While Lightroom’s Transform tools often go unnoticed by casual editors, they offer an incredibly powerful solution to a problem that has plagued many a photographer: perspective distortion. In fact, perspective distortion is one of those subtle issues that can significantly harm an otherwise-great photo, yet most shooters don’t know how to recognize its signs or (more importantly!) correct it.
In this article, I offer a comprehensive guide to the Transform panel. I cover all the key elements:
- What Transform actually is (and what it does)
- When the Transform tools are useful
- How each and every button and slider works
- How you can handle perspective distortion with a few quick adjustments
Ready to take your Lightroom skills to the next level? Then let’s dive right in, starting with the basics:
What is the Lightroom Transform panel?
The Transform panel is buried near the bottom of Lightroom’s array of Develop module tools and sliders, and it’s designed to correct perspective distortion in your photos.
But what is perspective distortion? In practical terms, it’s when lines – either horizontal or vertical – that are supposed to look straight start to converge. You’ll often see perspective distortion in photos of buildings; the sides of the building, instead of climbing straight up into the air, converge toward one another, giving viewers the sense that the building is falling backward.
Perspective distortion is often unavoidable no matter the quality of your equipment. It’s caused by your position relative to the subject, and while you can technically prevent distortion by keeping your camera perfectly level and parallel to your subject, this is often impractical.
(Note that perspective distortion is different from lens distortion, which is caused by lens optics and can be removed in the Lightroom Lens Corrections panel.)
Fortunately, the Transform panel offers two broad methods for handling perspective distortion:
- Upright corrections (via six easy-to-use buttons)
- Transform corrections (via seven handy sliders)
In general, the Upright options do a great job – but if these buttons don’t give you what you’re after, you can always apply additional manual corrections using the Transform sliders.
When should you use the Transform panel?
As the Transform panel is designed to combat perspective distortion, it’s generally a good idea to use it whenever you’ve captured an image with obvious vertical or horizontal lines. Perspective distortion is one of those elements that is rarely noticed until it’s pointed out, so even if your image seems fine, I’d still recommend trying a few Transform buttons to be safe.
In particular, Transform is useful when editing photos of:
- Building exteriors
- Building interiors
- Telephone poles and lampposts
When you apply the Transform tools to images, the goal is often to create a natural result – that is, a photo that matches how our eyes and brains would perceive the scene in three dimensions. But bear in mind that you can use Transform to do the opposite: exaggerate certain elements for an unnatural, even a surreal, effect.
You can also choose to leave a photo with all its distortion intact, and while I generally don’t recommend this, it can certainly look dramatic!
How to use the Transform panel: The Upright options
When you’re tackling a new image, start by testing out several of the Transform panel’s Upright buttons for handling perspective distortion.
Quick aside: To better illustrate the effects of each option, I’ll use this image, which is plagued by moderate perspective distortion:
By default, the Off button will be selected, so go ahead and click on Auto instead:
Auto attempts to analyze the entire scene and make corrections that take into account perspective distortion along both the vertical and horizontal axes (while also adding in a few other calculations for natural-looking results). As soon as you click on the Auto button, watch your image, paying careful attention to any vertical or horizontal lines.
Note that these distortion corrections will always crop – or force you to crop – into your image when making the adjustment. In most cases, this shouldn’t be an issue, but if you’re photographing a scene and the edge elements are important, I encourage you to leave a bit of extra space along the edges so you can make successful perspective distortions later on.
In my experience, Auto does a good job about 70% of the time. If you don’t like the result (or you want to try out alternatives), press the Vertical button, which is designed to correct only for converging vertical lines. This can sometimes be a good way to handle subtle distortion of buildings while losing less of the scene to cropping.
Another option is the Level button, which corrects only for converging horizontal lines. I don’t use this tool very often, but it can come in handy if you’re shooting, say, storefronts from an angle.
Note that issues with the Level option may arise when you are working with vertical lines and diagonal lines. This combination of lines can fool the software, and Lightroom may choose to adjust the diagonal lines and skew the rest of the image. In such cases, you’ll need to use a different Upright correction or even rely on the Transform sliders discussed below.
You should also see Full; it applies corrections for vertical and horizontal lines, so it’s also worth trying out. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the Full option because it tends to overcompensate and create unnatural-looking effects. That doesn’t mean it won’t work for you, but be aware that it’s very aggressive.
Finally, you can use the Guided option. Guided combines manual inputs and automatic adjustments for a highly customized effect, so if you’re struggling to get a natural result, this can be a great tool to try.
In fact, while the Guided option does take an extra minute or two to get right, it’s probably the best way to ensure a good result. The problem with the other automatic options is that Lightroom has to determine the vertical and horizontal lines it uses to adjust perspective – and in reality, these may not be the best lines to use! That’s where the Guided tool shines; as the photographer, you know which lines need straightening, and you can direct Lightroom accordingly. Here’s how it works:
When you select the Guided button, your cursor will turn into crosshairs, and you’ll be able to draw lines (i.e., guides) on your image. Start by drawing your guides across two converging verticals.
The image will immediately adjust, but you can then add a third and even a fourth guide across horizontal lines in your image. (You cannot add a third vertical guide; if you do, the Transform panel will give you an “Invalid guide configuration” warning.)
Once you’re done drawing guides, go ahead and click on the circular guide icon above the buttons, and you’re done!
One final piece of advice: After you’ve applied distortion correction, check the edges of your image to ensure there is no white space. Sometimes, the Transform panel will crop this excess space for you, but other times, you’ll need to remove the space yourself. (If you would like Lightroom to always crop away excess space, you can check the Constrain Crop button at the bottom of the panel. But I’m not a huge fan of its approach, so I recommend cropping manually instead.)
How to use the Transform panel: The Transform sliders
The Upright tools discussed above should get rid of perspective distortion quickly and effectively. But if you prefer to make adjustments manually, or if you don’t like the results given by the Upright tools and you want to make modifications, the Transform sliders are a great alternative.
The Vertical and Horizontal sliders are the most useful; they allow you to correct distortion along the vertical and horizontal axes, respectively. Therefore, if you’re dealing with converging verticals, simply adjust the Vertical slider in either direction until the lines appear parallel. And if you’re dealing with converging horizontals, tweak the Horizontal slider instead.
The Rotate slider allows you to rotate the image and can be a precise way to ensure your image is straight.
Then there’s the Aspect slider, which is a good way to handle unwanted compression or expansion in your photos after you’ve applied a different distortion correction.
Finally, you’ll see the Scale, X Offset, and Y Offset sliders, which I essentially never use (they basically crop your images in specific ways). Feel free to test them out, but don’t be surprised if you rarely use them moving forward.
Used on their own, you may find that the sliders don’t actually achieve much. However, when used in combination and in subtle amounts, you can effectively adjust the sliders to obtain the perspective you see in your mind’s eye.
Lightroom Transform panel: final words
Well, there you have it:
Everything you need to know to successfully correct perspective distortion using the Transform panel.
Hopefully, you can now confidently transform your photos in Lightroom, but I’d encourage you to pick a few images with perspective issues, then see if you can make corrections. If you struggle at first, don’t give up; pretty soon, you’ll be able to handle distortion like a pro.
Now over to you:
How do you plan to use the Transform panel? Do you have any tips or tricks for improving your results? Share your thoughts in the comments below!