Lens Distortion: An Essential Photography Guide

daytime image of a big buildings

All photographers will encounter some kind of lens distortion during the course of their photography careers. However, did you know you can prevent optical distortions in your images?

By being aware of how various forms of lens distortions occur you can develop your photographic abilities.

This photography guide seeks to define the different types of lens distortions that you may find in your photos. It will also include different methods for correcting optical lens distortion.

Every camera lens will produce some form of distortion. It’s not always a bad thing, sometimes photographers can use lens distortion to their advantage. 

However, it is wise to understand how to correct lens distortion in your photography if it’s producing undesirable results.

So, if you’ve ever questioned why your subjects in certain photos appear out of proportion to one another in real life? Or why do certain structures appear to be leaning over? It most likely results from some kind of lens distortion. 

Perhaps, you’ve heard of the term barrel distortion, but not quite sure what it is? 

Whether you’re a beginner or intermediate photographer this guide will teach you everything you need to know about lens distortion in an easy to understand format.

At a glance, here is what we will cover in this lens distortion photography guide:

(Click a link to skip to the section you need)

What is Lens Distortion in Photography?

A noticeable imperfection in a photograph created by the camera lens is referred to as lens distortion. 

Usually, the most obvious form of lens distortion is when straight lines seem curved or wavy in your photos. This effect can sometimes be achieved intentionally by using lens distortion to your advantage. However, it can also happen accidentally. 

Optical Distortion vs Perspective Distortion

There are two main types of lens distortion, which are perspective distortion and optical distortion. This guide aims to detail what the difference is between these two types of lens distortion and how they occur.

Distortion effects can be caused by a wide range of factors, and distortion can be corrected using a variety of techniques. Understanding the different forms of lens distortion and the most effective strategies to fix them is a crucial photography skill to learn.

Optical distortion: What is it?

Optical distortion is the primary type of lens distortion. The lens profile and the lens design are responsible for optical distortion.

lens distortion guide

Certain lens components that are used to lessen other visual impairments, such as spherical aberrations, can occasionally cause optical distortion.

Almost all lenses exhibit optical distortion to some extent. The degree and kind of optical distortion that a lens produces depends on a number of variables.

This includes the lens’s focal length and glass components as well as numerous other factors. 

As a result, some lenses have noticeable distortion while others distortion is barely noticeable. Therefore, different lenses will generate different forms and amounts of distortion.

Types of optical distortion include:

barrel distortion

Barrel Distortion

Lines that are straight in real life appear to bend inwards due to a form of distortion known as barrel distortion (like the walls of a barrel).

Search for parallel lines in the scene you are photographing, and then check to see if the lines seem parallel in your shot.

When using a wide angle lens, barrel distortion frequently happens, because wide angle lenses’ fields of vision are broader than those of digital cameras’ image sensors.

This gives the impression that the picture has been compressed to fit within the frame’s borders.

Barrel distortion is a common problem when using a zoom lens with short focal lengths as well as with a wide angle lens.

pincushion distortion

Pincushion Distortion

In contrast to barrel distortion, pincushion distortion has the opposite effect.

Straight lines from the centre of the picture curve outward due to pincushion distortion, which prevents an image from curving in. 

This distortion occurs because the field of vision is smaller than the image sensor. Creating the effect that the image almost appears stretched and extended. 

Due to the increased magnification on portions of the picture that are closest to the border of the frame, telephoto lenses are the most frequent cause of pincushion distortion.

This is especially accurate when the lens’s focal length is short.

moustache distortion

Moustache Distortion

In simple terms, moustache distortion is a mix of pincushion distortion and barrel distortion. You will notice your straight lines seem to curve inside approaching the centre of the frame, then outward towards the edges of the picture.

The term “complex” distortion is frequently used to describe moustache distortion. This is due to the fact that fixing the lens distortion might be quite difficult due to its complexity. 

Although this kind of distortion can sometimes be corrected, doing so frequently needs specialist software. It is not possible to simply leverage the built-in tools in Lightroom and Photoshop to correct this type of lens distortion. 

In an image featuring moustache distortion, the outermost corners will be significantly more curved if you try to correct the barrel distortion. Furthermore, if you try to correct for pincushion distortion, you’ll result in even more pronounced barrel distortion in the centre.

Thankfully, most modern lenses do not produce photos with moustache distortion. This type of lens distortion is more common on older lenses.

Preventing optical distortion

There are a few ways to reduce optical distortion in your photographs.

Avoid using a wide or big focal length whenever possible. The optimum lens to choose if you want to avoid optical distortion is a 50mm lens. Of course, not every type of photography will work well with a 50mm lens only.

Therefore, whether you need to photograph with a wide angle or telephoto lens, examine test charts before purchasing new equipment and pick lenses with the least distortion.

As an alternative, you can easily fix the distortion during post-processing. Skip to the section in this article which explains steps to fix lens distortion.

Perspective Distortion: What is it?

