There are photographers who rely on adding lens corrections in Lightroom for every shot, while there are others who never add them. Why is it so divisive, and should you be adding them or not?
As you can imagine, lots of my friends are photographers. We have the usual rivalry between camera brands. There's the snooty elite group that only shoots Hasselblad or only photograph with film cameras. But that same division between hardware also exists in the editing world. One of the bones of contention is whether or not you should add lens corrections to your shots.
What Are Lens Corrections?
Every lens has specific optical characteristics due to the manufacturing process. There are lots of reasons for these changes in character. The aperture range from maximum to minimum affects how light converges through the lens, as does how many pieces of glass (or elements) the lens has in the first place.
The quality of the glass and how its ground interferes with the convergence of different wavelengths of light can result in chromatic aberration (color fringing). It's for these reasons that some people want to remove the effect the lens has on an image by looking up the metadata in the digital file and automatically applying a filter that's called up from a database inside your editing software.
Are They Any Good?
Back before the advent of digital, there were no removing lens characteristics like we do today; what you captured is what you got, (with the exception of using editing techniques in the darkroom), and so, this spurred a search to find lenses that offered better optical quality. Less chromatic aberration, vignetting that didn't impact the aesthetic of a picture, and sharpness were all desirable qualities that have pushed the lens production process along over hundreds of years. So, it makes sense then that we want to include automatic options in editing software for removing these horrid imperfections. That's where the lens corrections box comes in.
In Adobe Lightroom, there's a little panel in the Develop module called Lens Corrections with a few options underneath. Tick the box named "Enable Profile Corrections," and Lightroom should read the metadata in the file and automatically apply a preset rebalancing of the image to account for barrel or pincushion distortion and correct any vignetting (lightening or darkening around the edge of the frame). See above for its effect on a pet portrait. So, that's it, the job is done, photo fixed, right? Wrong.
When You Won't Want to Use Lens Corrections
While this option in Lightroom may be good to remove unwanted optical issues such as color fringing or heavy vignetting, it's not so good when the lens characteristics are actually pretty. There are certain lenses that give wonderful optical qualities that culminate in unrepeatable aesthetics, and it's in this case that you won't want to remove them, as in my example up above.
For example, although not a particularly special lens, I love the look of shots on my Nikon 50mm f/1.4G when shot wide open at f/1.4, and that's demonstrated in the shot of my assistant dog, Benji. There's a shallow depth of field that gives a delicate intimacy to shots, with a cozy and heavy vignette around the edge of the frame, which pushes attention to the center of the image. Most of the time, when I shoot with this lens wide open, I do so specifically for those optical characteristics, so removing this using the Lens Corrections panel in Lightroom would be rather silly.
Why Do Some Swear by It?
Aside from the aforementioned reasons for improving optical clarity in shots, the other reason why some of my photographer friends always use lens corrections is that they work commercially, shooting and editing products. When it comes to product photography, consistency is key, and removing any extra interference on an image is a great way of keeping uniformity. So, these friends almost always remove the lens characteristics because they shoot on a range of lenses and want the images to appear as similar to each other as possible.
Should You Use Lens Corrections in Lightroom?
Whether you should apply lens corrections to your images entirely depends on what kind of images you take and whether you want to include your lens' optical characteristics, or not. For product photography where you're swapping lenses, it might be a good idea to add lens corrections, but for fine art or artistic portrait work, it might not be so crucial.
Also, just because you add it doesn't mean that you're stuck with whatever preset it applies, as I sometimes discover that the corrections go too far the other way and make the edges of the frame too bright. For this, you can make slight adjustments to the intensity of distortion and vignetting using the respective sliders below the tick boxes. Or you can go one step further into the Manual section of the Lens Corrections panel and make specific adjustments to distortion, color fringing ranges, vignette amount, and midpoints so as to strike a good balance.
When Your Lens Isn't Listed
Occasionally, I'll find a lens that doesn't automatically get called up in Lightroom (don't ask me how I do that, I've no idea), so it's necessary for me to go into the drop-down menus and manually select the lens from the list. If I can't find the lens from the list, I'll select the closest one to match the focal length range and aperture value and then make manual adjustments to the preset from there.
On the whole, Lightroom's lens corrections panel is great for correcting erroneous visuals in your photos but not so great when it removes the unique charm of the lens for which it was intended. For photographers that flit between having it on and turning it off, there are a few manual sliders and buttons that allow a blend between the two worlds, and there really is no right or wrong. At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal taste, and for me, that means leaving it off unless absolutely necessary.