What is vignetting in photography?
Vignetting: sometimes you love it and sometimes you hate it. Sometimes it creeps into your photographs unintentionally and sometimes you decide that a vignette will help to draw focus to your subject and it’s exactly what your image needs.
Vignetting describes the darkening that can appear at the corners of a photo. It is sometimes called light fall-off, because it refers to the difference in brightness between the centre and edges of your photo. Vignettes can be added deliberately to photos but often occur because of optics. In this article, we will look at the different types of vignettes and what causes them, as well as how to remove them and how to add them if you want to, too.
Table of contents
- What causes vignetting?
- Four types of vignetting
- Reducing vignetting in-camera
- Adding or removing vignettes in Photoshop
- To go with or go without a vignette
- Wrapping up
What causes vignetting?
Whether or not we appreciate vignetting in our photos, it often occurs as an unintended consequence of one of the choices we make as photographers. It might be the gear we use, or how we opt to use it.
There are four causes of vignetting:
A natural vignette is a result of light entering the lens at a particular angle and how it subsequently travels through the camera to reach the image sensor. This type of vignette now happens mostly with lower quality gear and is even a feature of “toy” cameras.
When something is physically blocking light rays from entering a lens, for example a stack of filters or a lens hood, it can create a vignette.
You might decide that a vignette will help to direct focus to your subject or that it adds a vintage feel to your shots. If so, you can choose to add a vignette to your photos. You can do this with a filter or by adding one when post processing your images.
Wide angle lenses are far more prone to vignetting than longer lenses. While camera lenses are now engineered to reduce distortion as much as possible, the layering of the lens elements will create obstructions that steadily diminish the strength of the light as it passes through the lens. This leads to vignetting.
Four types of vignetting
Vignetting can be broken down into four different types, depending on how it is created:
Optical vignetting is a natural phenomenon that occurs in every lens. The degree to which you notice it depends on the design and construction of the lens.
Optical vignettes form when light entering the lens is blocked from reaching the sensor by the lens barrel. This happens most often with prime lenses and especially when you shoot with a wide aperture. Stopping down helps to prevent vignetting because the smaller aperture helps to enable a more direct route for light rays to the sensor.
Wide angle lenses are also prone to vignetting, which happens because the light rays travelling through the lens take longer to reach the edges of the sensor than to hit its centre. The longer journey time makes them less strong, and hence the darkening at the edges of the frame.
Pixel vignetting is mostly a digital camera phenomenon. Image sensors in digital cameras are flat, and all of their pixels face in the same direction. Consequently, the pixels at the centre of the sensor receive more light than those at the sensor’s edges: light hits the midpoint of the sensor head-on but the edges of the sensor at a slight angle. This vignetting effect can only be corrected in post production. This is about your sensor, not about your lens.
Mechanical, or accessory vignetting, occurs when something physical obstructs the passage of light through your lens and to the sensor. While lens hoods are usually manufactured so as to reduce the incidence of vignetting, they can sometimes be responsible. Filters, filter mounts, and other lens accessories can cause vignettes, too.
Vignetting isn’t always undesirable or unwanted. Sometimes, it helps to draw your viewer’s eye to the focal point of your image. Vignettes can also add a vintage or old-school feel to photos. There are filters you can buy to deliberately add vignettes to your photos, but it is easiest in the editing suite. You can add vignettes easily in Photoshop, Lightroom, and many other post-processing programmes.
Reducing vignetting in-camera
If you notice a strong vignette on your photos it is likely easiest to correct it when editing. However, there are some steps you can take to try to prevent them.
- Check your camera for anything obstructing the lens, for example a lens hood, a filter mount, or a stack of filters.
- With zoom lenses, try shooting with a longer focal length.
- Stop down. If you are shooting with a wide aperture it can make light hit the sensor unevenly, creating a vignette.
- Switch on the vignette reduction function. Lots of digital cameras have a vignette reduction tool sitting in a menu. However, this might only be an effective tool if you shoot in JPEG.
Adding or removing vignettes in Photoshop
Either adding or removing a vignette in your editing suite is very straightforward.
If you use either Lightroom or Photoshop and have been shooting with a lens that these programmes support, optical vignetting is very easy to correct. Just click on the button in the lens correction module. Of course, your editing suite might not offer this function or your lens might not be supported. In which case, if there’s a vignetting block, use the sliders to balance out the vignette.
Adding a vignette
Should you decide that you want to add a vignette to an image, most editing programmes have a vignette module. In Lightroom, you want the post-crop vignette tool. It’s important that you apply your vignette only after you have levelled and cropped your image.
With the post-crop vignette tool, you can select the centre point for your vignette, from where the darkening will gradually spread. You can choose the shape of the vignette, for example elliptical or perfectly round. The feather allows you to control the strength of the transition from dark to light, making the vignette gentle or more obvious. And finally there is the brightness feature, to control how deep or dark the edges of the photo should be.
It can be tempting to get carried away with vignettes. You can use them too frequently, or make them too strong or obvious. It’s worth thinking about whether your photo really needs one, and if it does, tone it down a few points after you’ve applied the vignette.
To go with or go without a vignette
Vignettes can really help to focus your audience’s attention on your subject, which is especially good when you are photographing people, animals, or plants. A vignette gives a feeling of depth to a photo, too.
Other times you might want a vignette is if you’re looking for a retro feel to a photo.
Architectural and landscape photos probably do not benefit from vignettes, though. Here, they prevent you from absorbing the entire scene and enjoying it edge-to-edge.
Whether or not you decide to remove, add, or enhance a vignette is a creative decision completely up to you. But if you do decide to stick with a vignette, it’s best to keep it subtle.
Strictly speaking, vignettes are aberrations that you don’t want in your photos. If you find them distracting, you can choose your settings and gear to try to minimise their impact and remove them in post-processing, too. But at times you might find that a vignette adds a pop to your photos. Removing them or keeping them is your creative choice, so experiment and see what you think.
A vignette is a darkening towards the corners of an image.
Vignetting can be caused by physical obstructions, for example lens hoods or filters, because the barrel of a lens prevents light reaching the sensor evenly, because a flat sensor means that the edges of the sensor do not receive as much light as the centre.
Make sure that you don’t have anything obstructing your lens. Try stopping down your aperture. Shoot with a longer lens rather than a very wide angle lens. You can also remove vignetting in post-processing.
Yes! Most editing suites have a vignetting tool that can remove vignettes, or add them, to images.
If you want to, you can! They can help to focus attention on the subject or add depth to a photo. Just don’t overdo it.
Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.