Perspective distortion is a distinct type of visual distortion. This type of distortion often results from how a subject is positioned in respect to the camera and your point of view. 

The type of camera lenses you use has no relevance to perspective distortion. This is because perspective distortion is not a result of a lens flaw. Unlike optical distortion, it has nothing to do with the optics of the lens. 

If the subject is too close to the camera, it may look excessively huge or distorted when compared to the things in the background because three-dimensional space is projected onto a two-dimensional image.

Many people are perplexed and mistakenly believe that the lens is causing the perspective distortion.

However, you will see the same amount of distortion in each photo if you stand in the same spot and use different focal length prime lenses to snap your photos.

This is because the distortion is a result of the perspective from which you are shooting. 

Types of perspective distortion you should know include:

wide angle lens distortion of car

Wide angle distortion

As you edge closer to an object, it tends to look larger to the human eye. The same rule applies while taking pictures.

If you use a wide-angle lens and place your subject closer to the camera, it will look abnormally big in the final photo. This is referred to as wide angle lens distortion but can also be known as extension distortion.

For instance, when you take a close-up shot of someone using an extra wide angle lens, their nose, eyes, and lips may appear unrealistically big, while their ears may appear unusually small or even totally absent from the picture.

Compression distortion

In contrast to wide angle distortion, compression distortion usually happens when using a telephoto zoom lens.

This type of lens distortion makes distanced objects look bigger than usual due to compression distortion.

Some photographers, such as portrait, animal, and bird photographers, purposefully strive to create compression distortion because it creates attractive and eye-catching photos. 

Preventing perspective distortion

Try to take a picture from a higher or further distance.

To alter the perspective distortion in your photographs, you need to alter your viewpoint on the subject you are photographing.

tilt shift photo lenses

Fixing lens distortion

When attempting to correct distortion in images, there are a variety of considerations to make, specifically regarding the type of distortion.

You’ll need to make use of editing post-processing programmes like Adobe photoshop or Lightroom to correct optical distortion, such as barrel and pincushion distortion.

It is quite common and straightforward  to correct barrel distortion using an editing programme, providing the software’s database contains a profile for the lens you used.

Instructions for fixing lens distortion in Lightroom

Check the box “Enable Profile Corrections” under the lens corrections tab in the develop module. Lightroom will then use the image’s metadata to correct known lens distortions for your particular camera lens. 

If you want to perfect the adjustments, select the manual options under lens corrections. To adjust for barrel distortion, slide the distortion slider to the left. To adjust for pincushion distortion, move it to the right. 

There is also a slider option to adjust vignetting. The edges of your photo will be made darker by moving the vignetting slider to the left. The corners of your image will become lighter when it is moved to the right. 

Instructions for fixing lens distortion in Photoshop

In photoshop it is a similar process to lightroom. Navigate to the filter tab at the top of the screen and select the Lens Corrections option. 

There is an auto correction option as well as custom where you can adjust the lens distortion manually. 

If you check the geometric distortion box under the auto correction option to allow Photoshop to have access to the image’s metadata. The editing programme will then detect what lens you have used from its large database of cameras and lenses to enable lens distortion corrections. 

Photoshop will almost always be able to identify it unless you have a really unusual camera.

Additional tips to consider when correcting lens distortion

Keep in mind that if you make several modifications to correct your lens distortion you may occasionally need to crop the image.

If you anticipate there will be lens distortion in your final image, try to photograph with the intention that you may need to crop some of the image. 

In certain cases, Lightroom does distortion correction better than Photoshop, and vice versa. You can always attempt a different editing programme if you’re not happy with the outcomes you’ve achieved with your current one. 

stylish asian woman on balcony against urban houses taken with fisheye lens
How can you use lens distortion to your advantage?

Standard lenses are rectilinear in design, portraying straight lines in the real world as straight in the final image. 

However certain lenses are made specifically to cause distortion. For example, fisheye lenses are made to be curvilinear, making straight lines look curved in your final image. 

fish eye lenses for photography

Purposefully incorporating distortion in your photos, once you have a good knowledge of how it occurs, can enhance your photography skills to the next level.

Mark Cohen famously used close up photography to create his works.

However, remember that choosing to include the look of distortion in your photographs or not, is an aesthetic choice.

Final thoughts

After reading this photography guide, perhaps you now have a better understanding of the distinction between optical and perspective distortion.

Additionally, you should be able to recognise the various lens distortions that appear in your images.

Always keep in mind that every camera lens will exhibit some degree of distortion. Even some of the photographs taken by these famous photographers could include distortion. 

Remember, lens distortion doesn’t necessarily always have a negative outcome! Occasionally, photographers might benefit from lens distortion to create outstanding unique images. 

However, if the lens distortion in your picture is resulting in unfavourable outcomes, it is advisable to learn how to correct it.

With editing programmes like Photoshop and Lightroom, it’s simple to become familiar with the many techniques for correcting optical lens distortion.

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