Chromatic Aberration:
what is it and should I use it or avoid it?

 

Chromatic aberration can cause photography headaches. You could have the perfect shot – the angle, exposure, and timing – absolutely spot on. But chromatic aberration could ruin that, edging objects with unsightly lines of colour. Sure, some photographers create it intentionally for an arty effect – but mostly, it’s something to avoid. Learn all about chromatic aberration in this comprehensive guide.

Simple graphic that explains how the eye translates colour
Correcting chromatic aberration in an image of a carousel

Chromatic aberration, also known as colour fringing, is a colour distortion that will leave visible imperfections on your photographs. Generally, it creates an outline of unwanted colour along the edges of objects in a photograph.

 

 

Often, chromatic aberration appears along metallic surfaces or where there is a high contrast between light and dark objects – such as a black wall in front of a bright blue sky. Each type of aberration causes different colours of outlines along an object’s edge.

 

It’s because it often occurs at the edge of an image and objects within it that it’s known as colour fringing.

 

 

“Looking back through old photos, I notice fringing and I am horrified that it’s been in there the entire time.”
Nick Mendez, photographer and filmmaker

 

Chromatic aberration relates to your camera and more specifically its lens and how it processes light. We’ll talk more about this in the next section. It’s also important to know there are two main types of chromatic aberration:

 

  • Longitudinal – occurs when the lens fails to bring different wavelengths of colour to a fixed focal point
  • Lateral – occurs when different wavelengths of colour land at different points along the focal plane

 

We’ll talk in greater detail about each of these later.

 

Recognising chromatic aberration.

 

It can be difficult to tell what has caused imperfections in your photograph. But these are the key indicators of chromatic aberration:

 

  • Outline of colour (red/green/blue/yellow/purple) along the edges of objects
  • Colour blurring in the foreground and background of your focal point

 

Thankfully, there are many ways to counter both types of chromatic aberration – mostly by paying particular attention to certain camera settings, your photographic composition, and shooting conditions.

 

What causes chromatic aberration?

 

Camera Lens

Chromatic aberration is all about how the camera lens handles light. The lens is one of the most important components in your camera. It draws light to a fixed focal point before sending it onto the camera sensor to make the image.

 

 

But this light can be hard to control. This is due to the refractive index (put more simply: the way light passes from one medium to another – i.e. through the glass of a camera lens). Various wavelengths of light travel through the lens at different speeds, making it difficult for some lenses to focus each hue on the same focal plane.

 

And this failure of a camera lens to focus white light’s different wavelengths onto the same focal point causes chromatic aberration – or to look at it visually, a blur of blue-yellow, red-green or magenta-purple fringing around the edge of objects in your photograph.

 

 

What is the cause of chromatic aberration?

 

One of the main causes of chromatic aberration from a photographer’s point of view is failing to set the right camera settings or to make the right choices about where to shoot. For example, shooting high contrast scenes – such as a skyscraper silhouetted against a blue sky – is likely to create chromatic aberration.

 

Different types of chromatic aberration.

Scheme of chromatic aberration

Let’s now look at the two types of chromatic aberration, so you can easily recognise them next time you see imperfections in your shots. The type of chromatic aberration you’re dealing with depends on what’s happened when your camera lens has tried to process the light.

 

 

Longitudinal chromatic aberration.


Also known as: Axial chromatic aberration

 

What is longitudinal chromatic aberration?

 

Longitudinal chromatic aberration, or Axial chromatic aberration, often occurs in images made with wide apertures (low f-stop numbers) and where long focal lengths have been used.

 

 

What does it look like?

 

 

Coloured outlines (blue-yellow / red-green) around the edge of objects in the frame – even in the centre of a frame. For example, window frames on a photo of a house. You won’t solely see it on conventionally shaped objects like skyscrapers and billboards – it’s also present on the edges of irregular shapes, such as branches on trees and craggy mountain tops.

 

What’s happening in the lens?

 

 

Your camera lens has failed to unite the various wavelengths of colour to the same focal plane.

 

 

Lateral chromatic aberration.

