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The best way to learn about photography is through practice and trial and error. A common problem that every photographer runs into sooner or later is lens distortion. Understanding how different types of lens distortions work and the optical aberrations that they produce can help you avoid them in your own photographs and improve your skills as a photographer.

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Jimmy Chin Teaches Adventure PhotographyJimmy Chin Teaches Adventure Photography

National Geographic photographer teaches his techniques for planning, capturing, and editing breathtaking photos.

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What Is Lens Distortion in Photography?

Lens distortion is any deformation that occurs in the images produced by a camera lens.

  • Distortion can generally be described as when straight lines appear bent or curvy in photographs.
  • Sometimes this effect is intended, other times it occurs as a result of an error.
  • There are two major categories of lens distortions: optical distortion and perspective distortion.
  • There are a variety of causes that can produce a distortion effect and a number of remedies for distortion correction. In order to fix image distortion, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of the types of distortion and the best ways to correct distortion.

What Is Optical Distortion?

The first major category of lens distortion is optical distortion. Optical distortion can be attributed to the lens profile and the lens design. Sometimes optical distortion results from certain lens elements that are used to reduce other visual deformations such as spherical aberrations. There are three major types of optical distortion:

  • Barrel distortion
  • Pincushion distortion
  • Mustache distortion

Almost every lens suffers from some degree of optical distortion. Different lenses will produce different types of distortion depending on a variety of factors including: the length of the lens, focal length, and subject distance, among others.

What Is Barrel Distortion?

Barrel distortion describes a type of distortion wherein lines that are straight in real life appear to curve inwards (like the walls of a barrel).

A good way to check for barrel distortion is to look for parallel lines in the area you are shooting and see if the lines appear parallel in your image. Barrel distortion often occurs when using wide-angle lenses. This is because the field of view of wide-angle lenses is wider than the image sensor on a digital camera and therefore the image looks like it has been squeezed and constricted to fit in the edges of the frame. In addition to wide-angle lenses, zoom lenses with short focal lengths tend to produce barrel distortion.

What Is Pincushion Distortion?

Pincushion distortion produces the opposite effect from barrel distortion.

Instead of an image curving in, pincushion distortion causes straight lines to curve outwards from the center of the image. Telephoto lenses are the most common source of pincushion distortion because of the increased magnification on parts of the image closest to the edge of the frame. This is especially true when the lens is at a shorter focal length.

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What Is Mustache Distortion?

Mustache distortion is a complex form of distortion that has elements of both barrel and pincushion distortion.

Mustache distortion makes straight vertical lines appear to curve inward towards the center of the frame and back outwards at the corner.

What Is Perspective Distortion?

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Perspective distortion is a separate category of visual distortion that has nothing to do with camera lenses. Perspective distortion generally has to do with the positioning of a subject in relation to the camera and your angle of view. There are two types of perspective distortion:

  • Wide-angle distortion (or extension distortion). Objects generally appear larger as perceived by the human eye, the closer you get to them. This same principle applies in photography—when you position your subject close to your camera using a wide-angle lens, whatever is closest to the camera will appear disproportionately large in your final image. This phenomenon is known as wide-angle distortion.
  • Compression distortion. Compression distortion occurs when using a telephoto zoom lens and is essentially the opposite of wide-angle distortion. Compression distortion causes objects that are far away to appear larger than normal.

How Do You Fix Distortion?

There are a number of things to keep in mind when trying to fix distortion in photographs, particularly related to the type of distortion.

  • In order to fix barrel and pincushion distortion, use a photo editing, post-processing application like Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop.
  • Any basic photo editing software will be able to fix standard barrel distortion as long as the lens you used has a profile stored in the software database.
  • Mustache distortion is one of the most difficult types of distortion to fix. Standard photo editing software generally don’t have presets to address the distortion parameters you’d find in mustache distortion. Specialized proprietary software is usually the only way to fix the complex visual aberrations caused by mustache distortion.

How Do You Use Distortion to Your Advantage?

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Some lenses are designed to produce distortion.

  • A normal lens is designed to be rectilinear, meaning that straight lines in real life are rendered as straight in a final image.
  • Some lenses—like fisheye lenses—are designed to be curvilinear where straight lines appear as curved in your final image.
  • Once you have a thorough understanding of how distortion works you can begin to intentionally utilize distortion in your photography.

Want to Become a Better Photographer?

Whether you’re just starting out or have dreams of going professional, photography requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than celebrated National Geographic photographer Jimmy Chin. In Jimmy Chin’s MasterClass on adventure photography, he unpacks different creative approaches for commercial shoots, editorial spreads, and passion projects and provides a valuable perspective on how to bring your photography to new heights.

Want to become a better photographer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons from master photographers, including Jimmy Chin and Annie Leibovitz.

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