Correcting Perspective Lens Distortion In Photoshop

Correcting Perspective Lens Distortion In Photoshop

Lens distortion is a potential problem for any photographer without access to a tilt shift lens, and not all of us have the ability or desire to dump a couple grand on one. There’s a lot of things that two grand could go towards besides a niche lens like a tilt shift. If you’re an architectural photographer, that is certainly a different story, but most people aren’t.

There are quite a few types of lens distortion, but this article is going to focus on perspective distortion. I’ve found, for photographers, lens distortion only becomes a problem once you discover what it is, and if you haven’t discovered it yet then I apologize in advance because now it will drive you nuts when you don’t want it! When I first started out, I had no idea that my lens distorted reality and therefore I never noticed it in my images. I remember when I first started posting photos to flickr when I was brand new photographer, I put up an image I took at a really old methodist church. I took the shot from the second floor balcony, which unknowingly to me at the time was probably the best place to shoot when trying to get straight lines all throughout your image. Unfortunately for me, I tilted the camera down a bit, which caused the vertical lines in the scene to lean in towards the center of the image.

When somebody tried to point this out to me, I was befuddled. I looked and looked at the image, but I couldn’t see what he was talking about. He just told me that the lines weren’t straight! I wasn’t looking at the lines in the scene in comparison to the edges of the frame, I was just looking at the lines themselves. They looked pretty dang straight to me, and I was getting pretty ticked off at this guy! Eventually, he told me to compare the lines in the scene to the outer edges of the framing itself and that’s when I had that first “aha” moment with lens distortion.

It’s important to note that lens distortion isn’t good or bad in and of itself. Like most things, it just depends on how and when you use it, and whether or not you meant to use it!

If you are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, here are a few examples of intentional lens distortion…

Image by Jacob Lucas

Here’s a great example from Jacob Lucas. Notice how the pillars lean in toward the center of the frame? They don’t go straight up and down like they would in real life. This is pretty obvious distortion, but it works great in this image.

Image by Trey Ratcliff

Here’s another example from Trey Ratcliff. This is one of his famous images from a bamboo forest in Kyoto, Japan. This is intentional lens distortion at it’s best. Trey pointed his lens straight up into the trees, so the distortion created a canopy of bamboo that seams to close in on you. If you go to this forest and stand in this same spot, these trees would all be pointing straight up.

If you didn’t notice this before, I hope you’re having your own little “aha” moment right about now. Perhaps you noticed things like this in your subconscious, but never really thought about why an image looked the way it did. This type of lens distortion is most prevalent with wide angle lenses, and is caused by pointing the camera up or down relative to a subject. This is why if you look up and take a picture of a really tall building, or anything with vertical lines, it looks like it’s falling down on you. This isn’t necessarily bad, I think it certainly worked in the examples above, but it’s important to know how to fix it if that isn’t what you want in your final image. Sometimes, the composition demands straight, perfect lines.

Ok enough already, tell me how to fix it!

Ok ok, fine. There are numerous ways to fix lens distortion, but this tutorial will cover how to do it in Photoshop. I know for a fact you can do the same thing in Lightroom 3, and there are probably plug-ins out there that would allow for something like this in Aperture. I know, not everyone has Photoshop and I understand that, but you should seriously consider saving up for it if you don’t already own it. It’s an incredibly powerful program and I use it on a daily basis. Sure, it’s a bit pricy, but it’s highly worth it I promise!

Here’s an image from my library that we will use for an example…

Before we get started, if you are/were a fan of the series Prison Break, maybe this building looks familiar to you? Personally, I loved the show, but thought the last episode ruined everything. I just finished season 4 the other day and I was livid at the last couple minutes of that show! But I digress. You’ll notice in this shot that we definitely have some lens distortion to deal with. Take a look at the brick columns on the far left and right side, we want to use those columns as a guide to correct the distortion and make everything nice and straight. Here’s what you do in Photoshop…

If you can’t quite read what’s circle on the screen shot, just click the image to view it full size. You’ll notice that I numbered everything, so let’s go in order here…

