the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “barrel distortion



ONE OF THE MOST ELUSIVE EFFECTS IN ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHY would seem to be the one most easily achieved: the look of a straight line, the foundation upon which an orderly image is built. However, the human eye is often more unreliable than assumed when it comes to reading and identifying that which is supposed to be “straight.”

We’ve all been confounded by optical illusions that present lines that are not, objectively, straight at all, even though our brains, based on our interpretation of the visual data, say they must be. However, we tend to dismiss this sensation as trickery, something we don’t have to sweat about in making a “real” picture. And that is probably a mistake.

Based on what kind of architectural design you’re shooting, what lens you choose, even where you stand, a straight line, either horizontal or vertical, can seem to bend or lean, making our “factual” images less than trustworthy.

Even setting up a shot on a carefully calibrated tripod and a bubble level can produce a result that looks as if it was manipulated. Of course, based on what look you desire, you may regard geometric reality as irrelevant, and deliberately engineer ” unreality” into a photograph. That’s why we make a distinction between taking a picture and making one.

As an example, the picture seen above was taken super-wide, at 18mm, to intentionally exaggerate the size of the room, making some verticals bow in while others register normally, and playing stretchy with the ceiling arches and floor horizon. The idea here was to distort the already extreme Art Deco accents and give them an extra funhouse quality. Shooting with a more conventional focal length like 35 or 50 mm would have made for straighter lines, but would also have sacrificed every other effect achieved at 18mm.

Bottom (straight or crooked) line: dimensions and angles are suggestions, not commandments. But it’s a lot easier to break rules creatively once you understand how they work.



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The use of an extreme wide-angle lens, like this fisheye, need not generate the bendy look of “barrel distortion”. It’s all in the composition.


VISIT ENOUGH TOURIST SITES and you will eventually encounter the challenge of capturing very large objects, trying to squeeze the whole of a cathedral or a canyon into a single frame. Using a wide-angle lens is the first instinct, of course, but since even a 35mm is considered a wide-angle of sorts, there are any number of choices that all have their own pluses and minuses.

The lower the millimeter number, of course, the wider the lens. Simple enough on the surface, but you still have to decide what kind of wide you prefer. Each lens has slightly different coverage and properties, with the “super-wides” adding their own distinctive traits to the space you’re trying to capture. The two main properties you’ll notice most are barrel distortion and dimensional exaggeration, both of which will affect your lens choice for a given shooting situation.

Let’s look at barrel distortion. Lenses wider than about 24mm can make straight walls appear to bend outwards like the sides of a barrel, creating an unreal, and, for some, somewhat claustrophobic appearance most associated with the ultimate width of a fisheye (something around 8mm). The effect is that of a world cramped into the inside of a snow globe, and, depending on what look you’re going for, it can either be marvelous or miserable. It’s marvelous, for example, if you want to suggest tremendous depth in a shot.

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A more modest wide-angle, like this 24mm delivers more conventional dimensions, but not as much coverage. 

And that’s dimensional exaggeration, the other key trait of a  super-wide, in which the perception of distance from front to back is greatly hyped, making a deep space look even deeper. Shooting a cavernous area like the inside of the rotunda at the Los Angeles Central Library, as seen in the frame at top, you may want to suggest vastness, and a fisheye, such as was used here, does that superbly. All I’ve done to defeat the accompanying barrel distortion is to crop away the original frame edges. Of course, using a more conventional focal length like a 24mm, as seen directly above, shows all dimensions in a much more natural way, but they sacrifice coverage area, revealing less of the ceiling and sides and creating the sensation that the shot is not inclusive of enough information. In the case of both lenses, how you frame and where you stand will produce significant variations on how you render the space.

Photography is about what to fill the frame with, of course, but it also involves some planning as to how technology does that best, based on the tools at hand and what they’re equipped to do.


Perhaps the most famous "fisheye" image in pop culture.

Perhaps the most famous “fisheye” image in pop culture.


THE FISHEYE LENS, that ultra-wide hunk of glass whose images seem inscribed within a circle rather than a rectangle, have earned a bit of a bad rap among serious photographers over the years, perhaps because of either mis-use or over-use.

Let’s face it: of all the optical effects available to the average shooter, the fisheye shot is one of the most dramatic in its distortion of reality. It’s almost guaranteed to make your image about the look, which is where content starts to matter less than mere novelty.

