Understanding Lens Distortion and How to Fix It

Have you ever noticed when you photograph something, sometimes it looks different in the photo than it does to your naked eye? Straight lines aren’t straight, the edges have vignetting, and maybe proportions look out of whack. That’s all due to lens distortion.

This article will explain what lens distortion is; what causes it; and how you can either avoid it or fix it in post-processing.

All lenses will cause some degree of lens distortion.
Photo by Hunter Moranville on Unsplash

What is Lens Distortion?

In a nutshell, lens distortion is the deformation of the images you photograph. Most commonly, lines will appear curved or angled when they should be straight. Sometimes this distortion is very mild, while other times it’s extreme. 

Distortion happens when light passes through the curved glass in a lens. The wider the lens, the more curved the glass, so the more pronounced the distortion usually is.

The amount of distortion depends on a few different factors — the quality of the glass, the focal length of the lens, and your distance from your subject, to name a few. But, even the very best, most expensive lenses on the market will have some distortion. It’s the nature of their design.

Lens manufacturers will, no doubt, eventually design a lens with no distortion and no curved glass. But today, no such lens exists.


Types of lens distortion

There are a few different types of lens distortion. The two most common types are barrel distortion and pincushion distortion.

Barrel distortion

When the straight lines appear curved outward in a circular shape, like a barrel, it’s called barrel distortion. This is caused by the extreme curved glass of a wide angle lens. The curved glass allows the lens to capture a very wide scene, but the result is a lot of distortion.

The following is a fantastic example of barrel distortion. As you can see, the image shows curved lines, though, you know the bricks are perfectly straight in real life.

example of barrel distortion
Photo courtesy of FHKE

Pincushion distortion

Telephoto lenses have the opposite problem. Pincushion distortion happens when the straight lines in an image pinch inward from the center. This can be desirable in portrait photography because it can make people look thin, but it’s noticeable in architecture and street photography because straight lines become bent when they should be straight.

Below is a great example of pincushion distortion. Notice the edges of the box truck appear to be pinching in on all four sides? We know that in real life, these are straight edges.

example of pincushion distortion
Image by Ross Orr (Voxphoto) licensed as creative commons BY-NC-ND 2.0.

When is lens distortion a good thing?

You can be creative with lens distortion! We mentioned above that pincushion distortion can make people look thinner in photos, and a lot of people appreciate that. But, you can also use distortion to add humor or interest to a photo that would otherwise be boring.

Fisheye lenses, of course, are so extremely wide that their barrel distortion makes the image look almost completely round. There’s no avoiding the distortion with a fisheye lens, and you wouldn’t want to!

fisheye lens distortion
Photo by id23 on Unsplash

Or, take advantage of distortion to create a unique perspective. Objects that are extremely close to the lens will appear more distorted, so how can you use that to your advantage? Here are some examples of images where distortion made the photos more interesting.

lens distortion
Photo by Nav Photography from Pexels
Photo by Henrikke Due on Unsplash

How to avoid lens distortion

Now that you understand what causes lens distortion, you can take steps to minimize it when you’re shooting. First, keep in mind that the center of the lens produces the least amount of distortion. So, if you don’t want your subject distorted, keep it in the middle of your frame and not too close.

Next, consider distortion when choosing what focal length you’re going to shoot with. Yes, getting the entire scene in your frame is important, but if you want to minimize the distortion, don’t choose a focal length wider than what you need.


How to fix lens distortion in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw

Remember, every lens will produce some distortion. But, fortunately, it’s easily fixed in post-processing. If you use Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw to edit your photos, it’s as easy as clicking on a box in the Develop Panel. 

Click on “Enable Lens Corrections” in Lightroom or “Use Profile Corrections” in Adobe Camera Raw. Since every lens will produce some amount of distortion, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of checking this box every time you open a new photo.


How to fix lens distortion in Photoshop

If you prefer to do your editing in Photoshop, don’t worry, there’s a fix for you, too! Inside Photoshop, navigate to the Filters menu and choose Lens Corrections. From there, a dialogue box will open that will enable you to choose “Geometric Correction” or you can go under the custom menu to fine-tune your corrections.

Many other photo editing programs also have similar built-in lens correction options.


Final thoughts

Lens distortion is unavoidable in photography. But now that you understand what it is and what causes it — now you can use it to your advantage, or you can avoid it; and when you can’t do either of those, now you also know how to correct it in post. 

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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