  1. Once your image is in Photoshop, select the crop tool from the left hand toolbar. You can also do this quickly by hitting the short cut “C.” Once selected, drag the crop tool over the entire image.
  2. Once the crop overlay is covering the image, make sure that “Grid” is selected. This is a better option than the “Rule of Thirds” option in this case, as it will help you line up the distortion correction.
  3. Here’s the little box that a lot of people don’t know about! Without this box selected, you can only make standard crops by dragging the corners or sides up and down. With this box selected, you can now drag the corners in to correct perspective lens distortion!
  4. As you can see here, I grabbed each top corner in and used the far right and left columns as a guide to make the grid line up with the angle of the columns. That’s it! Photoshop will do the rest of the work from here, so once you have the crop overlay where you want it, just hit enter and see what happens.

Here is the final result…


As you can see, the columns around the doors are now perfectly straight up and down. You might think it unfortunate that I lost the columns on the far right and left, but here’s a secret: I knew when taking this shot that I’d need to do some lens correction on it. Therefore, I took a few steps back and placed those far columns just inside the frame to act as a guide later in Photoshop. Once you learn tricks like this, you can plan ahead later on.

If you have any questions about this tip, or you want to talk about how awesome Prison Break was until the last episode, be sure to leave a comment. If you know of a plug-in that can do this in other programs like Aperture, be sure to let us know that as well!

Finally, I’m always looking for cool, fellow photographers to connect with on Twitter, so be sure to follow me (@jamesdbrandon) if you don’t already. Cheers, and happy shooting!

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James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

Some Older Comments

  • Julian Lang April 20, 2013 02:48 am

    Great. I'm using this process for quick editing shots of artwork needed for a presentation tomorrow. It was a fast and furious shoot since our Pro photog was not available. This is great.

  • Laura Pazzaglia March 18, 2013 04:54 pm

    I think this was recently published... but this might be helpful:

  • MarR April 24, 2012 03:18 pm

    Thanks so much for this great, simple fix. I had some 11mm shots that I thought might be useless but this worked wonders on them.

  • Andrew Murphy January 8, 2012 04:11 am

    Great article, short, informative and to the point!

  • Garham October 11, 2011 04:34 am

    I want to photograph the meat plant ruins in fort worth, but what is the best way to get into it without being noticed. Great picture, by the way.

  • Mazlan August 20, 2011 10:41 pm

    Hi James,
    You gave 4 steps for the process... How do I get to set the Grids in step 2? I'm new to Photoshop. Please help & many thanks.

  • James June 22, 2011 05:58 pm

    Great for the perspective,
    You can see it a good tutorial for correct barrel and pincushion distortion with a wide angle lens :

    barrel and pincushion distortion is another problem with wide angle lens.
    It is interresting

  • IanG May 17, 2011 10:46 pm

    Kudos! I truly appreciate this tutorial and it answered my concern.

  • Christy March 10, 2011 02:49 pm

    Thanks for the tip! This is just the article I was looking for!

  • Krysta March 9, 2011 03:18 pm

    I cannot believe it's that easy!! Awesome. Thanks for the tutorial :)

  • zoug March 6, 2011 11:29 pm

    You can download GIMP for post photo correction and manipulation. Unlike Photoshop, GIMP is free, and almost anything that you can do to the former you can do it too to the latter. I like this website, btw. Cool!

  • sumit March 5, 2011 02:54 am

    Am so glad I chanced upon this article. Thanks for coming up with it. Have a shot of the Royal Crescent at Bath which I noticed, to my chagrin, had wide angle distortion. I think I'll give the correction bit a shot over the weekend, though I'll have to do so with GIMP.

  • Colin Pernet March 4, 2011 04:10 pm

    I have Elements 8, and have tried using the perspective tool, but no joy for this type of change. Probably it is because E8 does not have the grid and perspective on the bar.
    Any comments?
    Colin Pernet

  • Mohamed Ghuloom March 1, 2011 07:01 am

    There is the fixing perspective option in Adobe Lightroom 3 as well. Does that give the same results or Photoshop is better?

  • Richard February 25, 2011 08:26 am

    Great article, you have made it really simple for us newbies to Photoshop. Thank you! My first attempt: If I can do it, anyone can!

  • bycostello February 22, 2011 12:54 am

    interesting.. gonna try on a few on my images.. thanks for the ideas...