Fisheye fever saw its peak in the swinging ’60’s, when such shots were intended to suggest a kind of sensory dislocation, the visual equivalent of a psychedelic state. The cover of Jim Hendrix’ Are You Experienced was perhaps the most popular example of such “weird-for-weird’s-sake” photography, with main subjects sitting at dead center, surrounded by severe barrel distortion that radiated out toward the edge of the circle, making even close objects seem distant as they softened into a haze of chromatic aberration at the extremes. Far out, man.

Cyan Veranda (2016). Controlling the fisheye effect with composition and angle.

Cyan Veranda (2016). Curbing the extremes of the fisheye effect with composition and angle. This shot was made with a Lensbaby fisheye optic installed in a Lensbaby Composer Pro lens assembly, far less expensive than the classic “dedicated” fisheye. 

These kaleidoscopic pictures tend to render such arbitrary boundaries as walls and horizon lines moot, and telegraph the photographer’s message that it’s all about getting your freak on. However, I think that fisheyes, when used like other wide-angles, can add graduated elements of distortion and distance exaggeration that need not be the only visual message in an image. Making a left or right edge the “center” of the shot, for example, can reduce the intense bending-in, while raising the camera up or down can render a horizon line almost normal, with a little tweaking for dramatic effect.

Ultra-wide images need not be all about the patented fisheye “look”, which can be, frankly, fatiguing, just as shooting in hazy focus or HDR might, were you to do nothing else. It’s the point at which an effect ceases to be a tool and starts to actually put barriers between your subject and your viewer, which is seldom good. What is good is that a “dedicated” fisheye (one which cannot deliver a standard image), still one of the most expensive pieces of glass available, is no longer a mandatory investment, since even lo-fi film cameras, entry-level art lenses and even phone apps can create the look cheaply and quickly, allowing one to dabble without adding on a second mortgage (beware the poor quality in the truly cheap ones, however). Optical tricks are, well, just that. Optical techniques can amplify, rather than disguise, your visual messages.



WHEN USING WIDE-ANGLE LENSES, we believe that we are revealing more “reality”. That is, we began to think that a narrower aspect ratio is somehow “hiding” or clipping off visual information, whereas a wide allows us to “see everything”. But once you’ve shot with a wide-angle for a while, you realize that it’s, at best, a trade-off. The lens giveth and the lens taketh away.

Wide-angles do, certainly, increase the view from left to right, but, in so doing, they add their own little quirks, such as softer resolution along the edges, chromatic aberration, barrel distortion (that feeling that straight lines are bending outward at the sides of the frame), and an exaggeration of the distance between the front and back of the shot.

Bearing all this in mind, I feel that, since a pretty wide lens, the 18-55mm, is now included with nearly every DSLR camera kit, it’s important to see wides as both an aid to showing reality and an effective tool for interpreting or altering it. Think of your wides as art glass, as effects lenses, and you open up your mind to how it can not only record, but comment on your subject matter.

Fisheye lenses demonstrate what all wide-angles do: create an unreal look that can be managed and massaged to your ends.

Fisheye lenses demonstrate what all wide-angles do: create an unreal look that can be managed and massaged to fit your ends.

And, let’s take it a step further, as in when wides become ultra-wides, as in the 8 to 12mm range, where the lens becomes a true fisheye. Now we’re consciously aware that we’re using an effects lens, something that is designed specifically for a freakish or distorted look. And now we have to challenge ourselves in a different way.

The standard fisheye shot is a self-contained orb, a separate universe, within which everything radiates distortion outward from the center concentrically, like a kaleidoscope or a paper snowflake. But a fisheye frame can also be composed to combine all the left-right, back-front information of a standard wide-angle (more narrative space) while also playing to the surreal look of something designed to challenge our visual biases of what’s “real”. The effect can also, as in the above image, forcefully direct the viewer’s eye to see along very precise channels. In this picture, the action of the shot begins at the right front, and tracks diagonally backwards to the left year, with the focus softening as you look from “important” to less “important”. The drama in the woman’s face is also abetted by the unnatural dimensions of the image, like one part of a nightmare serving to stage another part.

Wide-angle lenses can conceal and interpret, not just reveal. They allow us to see more from left to right, but there is a lot of wiggle room in how we show it. You have to accept the idea that all optics are distortions of reality to some degree, and make the bias of your particular glass serve your narrative goals.