Sunteți pe pagina 1din 9

Optics 101 - for Amateur Photographers

Part 1-A study in Photographic History

By: Marty Kesselman

My grandson recently asked me why I bought an SLR (single lens reflex) camera rather
than a well equipped through the lens smaller less heavy camera. My answer was quick
and to the point. I told him that I wanted a camera that I could buy good lenses for. So
what is so terrible about the lenses on the compact 10x zoom cameras? Nothing! Why
then did I choose the SLR?
I guess it really deserved a more complete answer, and with it comes a history of
photographic technology, equipment affordability, a desire for the best one can afford,
and some trust in manufacturers that have been servicing the industry for a very long
In short; todays technology has changed photography so much that affordable excellent
choices for the amateur photographer have appeared that provide the capabilities that
photographers of yesteryear assumed requires separate lenses for each photographic
endeavor, nature, portraiture, landscapes, etc. Why do I say this? My interests are not
professional, they are amateur, and as such, my equipment is to be ambidextrous and
usable for many photographic opportunities, and of modest cost. This implies
compromise. I would look for a compromise between, photographic quality, cost, and
ease of use. To make decisions as to what you are giving up in the compromise, one
needs to understand the differences in quality, the affect on the finished product, and
finally how important that quality feature is to you. You can then determine if you want
to pay the price for it.
The SLR provided the flexibility to permit the owner to choose lenses to achieve a
desired photographic affect, and one could also choose between a number of lens
manufactures offering different levels of quality and cost. In there lies the real reason to
buy an SLR.
Years ago, one would purchase fixed focal length lenses. These would permit you to
photograph a wide angle scene (or a large group indoors), a portrait taken at a reasonable
distance required a slightly longer lens, or a long focal length lens to bring distant objects
up close. Those that could afford it would have some in-between lenses to optimize inbetween situations. Technology improved, and affordable Zoom lenses hit the market.
This reduced the need for in-between lenses, and placed a capability in the amateurs
hands that they never had before.
The zoom lens provided a zoom range of 2 to 3 at reasonable cost, and the faster lenses
(low f#) with large diameter glass lenses were more expensive. The wider the aperture,
the more light that would be captured; while the longer the lens the less light that would
be collected due to the smaller angle of view, creates a clear trade-off. Cost went up with
large aperture, and also went up with longer lenses. Clearly how you would use your

longer lens would help you decide which one to buy. Taking distant shots in low light
required a long lens with a large aperture. This could be very costly.
New lens manufacturers formed and designed lenses that had certain quality short-falls at
significantly lower cost as compared to the more expensive top rated brands. The result
was competition which led to innovation and more technology advances.
The advent of computer aided lens design improved the lenses once again. Making
possible improved zoom range, larger aperture lenses, and reduced manufacturing costs.
The required specifications were applied to standard film sizes. The use of 35mm film
became very wide spread and more attention was placed upon this format.
When digital sensors were introduced into cameras, their physical size was limited by
reliable semiconductor manufacturing techniques. The lenses now only had to be
specified to work well over the smaller size of the digital sensor, and as a result the lenses
could be made cheaper, or with more zoom range for the same price. Today the zoom
lenses can provide ranges to 12x at reasonable cost. The need for large aperture did not
go away, however the spectrum of the market target has now expanded to include many
of the general photography public. These people are not interested in taking low light
level photographs, and the overall requirement for quality optics has gone down when the
general public market is considered.
The result is excellent photographic equipment for the general public. However, for the
more serious amateur photographer, the choice is still to purchase the SLR with choices
available to equip your camera with a wide variety of now a vast quality feature spread,
and a cost commensurate with your needs.
Part 2 will discuss lens characteristics, while part 3 will address some of the optical
specifications and their affect upon your final image.

