What is Ghosting and Flare?

When light rays coming from a bright source(s) of light (such as the sun or artificial light) directly reach the front element of a camera lens, they can reflect and bounce off different lens elements, diaphragm and even off the sensor, potentially degrading image quality and creating unwanted objects in images. Better known as lens “flare”, the effect can impact images in a number of ways: it can drastically reduce image contrast by introducing haze in different colors, it can add circular or semi-circular halos or “ghosts” and even odd-shaped semi-transparent objects of various color intensities. Flare is not always undesirable in photography though – sometimes in is used creatively to add artistic elements to images. In fact, lens flare is often deliberately added to movies and computer games to add a sense of realism and boost the visual experience of the viewer.

Dune Sunset Panorama

To help decide whether to use flare in images, it is a good idea to understand why it happens in the first place. Let’s go over the causes of flare in detail, then discuss ways to use, reduce or perhaps completely avoid it.

1) What is Lens Flare?

Lens flare occurs when a point of light source such as the sun is much brighter than the rest of the scene, and it either happens to be in the image (within lens angle of view), or simply hits the front element of a lens without being present in the image. Depending on the position of this bright light source, it can result in a lot of haze / lack of contrast, orbs and polygon artifacts scattered throughout the image, semi-round shapes with rainbow colors, or a combination of all of the above. This happens due to internal reflections that take place inside the lens and even between the imaging sensor and the lens (more on that below). Take a look at the below illustration:

Lens Flare

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What is Vignetting?

Vignetting, also known as “light fall-off” (sometimes spelled “light falloff”) is common in optics and photography, which in simple terms means darkening of image corners when compared to the center. Vignetting is either caused by optics, or is purposefully added in post-processing in order to draw the viewer’s eye away from the distractions in the corner, towards the center of the image. Depending on the type and cause of vignetting, it can be gradual or abrupt. There are a number of causes of optical vignetting – it can naturally occur in all lenses, or can be caused or increased/intensified due to use of external tools such as filters, filter holders and lens hoods. In this article, I will talk about each type of vignetting and also discuss ways to reduce or increase the amount of vignetting in photographs using post-processing software like Lightroom and Photoshop.

1) Types of Vignetting

As I have already pointed out in the introduction of this article, there are different types of vignetting that one might encounter when taking pictures or viewing images. Some types of vignetting are naturally caused by the optical design of lenses, others can occur when using third party accessories such as filters and extended hoods and some are artificially added by the photographer in post-production. Let’s take a look at each type in detail.

1.1) Optical Vignetting

Optical vignetting naturally occurs in all lenses. Depending on the optical design and construction of the lens, it can be quite strong on some lenses, while being barely noticeable on others. Still, vignetting occurs on most modern lenses, especially on prime / fixed lenses with very large apertures. There are two causes for this. First, at the widest apertures, the light than enters the lens is partially blocked by the lens barrel, as indicated by the below diagram:

Optical Vignetting

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What is Distortion?

In photography, there are two types of distortions: optical and perspective. Both result in some kind of deformation of images – some lightly and others very noticeably. While optical distortion is caused by the optical design of lenses (and is therefore often called “lens distortion”), perspective distortion is caused by the position of the camera relative to the subject or by the position of the subject within the image frame. And it is certainly important to distinguish between these types of distortions and identify them, since you will see them all quite a bit in photography. The goal of this article is to explain each distortion type in detail, with illustrations and image samples.

1) Optical Distortion

In photography, distortion is generally referred to an optical aberration that deforms and bends physically straight lines and makes them appear curvy in images, which is why such distortion is also commonly referred to as “curvilinear” (more on this below). Optical distortion occurs as a result of optical design, when special lens elements are used to reduce spherical and other aberrations. In short, optical distortion is a lens error.

There are three known types of optical distortion – barrel, pincushion and mustache / moustache (also known as wavy and complex). Let’s examine each in more detail, but before we do that, let’s take a look at a lens with zero distortion:

No Distortion

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What is Field Curvature?

Field Curvature, also known as “curvature of field” or “Petzval field curvature”, is a common optical problem that causes a flat object to appear sharp only in a certain part(s) of the frame, instead of being uniformly sharp across the frame. This happens due to the curved nature of optical elements, which project the image in a curved manner, rather than flat. And since all digital camera sensors are flat, they cannot capture the entire image in perfect focus, as shown in the below illustration:

Field Curvature

In a simple field curvature scenario like above, the light rays are perfectly focused in the center of the frame, at Image Plane A (where the sensor is). Since the image is curved, sharpness starts to drop as you move away from the center, resulting in less resolution in the mid-frame and much less resolution in the corners. The circular “dome-like” image in three dimensional form is shown to the right of the illustration. If the corner of the image is brought into focus, which would move the image plane closer (Image Plane B), the corners would appear sharp, while mid-frame would stay less sharp and the center would appear the softest. The effect of field curvature can be very pronounced, especially with older lenses.

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What is Chromatic Aberration?

Chromatic Aberration, also known as “color fringing” or “purple fringing”, is a common optical problem that occurs when a lens is either unable to bring all wavelengths of color to the same focal plane, and/or when wavelengths of color are focused at different positions in the focal plane. Chromatic aberration is caused by lens dispersion, with different colors of light travelling at different speeds while passing through a lens. As a result, the image can look blurred or noticeable colored edges (red, green, blue, yellow, purple, magenta) can appear around objects, especially in high-contrast situations.

A perfect lens would focus all wavelengths into a single focal point, where the best focus with the “circle of least confusion” is located, as shown below:

Corrected Chromatic Aberration

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What is Focus Shift?

Focus Shift is an optical problem that occurs due to Spherical Aberration, when an object is brought into focus at maximum aperture and captured with the lens stopped down. Focus shift can lead to blurry images and focus errors, when working with subjects at close distances and using fast aperture lenses. With the lens aperture fully open or “wide open”, incoming rays of light converge at different focal points due to spherical aberration along the optical axis, as shown in the top illustration below:

Focus Shift

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What is Spherical Aberration?

Spherical Aberration is an optical problem that occurs when all incoming light rays end up focusing at different points after passing through a spherical surface. Light rays passing through a lens near its horizontal axis are refracted less than rays closer to the edge or “periphery” of the lens and as a result, end up in different spots across the optical axis. In other words, the parallel light rays of incoming light do not converge at the same point after passing through the lens. Because of this, Spherical Aberration can affect resolution and clarity, making it hard to obtain sharp images. Here is an illustration that shows Spherical Aberration:

Spherical Aberration

As shown above, light rays refract or change their angle when passing through the lens. The ones closer to the top and the bottom of the illustration end up converging at a shorter distance along the optical axis (black/red dotted line), while the ones closer to the optical axis converge at a longer distance, creating different focal points along the same axis. The point of best focus with the “circle of least confusion” is illustrated as the thick green line. Spherical Aberration is not just caused by lens design, but also by the quality of the lens material. Lenses made of poor quality material and large bubbles can drastically impact light refraction.

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