get a similar effect, although it will be hard to get right. I highly suggest, before trying this on any good or bad film, you try accomplishing this digitally.
The first step is to take a photo of direct light or something similar that is against a black and dark background. The background has to be as dark as possible. Now, roll back your film, and take another photo on the same exposure of the film, of your subject. Remember that, if your first image wasn’t dark everywhere but the light leak, you will need to add that to your exposure when making calculations.
This process takes a lot of work and requires really great creative and thinking skills. It will also require a lot of failures before you can get it done. I would suggest that you do this in the digital photography world a lot, and also experiment with typical double exposure styles, before trying to merge the two.
Light leaks with experimental film stocks
The other method to do this is to get a film that has been treated to have light leaks or similar effects. One of the most famous of these films is called “Psych Blues”, a custom film that is created in small batches with wonderful effects. Each roll of film, and each exposure on that roll, is different, and you can’t be sure what to expect. Despite this, the creative effect that is provided can really make your images look cool. If out of stock on their website, their Instagram account will generally provide order updates.
Light leaks are usually a mistake when it comes to analog shots especially. Trying to recreate them can be a lot of work, but it’s a fun project to take on. If you’re a new film photographer, I recommend grabbing some experimental film and just testing it out. Additionally, if you are looking to get into film, it is a lot cheaper to try than digital photography!
Adding light leaks to photos with post-processing
The most common way light leaks are created today, thankfully, is by the intended addition of them in post-processing software. There are lots of different ways to do this, in lots of different applications, but let’s start by working with Quickshot.
If you haven’t heard about it, Enlight Quickshot is a photo editing application that easily allows you to create quick edits, perfect for on the go shooting. I find that I can use Quickshot to build out edits while I am at a photo shoot, and figure out exactly what my client wants if I am not in a studio environment. Let’s choose a starting photo, and then apply a lot of the effects above using Quickshot.
This is a cool natural light portrait that would be a great candidate for a quick edit:
Open it up in an editing session in Quickshot, like this:
Then, use the magic effect tool as an automatic edit for the photo. If you want to, you can also take the time to edit it with the global editing tools. I like to use the magic effect as a starting point, especially when it works well. This is what the image looks like now:
Now, let’s break this up into more modern and traditional effects. I’m going to be adding both to this image, so feel free to follow along!
Adding lens flare light leaks with Quickshot
The first step to adding lens flare effects is to make sure that your base image is where it needs to be. I like where this image is, but I might want to change the color temperature a bit. Color is the last thing I edit when adding these effects because it is a lot easier to figure out the color after the rest of your edits are done.
So, the first step is to open the different elements. You can find these elements in the elements tool. Elements are basically pre-created images that are transparent, so you can use them creatively. Here, I chose a lens flare I liked, and added it to the image, like this:
The great thing about these elements is that they are easy to resize, clip off, and change the opacity on. This means for an image that feels more timid, like the one that we have chosen, we don’t have to be as aggressive with the lens flare.
Here is what the final image looked like with the lens flare:
Adding traditional light leaks with Quickshot
Lastly, let’s add a more traditional light leak effect. There are two different ways we can add these in Quickshot, so let’s do them both! The first one, just like the light leaks above, is through the elements menu.
Browse the elements menu for a light leak effect that you like. Remember, you can use pretty much any element, and just resize it to make it look like a light leak if you don’t want to use one of the pre-created light leaks.
This is the element I added, and what it looked like on the image:
Finally, we can also use one of the overlay light leaks. These are great because they are an all in one package that subtly affects an entire image. I like the ones with a more gradual glow, as well, so I am going to use one of these to finish up the image. This is where the image is now:
The last little thing I am going to do, as mentioned above, is to change the color temperature. I like doing this last when adding colored creative elements because it lets me tie everything in at the end of an edit. This is what I did:
And this is how the image came out:
I really like adding these subtler light leak effects on images like this one, I think that they really can bring out the composition. For this image, my dominant light leak was on the colder side, because it brings the eyes towards the highlights on the skin. The warm red light leak on the bottom edge frames the image, and adds to the overall vibe that you are getting from the image.