 

Also known as: transverse chromatic aberration

 

What is lateral chromatic aberration?

 

 

Lateral chromatic aberration, or transverse chromatic aberration, is the blue-yellow or red-green fringing that occurs when different wavelengths of light focus at varying distances from the lens.

 

 

What does it look like?

 

 

If the colour distortion is only present towards the edge of the photograph, you’ll know it’s lateral chromatic aberration. Look out for colour fringing with red, cyan, blue and yellow at the edges of your image. If it’s in the centre of the image, it’s longitudinal aberration.

 

What’s happening in the lens?

 

 

Your camera lens has focused the different wavelengths of colour at different positions in the focal plane.

 

 

Correcting chromatic aberration.

 

Colour distortion can leave you with photos that look ruined, but thankfully correcting chromatic aberration is relatively easy with the right image editing software and tools.

 

 

Digital photography has transformed and democratised post-production editing. In the days of analogue SLR cameras and traditional film, correcting chromatic aberration was a very different challenge to the relatively simple process it is today.

 

 

How do I get rid of chromatic aberration?

 

Removing chromatic aberration is a simple way to improve your image quality and eliminate an unrealistic edge of colour that some beginner photographers may not even notice. You can do it easily with photo-editing software such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

 

 

How do you fix chromatic aberration in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom?

Highlighting chromatic aberration in a nature photograph of a waterfall
Checking the "Remove Chromatic Aberration" tick box in Adobe Lightroom
Showing that the chromatic aberration has been removed in a nature photography of a waterfall

Correcting chromatic aberration in Adobe Lightroom, without damaging the image quality, is easy. Open the cloud-based photo editor and load the images you want to amend.

 

Fix chromatic aberration in 3 steps.

 

  1. Scroll down to Lens Correction
  2. Check the Remove Chromatic Aberration box (it’s under the Colour section of the Lens Corrections panel)
  3. Use the Defringe controls and sliders to find and remove any colour distortion left behind along high-contrast edges

 

Still needs work?

 

This may do a satisfactory job of removing fringing. However, if the image requires further work, follow steps 4 to 7 as well:

 

  1. Scroll down to Lens Correction
  2. Check the Remove Chromatic Aberration box (it’s under the Colour section of the Lens Corrections panel)
  3. Use the Defringe controls and sliders to find and remove any colour distortion left behind along high-contrast edges
  4. Click the Defringe icon under the Optics panel
  5. Use the Fringe Selector to sample the green or purple distortion
  6. Use the slider to remove the fringe
  7. Remove purple or green hues with the Defringe slider in the local adjustment Brush, Linear Gradient or Radial Gradient panels

 

Watch the video for a demonstration.

Have I got the right software? Depending on the type of chromatic aberration, you may need Lightroom Classic, Lightroom 4.1 or later to correct it and the colour fringing.

 

Avoiding chromatic aberration.

 

To avoid chromatic aberration in your photography, there are some key steps to consider. Sure, it’s relatively easy to fix it in post-production with the right tools, but it’d be much simpler to avoid it in the first place.

 

“The best way to go about fixing it is to shoot it correctly in camera the first time.” Adam Rindy, photographer

 

The main tips are:

 

 

We’ll now go on to talk about each of these in more detail.

 

Avoid high contrast.

camera in aperture

High-contrast scenes can lead to chromatic aberration. Try to avoid shooting subjects in front of a:

 

  • White backdrop
  • Bright sunrise
  • Light source

 

Where possible, reframe the photo or switch the backdrop to something more suited to the subject’s primary colours.

 

For example: when shooting in natural surroundings, you often have little control over the background. However, you can either wait until the natural light improves or prepare for touch-up work in Lightroom post-shoot.

 

Centre your subject.

caterpillar in focal plane

Generally, chromatic aberration occurs around the edge of the frame due to the curvature of the lenses within the barrel. While it may go against the rule of thirds, reframing your shots with the subject in the centre can reduce or even eliminate these problems.



Consider different angles before you shoot and experiment with framing so you can compare the results. In some cases, you may still have to crop your images afterwards in Lightroom to get the frame you want.