  • Kieran February 20, 2011 03:17 am

    Really helpful tutorial, I had noticed lens distortion before in my pictures but didn't really have a clue how to fix it. I have been trying to use the filter->lens distortion option in Photoshop but this seems much more straight forward, thanks!

  • Fred Rost February 18, 2011 02:01 pm

    This is about your “Correcting Perspective Lens Distortion In Photoshop”/
    Firstly, the correct name for this is "perspective distortion". The lens has nothing to do with it.
    Seconfly, the method which you describe is, unfortunately, quite wrong, although I suspect that a lot of people use it. Tilting the camera introduces two distortions: tilting of vertical lines, and foreshortening (shortening of vertical objects). The method which you describe corrects the tilt but not the foreshortening.
    The correct method is to use vertical perspective correction in the "lens correction" routine, to be found the the "Filter > Distort > Lens Correction" menu. A grid is provided.
    One can modify your method, by pulling the top corners diagonally outwards and upwards at 45 degrees, but the "Lens Correction" routine is much easler.

  • Geoffrey February 18, 2011 12:30 pm

    I had to use IE to see the images. For some reason FireFox did not show them to me. I only mention it not complaining.

  • robbie February 18, 2011 05:23 am

    The Holy Grail. Thank you. I have a bunch of photos where I can use this tip

  • Les Brown February 17, 2011 07:33 am

    You could add one more step that improves the correction proportional to the amount of correction the converging parallels require. When photographing an object (like your building) from an oblique angle (which produces the converging parallels) the image also suffers what is referred to as "foreshortening". That is, the apparent height of the object is decreased proportional to the angle of view. So once you correct the converging parallels, some degree of stretch at the top or bottom of the canvas is necessary to re-establish the proper proportions of the object in terms of height & width.

  • Mel February 16, 2011 07:50 pm

    Okay, I have tried this for two days straight, and as simple as it is, I seriously cannot get it. Step 3 eludes me. I select the perspective box and nothing changes. :/ if someone could help me that would be great. I use PS CS5 ext.

  • Tomas Sobek February 13, 2011 10:18 am

    In case you don't feel obliged to spend money on PS, here are tools that help you achieve the same thing in GIMP (freely available not only for Linux but also for Windows and Mac OS X): The obvious choice available out of the box is Perspective tool. It has some drawbacks though, similar to the technique shown in this article. Mainly it doesn't stretch the image in vertical direction to account for the changed angle of view. For more natural results there is EZ Perspective plugin.

  • Anki February 13, 2011 09:11 am

    Thank you so much for this article. I didn't had a clue to that you could use the crop tool this way.

  • Lisa Clarke February 12, 2011 12:50 pm

    Paint Shop Pro has a "perspective correction" tool that does much the same thing. You can also correct horizontal issues (as I suspect you can with the PS crop tool, too). I find it handy for those times when I am not standing as squarely in front of my subject as I thought, or when I am shooting from above without the benefit of the viewfinder.

  • Wan February 12, 2011 10:18 am

    Thanks for the tips. I am using wide angle len and I knew I had a lot of issues with distortion.

  • Doug Sundseth February 12, 2011 08:29 am

    @ James Brandon: In Photoshop CS5, by default, the Lens Correction filter has a hot-key of Ctrl-Shift-R (PC), which is part of the reason I prefer it. In CS3, you had to drill down through the Filters menu, (unless you reassigned hot keys, of course) which made it much less convenient.

    Not trying to say that your way doesn't work, or that my way is the most convenient for everybody, just that it's most convenient for me and might be similarly useful for others.

    @ steph: I just tried both Transform and Lens Filter on the church image and had no problems using either technique to straighten the pillars. (Under a minute for either technique, btw -- though of course my way was faster. 8-) )

  • Mihai February 12, 2011 08:18 am

    GREAT STUFF! I learned another good thing from you! I couldn't bealive the result. I had my "aha" moment the first time I shoot a building in wide angle. but till now I didn't think it was correctable. Thank you again!

  • Steph February 12, 2011 08:01 am

    I'll definitely try all that. Thanks!

