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 one of the camera lens problems that can occur and create undesirable effects in your images. However, it is easy to correct or minimize when you know what to look for and why it happens.

What is Pincushion Distortion?

Pincushion distortion is a lens effect which 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.

Another way to visualize pincushion distortion is to look at a piece of grid paper. Push on the center of the paper and notice that the straight lines of the grid begin to curve inward toward the indentation. If you were photographing a tall building with straight lines, pincushion distortion of the lens would have this same effect.

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.

It is the opposite effect to 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, you can take a few steps to eliminate or decrease pincushion distortion:

  • Because pincushion distortion most commonly affects objects with straight lines, you can minimize the effect of pincushion distortion by shooting objects that do not have straight lines. (Not always possible, right?)
  • Try to 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 in the computer.
  • Move to a different location and 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. (When you can't fix it, enhance it!)
  • 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.