What are lens aberrations? Lens defects explained

Wide-angle lens
(Image credit: Future)

You may think that spending hundreds or even thousands of your hard-earned cash on a new lens would guarantee you a unit free from defects, but optical defects are part and parcel of the physics of a lens’s make-up. All lenses have them, and some lens types – like zooms – are more prone to them than others – like primes.

However manufacturers use sophisticated design and production practices to minimise these problems, and make them as unnoticeable as possible – given the constraints of size, weight and price-point.

Lens distortion

Fisheye lens

A 'fisheye' lens produces very obvious barrel distortion, but almost all lenses have some degree of distortion. (Image credit: Future)

The first optical defect – and probably the most obvious – is distortion. This is revealed by the bending of lines on the image that are straight in reality. It comes in two main forms: barrel distortion – where the lines bulge at the centre and bow outwards in a convex shape, and pincushion distortion – where the lines bow inwards in a concave shape.

Barrel distortion is commonly seen in zoom lenses at the wide-angle end of the focal length range, but it may also be seen in prime lenses – for example when the lens is close to its minimum focusing distance. Pincushion distortion is often seen on longer focal length lenses like telephotos, and on ‘superzooms‘ which cover a huge range of different focal lengths from wide to long telephoto, and it’s quite possible to see both types in the same lens, depending on how far you’re zoomed in (or out). 

Vignetting, or 'corner shading'

An image taken with the Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Zero-D lens

This Laowa 9mm f/2.8 ultra-wide lens has no barrel distortion at all but noticeable vignetting. Lens designers often have to trade off one aberration against another. (Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

The next most obvious defect is corner shading, where the image produced by the lens is darker towards the corners of the frame. This is called vignetting, and is a result of the light captured by the lens falling off towards the edge of the image circle it creates. 

This occurs in all lenses, and is the result of the peripheral light being blocked by the lens barrel, and the fact that peripheral light waves have to travel further than those at the centre of the lens. 

For good measure, there’s also a third reason with digital cameras, as the sensors within them have an array of photosites facing forward. This means that light coming from an extreme angle (like at the edges of the frame) will be more acute and less intense than light at the centre. 

Vignetting tends to be at its most extreme when using the maximum focal length on zooms, or when using large apertures (small f-numbers). In the latter case, it can be improved by stopping down to a smaller aperture.

Chromatic aberration, or 'fringing'

Kit lens comparison

Color fringing (chromatic aberration) is just one of the things we measure in our lens reviews. (Image credit: Future)

The third main type of optical defect is chromatic aberration, which sounds awfully technical, but is usually described as “coloured fringing”. Because the red, green and blue light we can see have different wavelengths, a lens has the unenviable challenge of trying to making then all meet at a specific focal distance across the entire field of view. 

In high contrast areas with defined edges (like where the crisp edge of a subject meets a bright sky) you will often see coloured fringing towards the edges of the picture where a second edge is ‘ghosted’ beyond the actual edge. Multiple elements of expensive, corrected glass are used in high-end professional lenses to combat this, but this leads to two unpopular by-products – weight and price!

Lens profiles and lens corrections

A screenshot from DxO PhotoLab

Many software programs can now correct lens aberrations automatically using 'lens profiles'. This is DxO PhotoLab. (Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

Regarding optical defects in general, the good news is that most can be easily cured – or at least minimised – if you shoot in raw format. In the Optics panel of popular raw converters like Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw, there are two boxes you can tick to apply lens corrections. These access a database within the software and apply corrections based on the performance of the lens in use. ‘Remove Chromatic Aberration’ will minimise fringing, and ‘Use Profile Corrections’ will correct distortion and vignetting. It’s a brilliant tool that’s dead quick to use, and unless you’ve taken a shot where the optical defects add to the creative appeal of the image, these boxes are worth ticking every time you process a picture, no matter how much your lens cost!

Read more:

Best camera lenses
Best wide-angle lenses
Best photo editing software
DxO PhotoLab 4 review

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Andrew James

Andrew makes his living as a photographer, videographer and journalist. For 26 years he was a specialist magazine editor, the last 13 of which were on Practical Photography magazine. A long-time expert in photographic techniques across many disciplines, he's a self-confessed photo generalist, and a font of creative knowledge to capturing just about any subject, although he has a strong leaning to wildlife and travel photography. Andrew's wide-ranging photography experience means he authors the long-running Photo Answers section for Digital Camera Magazine. His work as a journalist, guide and educator dovetails neatly into his commitment to Foto-Buzz - an online subscription community he founded, where Andrew writes articles, films tutorials and records blogs on all manner of photo-related subjects and techniques for enthusiast photographers.