 

Shoot at a narrower aperture.

Three Indian aubergines on a wooden table

Photographer and educator Adam Long recommends shooting at a higher f-stop — which narrows your aperture – to avoid colour distortion, especially when using a cheaper lens.

 

 

Try upping your ISO, using a flash or slowing your shutter speed when shooting at a narrower aperture to make up for the loss of light.

 

“If you shoot a low-gradient lens wide open, at a 1.8 aperture for example, your chances of seeing chromatic aberration go way up. But if you use a smaller aperture, like 5.6, you’re less likely to see it.” Adam Long, photographer

 

Optimise the focal plane.

Young person in field with the wind blowing through their hair

Wide-angle lenses with shorter focal lengths are more prone to colour fringing. For example, shooting at a medium focal length of around 30 millimetres when using an 18 to 55-millimetre lens should help.

 

“If you’re shooting at 18 millimetres, you’re way more likely to encounter chromatic aberration because you’re using the extremities of the glass.”
Adam Long, photographer

 

How to add chromatic aberration.

 

We’ve spent most of this article talking about chromatic aberration as a bad thing for photographers. But there are times you may want to create it intentionally, for example, to get an arty, experimental vibe.

 

You can create a chromatic aberration effect by setting up correctly before you shoot, or afterwards using Adobe photo-editing tools. We’ll give you the lowdown on both.

 

How do you achieve a chromatic effect?

To create a chromatic effect, you need to choose the right conditions, composition and camera settings:

 

 

  • Turn on the bright light – high contrast creates chromatic aberration, so frame subjects in front of bright blue skies, sunshine or light pouring through a window
  • Follow the rule of thirds – centred images are less likely to distort, so follow photography 101 and place your subject off-centre
  • Open your aperture – wider apertures let in more light which increases the chance of distortion, so choose a wide-open f-number

 

 

How do you get chromatic effect post-production?

 

 

Experiment with applying chromatic aberration on purpose to videos or photos in Adobe Photoshop, Premiere Pro, or After Effects. You can take an image or film clip from average to artistic by playing with a bit of colour fringing or separating the Red, Green and Blue channels (RGB splitting).

 

 

“Chromatic aberration could add a certain type of unsteadiness or psychological space within an image.”
Adam Long, photographer

 

 

Colour fringing as a photo effect.

 

Try adding a bit of colour fringing chromatic effect to an image in Photoshop for a 3D or retro feel similar to this architecture poster by Fabio Rahmani.

Green, pink and yellow chromatic aberration creates a cool colour fringing effect

Colour fringing as a video effect.

 

Apply colour fringing or an RGB split to a video in Premiere Pro and After Effects to achieve a psychedelic look like these trippy oil and paint films by Rus Khasanov

Rainbow colour fringing used on an image of bubbles

Should I use or lose chromatic aberration?

It all depends on the type of photography you’re shooting or perhaps the type of photographer you are.

 

 

  • If you’re shooting high-quality portraits and landscapes, for example, you’ll likely want to avoid chromatic aberration.
     
  • If, on the other hand, you work in the creative industries or are hobbyist who wants to create experimental-looking images, then it can be a useful tool.

 

Is chromatic aberration good?

 

When talking about conventional photography, chromatic aberration is generally seen as bad. This is because it can make an otherwise perfect shot imperfect with its unsightly colour fringing and blurring. You’d generally only see chromatic aberration as good if you were looking to intentionally create a contemporary, distorted look.

 

 

Adobe Creative Cloud is packed with powerful editing tools to enhance your photography whether it’s conventional or experimental. Get started today.

 

Adobe’s chromatic aberration partners.

 

  • Adam Long has work exhibited in galleries and museums across the US and teaches photography in Oregon. See Adam’s work
  • Nick Mendez is a portrait and documentary photographer and filmmaker based on the West Coast of the US. See Nick’s work
  • Adam Rindy is a Los Angeles-based photographer who specialises in fashion, lifestyle and travel. See Adam’s work

 

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