The Role Vignetting Plays in Your Photographs

By: Adam Marelli

Vignetting is one of those words that everyone has heard, but you might have questions on whether you understand it or use it correctly.  And that’s ok … chances are you are not alone.


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The History Explained

Vignetting is an optical effect where the edge of a picture is darker, softer, and holds less detail than the center of a picture.  This occurs in photography for two reasons:

 

1.  Vignetting is an optical byproduct of passing light through a tunnel where the edges are darker.  In photography, we call our tunnels “camera lenses.”

 

2.  It is also an additional effect that can be added in software to achieve the look of natural vignetting with lenses.

 

Lens designers aim to have the sharpest corner-to-corner detail and the most even light across the frame so that you, the photographer, can control the vignette.  But why do we want it in the first place?

 


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While it is frequently used by photographers, its roots stem from painting.  Painters were the first to master the art of creating a 3-D scene on a 2-D surface.  They discovered that, in addition to tools like linear perspective, in order to make a picture feel like a window to the world, the corners need to be darkened.  If the corners are just as bright as the center of the picture, the corners will compete with the center and tire the eye of the viewer (something we do not want to do).

 


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What happens if we don’t use a vignette?

 

Most photographs are either a rectangle or a square.  Sure there are other shapes, but the vast majority will land in one of those two shapes.  Which means, the native shape of a picture is made up of three distinct pieces of geometry:

 

• (2) Vertical lines, the left and right of a picture

• (2) Horizontal lines, the top and bottom

• (4) 90º angles, which are the corners where the verticals and horizontals come together

 

As art writer Harold Speed explains in The Practice and Science of Drawing, one of the strongest visual arrangements is the 90º angle.  It has a power that governs shapes like the cross, the X, and the corners of a frame.  It has a tendency to be a show stopper.  It is why you don’t want to place a head in the center of a frame – it does not allow for anything else to be seen because its geometric power is simply too great.

 


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Your subject might be somewhere to the left or right, which is why painters and photographers benefit from using vignetting.  The corners need to be softened and darkened so that the subject can stand out.  The added bonus that photographers have is that almost every camera and lens combination will create a slight vignette due to the way light passes through the lens.

 

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-5 Not Enough Vignetting

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-50 Too Much Vignetting

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-15 Just Right

 

How much vignetting should you use?

 

Ultimately it is up to you.  Photography is filled with people who love to “break the rules,” but with vignette there are no set rules; it is more of a range.  If you add too much your picture will look like it has a gimmicky Instagram filter on it.  If you don’t use enough, all the emphasis will be on the corners of your picture.  It will feel as if the contents of the photograph are falling out of the frame.  Who wants that to happen?

 

On average, I use a range of -5 to -15 “post crop vignette” in Lightroom.  It darkens and softens the picture just enough without being too obvious.  If the effect is too strong, try opening the radius a little more to widen the vignette to just the corners.  Once you get the hang of it, you will notice it in pictures that need it and spot it in presets that have gone overboard.

 


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