Dec 142013

The final part I’m going to cover for high dynamic range rendering is an implementation of lens flare. Lens flare is an effect that raises a lot of hate from some people, and it can certainly be overdone. However, when used subtly I think it can add a lot to an image.

Theory of lens flare

Lens flare is another artifact of camera lenses. Not all of the light that hits a lens passes through – some small amount is always reflected back. Most camera systems also use many lenses in series rather than just the one. The result is that light can bounce around inside the system between any combination of the lenses and end up landing elsewhere on the sensor.

If you’re not a graphics professional you could take a look at this paper which aims to simulate actual lenses to give very realistic lens flares. If there’s any possibility that you might find it at all useful then stay away because it’s patent pending (but this is not the place to discuss the broken state of software patents).

We don’t need to simulate lens flare accurately, we can get a good approximation with some simple tricks.


The main component of lens flare is the ‘ghost’ images – the light from the bright bits of the scene bouncing around between the lenses and landing where they shouldn’t. With spherical lenses the light will always land somewhere along the line from the original point through the centre of the image.

The lens flare effect is applied by drawing an additive pass over the whole screen. To simulate ghosts, for every pixel we need to check at various points along the line through the centre of the screen to see if any bright parts of the image will cause ghosts here. The HLSL code looks something like this:

float distances[8] = {0.5f, 0.7f, 1.03f, 1.35, 1.55f, 1.62f, 2.2f, 3.9f};
float rgbScalesGhost[3] = {1.01f, 1.00f, 0.99f};

// Vector to the centre of the screen.
float2 dir = 0.5f - input.uv;

for (int rgb = 0; rgb < 3; rgb++)
    for (int i = 0; i < 8; i++)
        float2 uv = input.uv + dir*distances[i]*rgbScalesGhost[rgb];
        float colour = texture.Sample(sampler, uv)[rgb];
        ret[rgb] += saturate(colour - 0.5f) * 1.5f;

The eight distance values control where the ghosts will appear along the line. A value of 1.0 will always sample from the centre of the screen, values greater than one will cause ghosts on the opposite side of the screen and values less than one will create ghosts on the same side as the original bright spot. Just pick a selection of values that give you the distribution you like. Real lens systems will give a certain pattern of ghosts (and lots more of them), but we’re not worrying about being accurate.

This is a simpler set of four ghosts from the sun, showing how they always lie along the line through the centre:


Four ghosts from the sun, projected from the centre of the screen

The ghost at the bottom right had a distance value of 1.62. You can see this by measuring the ratio of distance to the centre of the screen in the image above.

This next image is using eight ghosts with the code above. You can’t see the ghost for value 1.03 as this is currently off-screen (values very near 1.0 will produce very large ghosts that cover the entire screen when looking directly at a bright light, and are very useful for enhancing the ‘glare’ effect).

You can see the non-circular ghosts as well in this image, as some of the sun is occluded:


Full set of ghosts from an occluded sun

Chromatic aberration

Another property of lenses is that they don’t bend all wavelengths of light by the same amount. Chromatic aberration is the term used to describe this effect, and it leads to coloured “fringes” around bright parts of the image.

One reason that real camera systems have multiple lenses at all is to compensate for this, and refocus all the colours back onto the same point. The internal reflections that cause the ghosts will be affected by these fringes. To simulate this we can instead create a separate ghost for each of the red, green and blue channels, using a slight offset to the distance value for each channel. You’ll then end up with something like this:


Chromatic aberration on ghosts


Another type of lens flare is the ‘halo’ effect you get when pointing directly into a bright light. This code will sample a fixed distance towards the centre of the screen, which gives nice full and partial halos, including chromatic aberration again:

float rgbScalesHalo[3] = {0.98f, 1.00f, 1.02f};
float aspect = screenHeight/screenWidth;

// Vector to the centre of the screen.
float2 dir = 0.5f - input.uv;

for (int rgb = 0; rgb < 3; rgb++)
    float2 fixedDir = dir;
    fixedDir.y *= aspect;
    float2 normDir = normalize(fixedDir);
    normDir *= 0.4f * (rgbScalesHalo[rgb]);
    normDir.y /= aspect; // Compensate back again to texture coordinates.

    float colour = texture.Sample(sampler, input.uv + normDir)[rgb];
    halo[rgb] = saturate(colour - 0.5f) * 1.5f;

Full halo from a central sun


Partial halo from an offset sun

Put together the ghosts and halos and you get something like this (which looks a mess, but will look good later):


Eight ghosts plus halo


The lens flares we have so far don’t look very realistic – they are far too defined and hard-edged. Luckily this is easily fixed. Instead of sampling from the original image we can instead use one of the blurred versions that were used to draw the bloom. If we use the 1/16th resolution Gaussian blurred version we instead get something which is starting to look passable:


Ghosts and halo sampling from a blurred texture

Lens dirt

It’s looking better but it still looks very CG and too “perfect”.  There is one more trick we can do to make it look more natural, and that is to simulate lens dirt.

Dirt and smears on the lens will reflect stray light, for example from flares, and become visible. Instead of adding the ghosts and halos directly onto the image, we can instead modulate it with a lens dirt texture first. This is the texture I’m currently using, which was part of the original article I read about this technique and which I can unfortunately no longer find. If this is yours please let me know!


Lens dirt overlay

This texture is mostly black with some brighter features. This means that most of the flares will be removed, and just the brighter dirt patches will remain. You may recognise this effect from Battlefield 3, where it’s used all the time.

You can’t really see the halo when modulating with this lens dirt texture, so we can add a bit more halo on top. This is the final result, as used in my demos:


Final result

And that’s it for High Dynamic Range rendering, which I think is one of the most important new(-ish) techniques in game rendering in the last few years.