Deciding on Distortion Correction

A reader inquired via a comment on my previous blog post (“Seeking Blue on Blue“) about why I didn’t correct for the distortion of the church spire in my Blue Church photo captured in Bratislava, Slovakia. For reference, a small version of the photo is included to the right here.

The primary reason I didn’t correct the geometric distortion of the scene is that it was there intentionally. My feeling was that the Blue Church is already a bit of an unusual subject visually, and so I thought that a wide-angle shot that created an exaggeration of the unusual nature of the subject might be interesting. I actually captured other shots with a longer lens from a position further from the church, but favored the distorted image as being a bit more interesting visually.

So, the short answer is that the ideal solution if I didn’t want that distortion was to capture a different image, not to capture a wide-angle shot and then remove the distortion in post-processing.

And this raises another issue that I think is worth exploring. Specifically, if you don’t want distortion in the image, it is really best to avoid it in the first place. To be sure, you can apply lens correction adjustments and transformations to an image in order to straighten it out. But if you photograph a subject up close with a wide-angle lens rather than backing up and using a longer lens, the degree of correction is going to be significant.

Consider, for example, this version of the same image, which provides a sense of how much the image must be manipulated to achieve a somewhat straightened belltower:

Naturally if this was my intent for the image I would need to crop rather significantly. Hopefully I would have taken that into account in the initial capture, leaving some room around the subject so that I could crop without losing any key areas of the photo.

However, this strong transformation also creates a problem in terms of image quality. All that stretching and skewing of the pixels means more than a few pixels will need to be added or removed from the image. The result is a loss of sharpness and detail in the photo. In fact, the result can be a very significant reduction in image quality. That might not be a problem if the image will only be shared online, but if you’ll print the photo that loss of quality can have a big impact.

Obviously the choice of lens and–by extension–the choice of position relative to the subject plays a key role in defining the final image. In this case I opted for a distorted look, so I went out of my way to get close with a short lens. I could have taken a different approach, of course. But I would suggest that the worst approach would have been to capture an image with distortion you intended to remove later, unless it was simply impossible to capture the image you were really after.

What do you think? Should I have avoided the distortion in this case? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

About Tim Grey

Tim Grey is in the business of making photographers smarter and happier. He is the author of more than a dozen books on digital imaging for photographers, has written hundreds of magazine articles, and publishes the Ask Tim Grey e-mail newsletter as well as the Pixology digital magazine. He also speaks at a variety of events and leads photography workshops around the world.
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12 Responses to Deciding on Distortion Correction

  1. john rowe says:

    I think a slight compromise would be better; not “squaring up” completely but allow some slight leaning.

  2. Bill Brennan says:

    Tim, this is a case of personal preferences; and so, I appreciate and support your choice of how to edit and present the image.

    If my intention was a documentary image, I would make the same choice as you.

    If my intention was to share the image in an exhibition, I would try to adjust the geometric distortion.

    Bill Brennan

  3. Jud Brouse says:

    In the end I think the image should be whatever you were going for. So, I certainly support your choice. I also appreciate you comments that followed. A good reminder to keep in mind where you are goin with the image before you push the button.
    Tx much. Jb

  4. Gordon Svoboda says:

    Thanks for a great conversation starter. I am enjoying everyone’s “perspective.”

    I think this picture could also be used to show how a tilt-shift lens can be used to great effect to avoid perspective distortion that could only get worse trying to correct in post process. I appreciated your example of the impact on the shot with correction applied!

    Regards, Gordon

  5. Mara Acoma says:

    I have to admit I don’t understand why some people are bothered by lens distortion. If the image is pleasing then I’m fine with it. In fact for some of my shots I aim for it as it can help to convery the feeling of a place.

    Similarly I have no problem with flare if it brings something to the image, yet others hate it on principal.

  6. Bailey Scott says:

    The shot is perfect, but just because we all see things differently I would prefer to exclude the flower containers ;-?

  7. Charles Nauman says:

    I must admit that I do not like either image, but that’s just me. I’ve been experimenting with correcting distortion… using pictures of skyscrapers that I clip from newspapers. Sometimes it works well, but with elongation of subjects (e.g., cars) in the foreground (havn’t figured that one out yet), sometimes not so well. Fisheye lenses sometimes also present some interesting images – with pleasing distortions if the composition falls into place… still figuring out that one too. Thanks for the discussion !

  8. It all depends on what you are trying to do. Are you shooting for an architectural rendering of the church, or are you “creating a fine art image”? I prefer the un-corrected image as a personal interpretation of the scene. The question is akin to whether I “manipulate” my photographs in Photoshop, although viewed from the opposite context. I do not like the sinister connotation of the word “manipulate”; I prefer to use the word “adjustment”. I am not a point and click shooter. I create an image as a fine art photographer.

  9. I support your choice. I believe that the photographer’s eye for composition is most valuable to each photographer. If you don’t like the way a person photographs a subject try to imagine what the photographer was trying to say. Pictures are a way of conveying expression of what you see.

  10. Both the distorted and non-distorted image are acceptable in accordance with the intent of the image maker. The question is: what is the image maker’s intent. So…in accordance with the French expression, “À chacun son propre goût”; i.e., to each one his own taste.

  11. Susan says:

    This image is an elegant expression of the artist’s perspective. Don’t change a thing!

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