Optics 101 - for Amateur Photographers

Part 2 Lens Characteristics
By: Marty Kesselman

The first article (part 1) introduced the technological advances that have led to todays
zoom lenses and reasons for purchasing an SLR (single lens reflex) camera. In this
article I will discuss some of the more commonly used lenses and their characteristics.
The third part of this series will cover lens terminology.
General Discussion:
Lenses are used to create a real image which falls upon the film/sensor plane behind the
lens of an object in front of the lens. It is desirable to have the image provide a good
representation of the object. To this end the image should provide good sharp imagery,
with good contrast and accurate color rendition. When light passes an interface between
one media and another it can be reflected, transmitted or absorbed. In fact it does all of
these things. The speed of light is constant for all colors in a vacuum. However, when
light travels in media other than a vacuum the speed of light at different
wavelengths/colors will slow down. In fact this happens when passing through air, and
when passing from air through glass. The slowing process gives rise to a bending of the
direction of motion of the light. Thus, light is bent when it passes through the glass, and
it is bent back when it exits glass and travels in the air again. This affect is noticeable to
most people that look into a pond, and observe a stick that is placed into the water. It
appears to be bent at the point of entry. An object in the water appears to be located at a
place that it actually is not at. All of this is due to the light changing speed as it crosses a
boundary between two different media.
The ideal lens will allow all the light emitted by an object that falls on the surface of the
lens to reach the film plane. In addition it would provide a sharp image. In the real
world some light is reflected, and some light is absorbed by the glass. This results in a
loss of contrast, and a loss of light intensity. With plenty of light available, film
sensitivity may be sufficient to achieve a good exposure. The digital sensors have the
advantage to permit amplification to be employed to increase sensitivity to low light
levels. Lenses are designed to minimize absorption and reflection; while careful shaping
of the glass provides excellent focus qualities (see part 3). As a result todays lenses are
capable of providing excellent imagery for both film and digital sensor technologies.
Most amateur photographers use a 35mm format camera and this article will assume that
the film used is a 35mm format (24x36mm). Different focal length lenses are required to
produce images for other film formats to achieve the characteristics described later in this
Normal Lens:
The so-called normal lens is a lens that presents an image more or less as one would
see it with the eye. It is usually about 50mm for a 35mm film format. The reason for this
is the angle of view is near 40 degrees. This roughly approximates the eyes field of view
(not counting peripheral vision). This lens provides a pleasing image that appears to the

viewer as a properly proportioned image. Lenses with focal lengths to 70mm or 100mm
are frequently used for portrait photography since they provide a nearly normal angle
of view but allow a tighter crop to the subject at reasonable distance. This way the
camera need not be in your subjects face to get a good head-shot. The use of fast shutter
speed and flash are practical with focal lengths in this regime.
Wide Angle Lens:
A Wide Angle Lens would have a focal length less than 50mm and an angle of view
greater than 40 degrees. The larger the angle of view the more wide-angle the lens.
Lenses of this type are useful for indoor shots of groups, where there is not much room to
move away from the subject, and you need a wide angle of view to get the entire group in
the photo.
It has some other photographic attributes as well. They tend to have sharp focus over
larger ranges than longer lenses, and tend to accentuate nearby objects (since they are
close) while causing more distant objects to appear smaller. Since they have a large
angular view they allow a lot of light into the camera and tend to have faster lenses than
telephoto or normal lenses. These lenses lend themselves to fast shutter speeds and flash
photography due to usual subject distances close to the lens, with lots of light available to
expose film/sensors.
Telephoto Lens:
The Telephoto Lens has a focal length greater than 50mm and an angle of view less
than 40 degrees. These lenses, usually with focal lengths greater than 70mm allow
objects that are farther away to be made larger in the image plane. This appears to bring
distant objects closer. Getting its name from the telescope (that has very long lenses), it
is used to capture distant objects.
The small angle of view allows less light to enter the camera and causes these lenses to
be slower, and require large diameter lenses to achieve low f#s. As a result, a fast
telephoto lens is usually very expensive due to the large glass lens that must be accurately
manufactured. Images from long lenses are very vulnerable to shake, and require the use
of a tripod or fast shutter speed. Flash photography is frequently useless due to the large
distance to the subject.
Macro Lenses:
Macro lenses were designed for close focusing and an ability to achieve a 1:1
magnification. That is; the image on the film is the same size as the object. Problems
with the design of such a lens included rectilinear distortion free imaging, with an ability
for close focusing. As manufacturers scurried to provide the serious amateur with zoom
lenses that covered focal ranges that they felt would sell well, they added a close focusing
capability that allowed the user to extend lens operation to achieve magnifications of 1:4
and 1:5. These lenses provided an object size 4 to 5 times the image size. Since the
manufacturers have changed the usual standard for macro magnification, one must be
careful to check the magnification specification for any lens touted as a macro-lens. You
as a photographer must also decide what compromise you really want to make as it