  • James Brandon February 12, 2011 07:55 am

    Lars - very interesting, thanks for the tip!

  • James Brandon February 12, 2011 07:55 am

    Steph - I never said you could correct the examples. They were shown as examples of images where perspective distortion was used intentionally to create a certain feel to the image, not as examples of images that needed correction or could even be corrected.

    The image I used as an example is one that could be corrected, mainly because when taking the shot I planned out the composition so that it COULD be corrected.

    While I won't post the image here because it belongs to Jacob, I did take his image into Photoshop and ran the perspective correction that I described in the article, and for the record, it did line up the front pillars with the ones in the back. I wouldn't put it past Adobe to have included something in their algorithm to account for the different angles.

    In Trey's shot however, the perspective is so exaggerated that correcting the perspective would come at too great a loss to the pixel quality at the top of the image. Although it can be done, it doesn't look good.

    A lot of these tips for Photoshop are here to help you out in certain situations. Don't make the mistake of taking a tip like this and trying to apply it as a blanket solution for every situation. That isn't the point :-)

  • Steph February 12, 2011 07:16 am

    That's funny I was just trying to correct that distortion for the first time couple of days ago ... And I'm a bit disappointed by your technique as it's the one I tried, and it doesn't work for all images.
    Typically, you won't be able to correct the 2 first examples shown in your article. Correcting the bamboos would be crazy, but let's say you want to correct the church shot.
    Using your technique, you will be able to align the foreground pillars or background pillars but not both at the same time as perspective gave them different angles, they are not parallels to each other.

    If anybody can correct the church shot and make all pillars vertical, it would be greatly appreciated to share that technique here ... Or maybe I guess a $2000 niche lens is worth $2000 for a reason ;)

  • Lars Marius Garshol February 12, 2011 06:16 am

    Another way to do this is to use DxO Optics Pro. Just draw two lines that you want to become straight (say, along the outer edges of the door), and that's it. It will also fix any barrel distortion and other distortions for you automatically (without any input at all).

  • Olasz February 12, 2011 03:21 am

    missing a point becomes a habit ;) Thanks for the tutorial :)

  • James Brandon February 12, 2011 02:55 am

    Thanks for the feedback everyone, always appreciate it!

    Olasz - You're missing the point dude! I'm simply showing you how to correct perspective lens distortion, not saying it makes an image better or worse :-)

    Doug - Yes sir, the lens correction filter will help as well. I just find this to be quicker because I don't have to go through the filters menu and open the lens correction dialogue. Different strokes for different folks though :-)

    Erik - Awesome dude, didn't know Nikon Capture software did that!

  • Rick February 12, 2011 02:30 am

    This is another PS tutorial that transfers easily to GIMP.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck February 12, 2011 02:07 am


    I use Nikon Capture NX2 for distortion correction and this does a great job. Sometimes a bit of distortion is not such a bad thing! For example this shot of this fighter jet at the Top Gun facility in San Diego. I deliberately wanted distortion for the drama!


    And with this one, distortion control was applied and it is more or less corrected. There is only so much to be done when you use a 10-20mm for landscapes!

    Arco di Costantino, Rome:

    Regards, Erik

    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • Toni Aull February 12, 2011 01:41 am

    Awesome Wisdom!!! Thanks For Passing It On....

  • Doug Sundseth February 12, 2011 01:34 am

    FWIW, I find the Lens Correction filter (available in both Lightroom and Photoshop as well) more intuitive for this sort of correction. You can correct the angle and horizontal and vertical perspective with sliders pretty easily.

  • Jackie Wimbush February 12, 2011 01:18 am

    I do the same thing differently... I create a new layer and use transform | perspective (or distort) to adjust and run the filter Distort | Spherize -5

  • GoGayleGo February 12, 2011 01:14 am

    Can anyone comment on the best way to do this in PSE9 please? I tried using Filter>Correct Camera Distortion, but didn't have much luck there. This morning I tried using the Transform took in "Skew" mode, had better success there but would love to hear how others are doing it.

  • Olasz February 12, 2011 01:12 am

    I like the "before" photo more than "after" :)

  • Jenny February 12, 2011 01:03 am

    Great article! I went to France this summer and will be trying this out of several of my images.