Ever noticed how some photos have that darkness creeping in around the edges, drawing your eye toward the middle of the image? You might have wondered if it was an accident or if the photographer did it on purpose, and how exactly it happened either way. The answers are as follows: maybe, possibly, and read this guide to find out.
The effect is called “vignetting” in the photography world, and it can happen several different ways. Use it effectively and it’s a powerful artistic tool. Botch it and you’re likely to be pegged as an amateur. The word is French in origin, dating back to the vine-like illustrations that sometimes used to run around the edge of a book page back in the 1800s. Like those illustrations, modern photographic vignetting is all about utilizing those often-forgotten edges of your image. In this guide, we’ll talk about the different causes of vignetting, why some of them are more desirable than others, and what to do about a vignette once you have one (whether you wanted it or not).
From Recueil des divers caractères, vignettes et ornemens de la fonderie et imprimerie de J.G. Gillé, by Joseph-Gaspard Gillé, d. 1826
How Does Vignetting Happen?
You may already associate vignetting with photo filters you’ve used on an app or on social media, but sometimes the effect is born out of pure accident. Let’s look at a few types of vignetting you might see in your photography:
- Mechanical – When accessories like third-party lenses, lens hoods, and filters (especially when they’re stacked) physically block light, you’ll get a pronounced vignette in your image. Think about sitting on a covered porch. As the angle of the sun changes, the shadow from the awning will creep in one direction or the other.
- Lens – All lenses cause a certain amount of vignetting, but it’s often more pronounced in lenses that contain a lot of elements. Imagine you’re looking at a window through five or six clear shower curtains. You’re still getting the light, but it’s going to behave differently than it would if it were just you and the window.
- Pixel – This type of vignetting is exclusive to digital photography. You’ve got a round, curved lens and a flat, rectangular sensor, so the entire sensor isn’t going to be experiencing the same amount of light at the same time.
- Post-Processing – Also known as “vignetting on purpose.” A vignette can be added during the editing stage for compositional or artistic effect. We’ll talk about how to do that a little later on.
This is not an exhaustive list of ways vignetting can occur (and a lot of people have their own names for the processes we’ve just named) but at a certain point you begin splitting hairs. The main takeaway from this section is that vignetting can be caused by improper use of accessories, intentional use of post-processing techniques, and the way cameras work in general. The most important factor is how you use it.
If you’re using a petal-shaped lens hood and are seeing some mechanical vignetting, try turning the lens hood so that the largest petals are at the top and bottom of your lens, rather than angled diagonally so that they are visible in the corners. You may be able to place the petals out of the path of your lens rather than give up on that accessory altogether.
The Good, the Bad, and the Unphotogenic
How do you tell whether vignetting is enhancing your image or detracting from it? That’s largely a matter of opinion, but there are some guidelines you can remember when you evaluate the use of this effect in your work.
When Is Vignetting Useful?
One “good” use of vignetting is to mute distracting elements at the edge of your photo. Bright colors or strong linework could lead your eye right out of the image otherwise. In the same vein, you can use vignetting to draw attention to one portion of your image. Usually this will be the center, but you can get creative with an off-center vignette for a more creative composition, as you’ll see in the image below. This type of vignette is easiest to create in post-processing.
You may find after some experimentation that the best vignette is the one no one notices. A subtle effect that leads the eye without distracting from the composition will make the viewing experience a lot more organic. It’s like the difference between following step-by-step directions on your GPS and relaxing in the passenger seat. Your viewers’ eye should go where you want it to, but your viewers themselves shouldn’t have to put a lot of thought into it.
When Is It Ineffective?
Though some prefer a stronger vignette than others, most photographers can agree that a vignette that works against your composition is not a good use of that effect. If you’re not putting enough thought into your composition to be able to evaluate that, it’s time to start learning a little bit about how to compose your photographs effectively.
That’s not to say a vignette can never be a happy accident, but it’s good to be aware of the things that trigger vignetting in your setup so that you can plan for them. In most cases, a vignette that gives you a stark silhouette of your lens hood at the corners of your photo will not do your work any favors. Unless you have a very specific reason for using that type of vignetting, it will likely be perceived as a rookie mistake. Something like that can color your audience’s feelings toward the rest of your photography.
Let’s look at an example. None of the three images below are technically breaking any rules, but one is definitely working better than the others. The first image is consistently bright throughout, but because of that your eye gets a little lost in all the “sameness”. The second image is bordering on kitschy. The vignette is heavy-handed and obvious. It pushes your eye quickly down the snow-covered road and there’s kind of no going back at that point. In the last photo, you’ve got a subtle, feathered darkening at the edges that gently leads your gaze down the road, allowing you to linger on everything else in the composition as you go. Bingo.