pertains to zoom, lens speed (aperture) and maximum magnification/close focusing

distance. In addition, the need for a rectilinear image field could greatly affect cost due
to the lens correction design efforts.
All-in-one Lenses with Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization:
The desire for an all-in-one lens for the serious amateur is still a goal for the
manufacturers of photographic lenses. Zoom ranges of 18-200mm are now available for
digital sensors. Included in the mix are features that stabilize the image by moving an
element inside the lens. Some camera manufacturers are providing the image
stabilization inside the camera body so that it will work with any lens. These image
stabilizing features actually work and make it possible to hand hold long lenses at modest
shutter speeds, or hand hold shorter focal length lenses for significant exposure times
when low light dictates such a requirement. In addition, most of the zoom lenses include
a macro-focusing mode for close focus capability. As pointed out, certain compromises
are made by the manufacturers to offer the serious photographer such a wide range of
capabilities from a single lens. You, the consumer, must be aware of your needs and
have a sufficient understanding of the various compromises presented to you so that you
can make a knowledgeable choice for your lenses.
Part 3 will address optical terms.

Optics 101 - for Amateur Photographers

Part 3 Optical Terms
By: Marty Kesselman

The first article (part 1) introduced the technological advances that have led to todays
zoom lenses and reasons for purchasing an SLR (single lens reflex) camera. Part 2,
provided a description of some typical lenses and their basic characteristics. In this
article I will discuss some of the lens specifications and optical terms to help you
understand the features of lenses that might influence your selection when buying your
own lenses.
Lens Focal length:
Light emanating at an infinite distance from the lens will be bent by the lens and will
cross the lens axis at the focal distance of the lens. This fundamental parameter provides
a geometric relationship that permits the analytical determination of the image size and
the distance behind the lens to locate the film. Objects located closer to the lens will
provide a sharp image further away (behind the film plane, thus requiring the lens to be
moved closer to the object (extended), to cause the sharp image to fall at the film plane.
This is the reason for extension tubes and bellows systems to accommodate close
Lens aperture:
The lens aperture is another fundamental lens parameter. It defines the amount of light
that can be captured by the lens. The Numerical Aperture (f#) = focal length/lens
diameter (usually controlled by the aperture adjustment an iris like leafed opening for
light to enter). The standard apertures define lens diameters that provide the light of
the previous setting. Since the area is the determining parameter, the light will be halved
if the diameter is made smaller by the square root of two. Therefore the f# will increase
by the square root of 2. The standard f#s are therefore; 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, etc. A
numerical aperture of 1 is a limiting case. Lenses with apertures of 1.4 are considered
amongst the fastest lenses available.
Macro Lenses and magnification:
A class of lenses referred to as macro lenses permit very close focusing to achieve an
image at the film plane equal in size to the object. This is achieved by moving the lens
close to the object, extending the lens away from the film plane and achieving a
magnification of 1.0. Many lenses today boast macro operation, referring to the close
focusing feature and not the magnification. You must be careful to examine the lens
specifications to determine the magnification achieved by the lens at the closest focus
setting. Many achieve a 1:4 ratio or even a 1:5 ratio. This means the object is 4 or 5
times the size of the image appearing on the film. A true macro will provide a 1:1 ratio.
When choosing a macro lens keep in mind that the longer the lens the farther the object is
from the lens for the same magnification. This provides some distance between the lens
and the object when trying to photograph it. Distance could be advantageous and avoid
getting your camera shadow to fall upon the object. Macro lenses are available in focal

