Distortion (optics)

Not to be confused with spherical aberration, a loss of image sharpness that can result from spherical lens surfaces.
Optical aberration

Spherical aberration
Petzval field curvature
Chromatic aberration

Wine glasses create non-uniform distortion of their background

In geometric optics, distortion is a deviation from rectilinear projection, a projection in which straight lines in a scene remain straight in an image. It is a form of optical aberration.

Radial distortion

Although distortion can be irregular or follow many patterns, the most commonly encountered distortions are radially symmetric, or approximately so, arising from the symmetry of a photographic lens. These radial distortions can usually be classified as either barrel distortions or pincushion distortions. See van Walree.[1]

Barrel distortion

In barrel distortion, image magnification decreases with distance from the optical axis. The apparent effect is that of an image which has been mapped around a sphere (or barrel). Fisheye lenses, which take hemispherical views, utilize this type of distortion as a way to map an infinitely wide object plane into a finite image area. In a zoom lens barrel distortion appears in the middle of the lens's focal length range and is worst at the wide-angle end of the range.[2]

Pincushion distortion

In pincushion distortion, image magnification increases with the distance from the optical axis. The visible effect is that lines that do not go through the centre of the image are bowed inwards, towards the centre of the image, like a pincushion.

Mustache distortion

A mixture of both types, sometimes referred to as mustache distortion (moustache distortion) or complex distortion, is less common but not rare. It starts out as barrel distortion close to the image center and gradually turns into pincushion distortion towards the image periphery, making horizontal lines in the top half of the frame look like a handlebar mustache.

Mathematically, barrel and pincushion distortion are quadratic, meaning they increase as the square of distance from the center. In mustache distortion the quartic (degree 4) term is significant: in the center, the degree 2 barrel distortion is dominant, while at the edge the degree 4 distortion in the pincushion direction dominates. Other distortions are in principle possible – pincushion in center and barrel at the edge, or higher order distortions (degree 6, degree 8) – but do not generally occur in practical lenses, and higher order distortions are small relative to the main barrel and pincushion effects.


Simulated animation of globe effect (right) compared with a simple pan (left)

In photography, distortion is particularly associated with zoom lenses, particularly large-range zooms, but may also be found in prime lenses, and depends on focal distance – for example, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 exhibits barrel distortion at extremely short focal distances. Barrel distortion may be found in wide-angle lenses, and is often seen at the wide-angle end of zoom lenses, while pincushion distortion is often seen in older or low-end telephoto lenses. Mustache distortion is observed particularly on the wide end of zooms, with certain retrofocus lenses, and more recently on large-range zooms such as the Nikon 18–200 mm.

A certain amount of pincushion distortion is often found with visual optical instruments, e.g., binoculars, where it serves to eliminate the globe effect.

Radial distortions can be understood by their effect on concentric circles, as in an archery target.

In order to understand these distortions, it should be remembered that these are radial defects; the optical systems in question have rotational symmetry (omitting non-radial defects), so the didactically correct test image would be a set of concentric circles having even separation—like a shooter's target. It will then be observed that these common distortions actually imply a nonlinear radius mapping from the object to the image: What is seemingly pincushion distortion, is actually simply an exaggerated radius mapping for large radii in comparison with small radii. A graph showing radius transformations (from object to image) will be steeper in the upper (rightmost) end. Conversely, barrel distortion is actually a diminished radius mapping for large radii in comparison with small radii. A graph showing radius transformations (from object to image) will be less steep in the upper (rightmost) end.

Chromatic aberration

Further information: Chromatic aberration

Radial distortion that depends on wavelength is called "lateral chromatic aberration" – "lateral" because radial, "chromatic" because dependent on color (wavelength). This can cause colored fringes in high-contrast areas in the outer parts of the image. This should not be confused with axial (longitudinal) chromatic aberration, which causes aberrations throughout the field, particularly purple fringing.

Origin of terms

The names for these distortions come from familiar objects which are visually similar.

Software correction

Radial distortion, whilst primarily dominated by low order radial components,[3] can be corrected using Brown's distortion model,[4] also known as the Brown–Conrady model based on earlier work by Conrady.[5] The Brown–Conrady model corrects both for radial distortion and for tangential distortion caused by physical elements in a lens not being perfectly aligned. The latter is also known as decentering distortion. See Zhang[6] for radial distortion discussion.


