What is it with buildings and photography? Why do they almost always seem to come out a little funny, no matter what you try? Most consumer camera lenses do an awesome job of photographing things on the everyday scale, but they often fail miserably with oversized objects like buildings. I want to show you why that’s so and what you can do to fix it with Photoshop Elements.
Why do buildings look like they’re leaning?
It all has to do with a little thing called lens distortion. No lens is perfect. They all have a small amount of distortion. Most of the time, you won’t notice this. The things we typically photograph tend not to bring out the worst in the lenses we’re using.
But buildings are a particularly interesting case. Buildings tend to be very big and straight (I know, captain obvious right?). When you zoom out, the straight lines get squished, or the building appears to be tilting. That’s because the lens has to bend the light in order to get everything to fit into the frame. The effect is actually very noticeable. The straight lines make the distortion apparent precisely because you expect them to be straight. Whey they aren’t, you know something is off.
The image the the top of this article is an example of this effect. The US Supreme court building looks like it’s falling over.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much of anything you do to fix it while you’re out in the field. You could attempt to get further away and zoom in more, like the image to the right. This was taken from further away, and the building looks much better. However, some buildings are so big that you just won’t be able to fit them into the frame with most lenses. By the time you’ve moved far away enough to get them into the frame, something is inevitably standing in your way.
You can’t have you cake and eat it too.
What is the solution?
Technically speaking, you could buy a tilt-shift lens to iron out some of the distortions. Architectural photographers use them on a day-to-day basis, and they do an awesome job. Unfortunately, they’re very expensive. You can expect to spend at least $1,500 on one such lens. Simply put, if you aren’t getting paid to take photos of buildings, a tilt-shift lens just isn’t worth it.
The next best solution is Photoshop Elements. It has a handy tool you can use to adjust some of the tilting that tends to happen when you photograph buildings with ordinary lenses. In just a few seconds, your buildings will look as straight as ever. Here’s how to do it.
How to correct tilting buildings in Photoshop Elements
Our starter image is the typical building you’ll be photographing. It isn’t extraordinarily high, but it’s high enough for camera distortions to become apparent. If you look closely at this image, you’ll notice that it appears to be tilted backward. It is fatter at the bottom and skinnier at the top. This is what we will be correcting in Photoshop Elements.
One quick word of caution. Some pictures will be too slanted to correct. It’s a problem that tends to happen with very tall buildings. You would have to adjust them so much that the building no longer fits into the frame. This is something you have to fix in the field. The only solution, in that case, is to photograph them from further away.
You’ll start by opening your photo in Photoshop Elements and going to Filter –> Correct Camera Distortion.
Now your picture will appear in a new window behind a grid. The grid gives you a visual aid, making it easier to see the distortions that may or may not be in your image.
In our case, the distortions are pretty apparent. You can see how the lines of the building slant through the squares. We’ll know our adjustments are correct when the lines on the side of the building run vertically through the squares.
To fix the tilt, we’ll decrease the vertical perspective slider. It might be different for the photo you’re adjusting. Sometimes buildings appear to be tilting forward, and you need to make them look like they’re tilting backward. The best way to know is to start playing with the slider. If it starts to look right, go with it.
You’ll notice that there are other controls to handle other types of distortion. But we’re good for now, and we can cover some of those at another time.
Our final result is looking a lot more promising. Do you see the lines on the left side of the building? They run straight up and down. Yes, there’s still a tiny amount of bulging or “barrel distortion,” but we have effectively eliminated the tilting.
By now, you’ve probably noticed a side-effect of all this work. Our image isn’t as big anymore. Sadly, there isn’t much we can do about it. That’s always going to happen whenever you adjust the tilt of a building with Photoshop software. We’ll just have to crop and live with what we’ve got.
And this is the image we get after adjusting the tilt and other distortions. It’s a lot more accurate and true to the building. The first image made it look like it was about to fall apart.
Is there still more to be done? Probably. But realize that we just spent a few minutes making this adjustment. If you wanted to spend more time, you could get it 100% perfect. This isn’t bad.
And that’s all it takes to fix a tilting building with Photoshop Elements. Go give it a try and let me know what you come up with.