lengths from 50mm to 105mm. Longer lenses tend to be more expensive than shorter
When parallel rays of light pass through a slit the light spreads behind the slit
perpendicular to the edge. The smaller the slit the more spreading that takes place. The
lens aperture leaves create slit diffraction causing spreading perpendicular to the leaf
edges. When the lens aperture is small this affect becomes noticeable in the image and
creates star like spreading on bright points of light. Such an affect is sometimes a
creative touch in evening scenes. However, for other areas of the image, the light
spreading is less obvious and manifests itself in slight loss of resolution/sharpness. For
this reason when lens tests are published in magazines you may see a chart which
indicates that the best performance of the lens occurs a few f#s (f-stops) away from the
maximum aperture and then starts to deteriorate as the aperture becomes smaller.
Typically, lenses perform best between f8 and f11.
Problems with lenses:
Vignetting is darkening, due to loss of light, particularly in the corners of the frame. This
is usually due to something blocking the edge of the lens. Check for proper lens shades,
lens attachments that extend the lens barrel beyond the lens end, etc. All lenses will
exhibit some loss of light near the edges due to the limiting angle of light acceptance.
Lens manufacturers carefully design their lenses to reduce this affect.
Lens flare is most obvious when shooting into the sun. It manifests itself as a series of
circles in a line. This is due to reflected light from the surface of the lenses that are
internal to the lens. Light reflected bounces back and forth off the internal surfaces, and
falls upon the film. The circles are actually aperture reflections, and frequently the leaves
are clearly obvious. Lens manufacturers apply special coatings to the surface of the
lenses to reduce this phenomenon. Light falling on the lens obliquely can also cause flare
by producing reflections that propagate into the lens. This results in poor image contrast.
The best prevention method is the use of a sunshade/lens hood. The idea is to prevent
bright sunlight from shining on the surface of the lens at an angle sufficient to get inside
and cause internal reflections. Special anti-reflection surface coatings are also applied to
lenses for digital sensors to avoid reflected light from the sensor to bounce back upon the
sensor resulting in a fuzzy image.
Spherical aberration:
Lenses using spherical elements suffer from aberrations that are due to the fact that off
axis parts of the lens do not focus the light at the same place as near-axis parts of the lens.
Manufacturers can compensate for these aberrations by providing over and under
compensation in lenses that employ multiple elements. Alternatively, today
manufacturers use aspherical lens designs, building into the lens curvature appropriate

Chromatic aberration:
The focal length of the lens turns out to be different for different colors of light. This is
due to the fact that light of different wavelengths/colors travel at slightly different speeds
in media other than a vacuum. Manufacturers apply special coatings to the lens to correct
for this.
Lenses have distortion due to inaccuracies in their shape. This distortion can manifest
itself in warping of the image plane so that straight lines are no longer straight. The
desired image would be rectilinear. A grid of equal square boxes would provide equal
square boxes in the image plane. Distortion that produces a pointy corner appearance in
the corners is called pin-cushion distortion, while distortion that produces a rounding at
the center and compression at the corners is called barrel distortion. Other forms of
distortion can produce a warped image plane that results in out of focus areas. These
forms of distortion include astigmatism. Anastigmatic lenses minimize this distortion.
Often it is difficult to separate the various causes of distortion since all of them cause
similar image degradation, image blur and warped imagery.
Lenses designed specifically for digital sensors:
Digital sensors tend to be smaller than a standard frame of 35mm film. It was pointed out
that due to the smaller sensor size; the specifications on the lenses at the edges are
actually reduced. This simplifies manufacturing requirements and costs go down.
However, other phenomena come into play with digital sensors and when these other
phenomena are addressed by the lens design, the lens does a better job and costs begin to
go back up.
Two major design considerations for digital sensor lenses are surface reflections and a
need to reduce the angle of the cone of light that falls upon the sensor plane. Surface
reflections must be reduced due to the increased reflected light from the sensor surface.
Special reflection reducing coatings are employed to minimize light bouncing off the
inside lens surfaces.
The second requirement is more subtle. Digital sensors use a screen filter to separate the
colors of light. Each color of light then falls upon a separate light sensitive detector. In
essence, there are three holes with different color filters in them. Each hole will pass
light with that particular color. These holes are placed directly over a light sensor
element. The light sensing elements/detectors send signals to the camera computer that
indicates the amount of light that was transmitted by that particular color filter. There are
three colors used to define the color of any particular point within the image plane.
These points are called pixels. The number of gradations in image intensity that can be
discerned will define the color rendition of the camera. With this said, the problem
arises from light passing through a filter hole on an angle sufficient to fall partially upon
an adjacent sensor element, measuring a different color. This can manifest itself in color
inaccuracies such as reduced saturation, or in extreme cases color fringing at edges of
objects. To reduce this phenomenon, special lens designs can be used to reduce the angle

of the light falling upon the sensor. This makes the light more parallel and allows the
light to pass more perpendicular to the sensor filter and less likely to bleed to nearby
sensor elements. Such a design is a Telecentric lens design. Certain lenses are designed
this way and are available for color critical applications.