The JJ Abrams Effect

As a photographer I’ve always been seeking a kind of cinematic style that’s hard to describe. I just want my photos to have that “movie look” to them. Over the years I’ve come close but never felt like I really figured out the formula. Until now.

For my work, there are several things that go into achieving a cinematic style:

  1. A shallow depth of field
  2. A strong composition with a camera angle that fits the action or story of the scene
  3. Lighting that matches the mood I’m trying to convey
  4. A whole story told in the single image

I’ve recently learned a new technique that has helped me further realize this vision: Adding lens flares, JJ Abrams style.

The JJ Abrams Effect

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 3042.6. While exploring uncharted space we discovered a strange celestial body on our scanners. Upon closer examination, we’ve discovered that is in fact no moon, but a spherical star base of some kind…”

Star Trek, Super 8 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams has often been mocked online for his use of pervasive lens flares in his films, but I personally love each and every one of them. They just add such a magical quality to the light. Over the last few months, I’ve been subtly adding them to my own photos, and have been blown away by the results.

Flared Up!

Some are done in-camera, usually by pointing my LumeCube directly at my lens (and, unfortunately, my pupils!). The majority, however, are added in Photoshop. In fact, as I’ve been doing this more and more, and leaning into programs like Photoshop and Lightroom to polish my photos, I’ve found that editing is my favorite part of the photographic process. It’s where my shots are truly brought to life.

Here are a few recent shots that have been given the JJ Abrams treatment.

Sometimes, I try to make it obvious. Other times, I like to hide it in the photo, or drop the opacity down to single digits to add a cinematic quality to the light without drawing attention from the rest of the image. It’s also important to keep track of the direction your light source is actually coming from, and position your lens flare somewhere in that direction. If the sun is coming in through a window on the right, it wouldn’t make sense to place the flare on the other side.

If you’re interested in adding lens flares to your own images, check out this fantastic tutorial from Phlearn, which is what I used to start playing with the technique.

-James

What do you think of the JJ Abrams effect? And how would you define a cinematic style? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

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12 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your useful post, James, just great! 👍 As for the description of the cinematic effect, I’d like to mention the work with a camera angle too. Creating the special “artificial” vision of the events, the camera operator makes the spectators follow his vision and understand the mood of the scene. Very interesting article and beautiful shots!

    • Thanks Ann! I couldn’t agree more about camera angle. It’s so important when telling a visual story. Lately when watching movies I’ve been paying close attention to camerawork and have learned a lot. Maybe it will be come the focus of a future blog post.

      Thanks again!

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