What is Pincushion Distortion?

Learn how to correct this common telephoto lens distortion

A group of photographers using telephoto lenses.

Don Johnston / Getty Images

Pincushion distortion is a lens effect that causes images to become pinched in the center. Think of it as the effect on a pincushion as a pin is pushed into it: the fabric surrounding the pin moves down and toward the pin as pressure is applied.

Pincushion distortion is most often associated with telephoto lenses, and in particular, zoom telephotos. The distortion will usually occur at the telephoto end of the lens. The pincushion distortion effect increases with the distance the object is from the optical axis of the lens.

Pincushion is the opposite effect of barrel lens distortion and, like its counterpart, pincushion distortion is most visible in images with straight lines (especially when the lines are close to the edge of the image).

Fixing Pincushion Distortion

Pincushion distortion can be corrected easily in modern image editing programs such as Adobe Photoshop, which contains a lens-distortion correction filter. Free photo editing programs also offer slightly less sophisticated corrections.

Like barrel distortion, pincushion distortion is amplified by the effects of perspective on images. This means that some of this distortion can be corrected in the camera.

While shooting, take a few steps to eliminate or decrease pincushion distortion:

  • Because pincushion distortion most commonly affects objects with straight lines, minimize the effect of pincushion distortion by shooting objects that do not have straight lines.
  • Avoid shooting at the maximum magnification of the telephoto zoom lens. Move closer to the subject and zoom out if possible or shoot the image a little wider than you may like and crop on the computer.
  • Move to a different location to see if a different perspective of the object reduces the pincushion effect. You may also want to change perspective completely and avoid photographing the object straight on so that the distortion becomes a good aspect to the image's aesthetics.
  • If you have straight lines in your object, try to keep them as close to the center of the frame as possible. Lines next to the frame's edge will also appear to be more distorted because the frame is a perfectly straight line.