= distorted image point as projected on image plane using specified lens,
= undistorted image point as projected by an ideal pin-hole camera,
= distortion center (assumed to be the principal point),
= radial distortion coefficient,
= tangential distortion coefficient [note that Brown's original definition has and interchanged],
= , and
= an infinite series.

Barrel distortion typically will have a negative term for whereas pincushion distortion will have a positive value. Moustache distortion will have a non-monotonic radial geometric series where for some the sequence will change sign.

Software can correct those distortions by warping the image with a reverse distortion. This involves determining which distorted pixel corresponds to each undistorted pixel, which is non-trivial due to the non-linearity of the distortion equation.[3] Lateral chromatic aberration (purple/green fringing) can be significantly reduced by applying such warping for red, green and blue separately.

An alternative method iteratively computes the undistorted pixel position.[7]


Calibrated systems work from a table of lens/camera transfer functions:


Manual systems allow manual adjustment of distortion parameters:

convert distorted_image.jpg -distort barrel "0.06335 -0.18432 -0.13009" corrected_image.jpg

Radial distortion is a failure of a lens to be rectilinear: a failure to image lines into lines. If a photograph is not taken straight-on then, even with a perfect rectilinear lens, rectangles will appear as trapezoids: lines are imaged as lines, but the angles between them are not preserved (tilt is not a conformal map). This effect can be controlled by using a perspective control lens, or corrected in post-processing.

Due to perspective, cameras image a cube as a square frustum (a truncated pyramid, with trapezoidal sides)—the far end is smaller than the near end. This creates perspective, and the rate at which this scaling happens (how quickly more distant objects shrink) creates a sense of a scene being deep or shallow. This cannot be changed or corrected by a simple transform of the resulting image, because it requires 3D information, namely the depth of objects in the scene. This effect is known as perspective distortion; the image itself is not distorted, but is perceived as distorted when viewed from a normal viewing distance.

Note that if the center of the image is closer than the edges (for example, a straight-on shot of a face), then barrel distortion and wide-angle distortion (taking the shot from close) both increase the size of the center, while pincushion distortion and telephoto distortion (taking the shot from far) both decrease the size of the center. However, radial distortion bends straight lines (out or in), while perspective distortion does not bend lines, and these are distinct phenomena. Fisheye lenses are wide-angle lenses with heavy barrel distortion and thus exhibit both these phenomena, so objects in the center of the image (if shot from a short distance) are particularly enlarged: even if the barrel distortion is corrected, the resulting image is still from a wide-angle lens, and will still have a wide-angle perspective.

See also


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Distortion.
  1. Paul van Walree. "Distortion". Photographic optics. Retrieved 2 February 2009.
  2. "Tamron 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD". Retrieved 20 March 2013.
  3. 1 2 de Villiers, J. P.; Leuschner, F.W.; Geldenhuys, R. (17–19 November 2008). "Centi-pixel accurate real-time inverse distortion correction" (PDF). 2008 International Symposium on Optomechatronic Technologies. SPIE. doi:10.1117/12.804771.
  4. Brown, Duane C. (May 1966). "Decentering distortion of lenses" (PDF). Photogrammetric Engineering. 32 (3): 444–462.
  5. Conrady, Alexander Eugen. "Decentred Lens-Systems." Monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 79 (1919): 384–390.
  6. Zhang, Zhengyou (1998). A Flexible New Technique for Camera Calibration (PDF) (Technical report). Microsoft Research. MSR-TR-98-71.
  7. "A Four-step Camera Calibration Procedure with Implicit Image Correction". Retrieved 19 January 2011.
  8. "PTlens". Retrieved 2 Jan 2012.
  9. "lensfun - Rev 246 - /trunk/README". Retrieved 13 Oct 2013.
  10. Wiley, Carlisle. "Articles: Digital Photography Review". Dpreview.com. Retrieved 2013-07-03.
  11. "ImageMagic v6 Examples -- Lens Corrections".
  12. "Hugin tutorial – Simulating an architectural projection". Retrieved 9 September 2009.
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