Talking about the Photographic Camera Lens

What we commonly call a photographic lens is more accurately and technically called an “objective.” An objective (or object lens, object glass, objective lens or photographic objective) is an optical system or device containing a combination of lenses that receive light rays from an object and form an image on the focal plane. However, common usage has won in this case. Dictionaries have come to accept the common usage of the term “lens” to mean the entire photographic objective itself, and the archaic term “objective” is rarely seen in use any longer, except in older encyclopedias and dated books on optics. Interestingly, the French word for lens is and remains “objectif.” A photographic lens will always be called a lens, even though it’s not a lens but has a lot of lenses in it. With the exception of the tidbit of information provided in this paragraph, we refer to the photographic objective as a lens throughout the site.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4
A photographic lens: the Canon's EF 50mm F1.4 USM, an example of a prime lens (single focal length lens) and normal lens

There is no major difference in principle between a lens used for a camera, a telescope, a microscope, or other apparatus, but the detailed design and construction are different.

A lens may be permanently fixed to a camera, or it may be interchangeable with lenses of different focal lengths, apertures, and other properties.

Theory of operation

Most photographic lenses can be thought of as modified pinhole lenses. A pinhole lens would be excellent except for a few serious limitations. They are limited in their resolution because, while geometric optics says that making the pinhole smaller improves resolution, this also reduces light; furthermore, diffraction limits the effectiveness of shrinking the hole. Most photographic lenses can be thought of as an answer to the question "how can we modify a pinhole lens to admit more light and give higher resolution?" A first step is to put a simple convex lens at the pinhole with a focal length equal to the distance to the film plane (assuming the camera will take pictures of distant objects). This allows us to open up the pinhole a bit. The geometry is almost the same as with a simple pinhole lens, but rather than being illuminated by single rays of light, each image point is illuminated by a focused "pencil" of light rays. Standing out in the world, you would see the small hole. This image is known as the entrance pupil: all rays of light leaving an object point that enters this pupil will be focused to the same point on the film. If one were inside the camera, one would see the lens acting as a projector. The image of aperture is the exit pupil.

With a large pinhole, the image spot is large, resulting in a blurry image.
With a small pinhole, light is reduced and diffraction prevents the image spot from getting arbitrarily small.
With a simple lens, much more light can be brought into sharp focus.

Practical photographic lenses include more lens elements. The additional elements allow lens designers to reduce various aberrations, but the principle of operation remains the same: pencils of rays are collected at the entrance pupil and focused down from the exit pupil onto the image plane.


Photographic lens design

The zoom lens assembly of the Canon Elph
A photographic lens may be made from a number of elements: from one, like in the Box Brownie's meniscus lens, to over 20 in the more complex zooms. These elements may themselves comprise a group of lenses cemented together.

The front element is critical to the performance of the whole assembly. In all modern lenses the surface is coated to reduce abrasion, flare, and surface reflectance, and to adjust color balance. To minimize aberration, the curvature is usually set so that the angle of incidence and the angle of refraction are equal. In a prime lens this is easy, but in a zoom always a compromise.

The lens usually is focused by adjusting the distance from the lens assembly to the image plane, or by moving elements of the lens assembly. To improve performance, some lenses have a cam system that adjusts the distance between the groups as the lens is focused. Manufacturers call this different things. Nikon calls it CRC (close range correction), while Hasselblad calls it FLE (floating lens element).

Glass is the most common material, due to its good optical properties and resistance to scratching. Other materials are quartz glass, fluorite, plastics like acrylic (Plexiglass), and even germanium and meteoritic glass. Plastics allow the manufacture of strongly aspherical lens elements which are difficult or impossible to manufacture in glass, and which simplify or improve lens manufacture and performance. Plastics are not used for the outermost elements of all but the cheapest lenses as they scratch easily. Molded plastic lenses have been used for the cheapest disposable cameras for many years, and have acquired a bad reputation: manufacturers of quality optics tend to use euphemisms such as "optical resin". However many modern, high performance (and high priced) lenses from popular manufacturers include molded or hybrid aspherical elements, so it is not true that all lenses with plastic elements are of low photographic quality.

The 1951 USAF Resolution Test Chart is one way to measure the resolving power of a lens. The quality of the material, coatings, and build affect the resolution. Lens resolution is ultimately limited by diffraction, and very few photographic lenses approach this resolution. Ones that do are called "diffraction limited" and are usually extremely expensive.

Today, most lenses are multi-coated in order to minimize lens flare and other unwanted effects. Some lenses have a UV coating to keep out the ultraviolet light that could taint color. Most modern optical cements for bonding glass elements also block UV light, negating the need for a UV filter. UV photographers must go to great lengths to find lenses with no cement or coatings.

A lens will most often have an aperture adjustment mechanism, usually an iris diaphragm, to regulate the amount of light that passes. In early camera models a rotating plate or slider with different sized holes was used. These Waterhouse stops may still be found on modern, specialized lenses. A shutter, to regulate the time during which light may pass, may be incorporated within the lens assembly (for better quality imagery), within the camera, or even, rarely, in front of the lens. Some cameras with leaf shutters in the lens omit the aperture, and the shutter does double duty.

Aperture and focal length

How focal length affects photograph composition: adjusting the camera's distance from the main subject while changing focal length, the main subject can remain the same size, while the other at a different distance changes size
The two main optical parameters of a photographic lens are the maximum aperture and the focal length. The focal length determines the angle of view, and the size of the image relative to that of the object, while the maximum aperture limits the brightness of the image and the fastest shutter speed usable. A popular third consideration is the shortest focal distance.

The maximum usable aperture of a lens is usually specified as the focal ratio or f-number, which is equal to the focal length divided by the effective aperture (or entrance pupil) diameter in the same units. The lower the number, the more light per unit area is delivered to the focal plane. Larger apertures (smaller f-numbers) provide a much shallower depth of field than smaller apertures, other conditions being equal. Practical lens assemblies may also contain mechanisms to deal with measuring light, secondary apertures for flare reduction, and mechanisms to hold the aperture open until the instant of exposure to allow SLR cameras to focus with a brighter image with shallower depth of field, theoretically allowing better focus accuracy.

Large (top) and small (bottom) aperture settings on the same lens are shown.

Focal lengths are usually specified in millimetres (mm), but older lenses marked in centimetres (cm) and inches are still to be found. For a given film or sensor size, specified by the length of the diagonal, a lens may be classified as

  • Normal lens: angle of view of the diagonal about 50° and a focal length approximately equal to the diagonal produces this angle.
  • Macro lens: angle of view narrower than 25° and focal length longer than normal. These lenses are used for close-ups, e.g., for images of the same size as the object. They usually feature a flat field as well, which means that the subject plane is exactly parallel with the film plane.
  • Wide-angle lens: angle of view wider than 60° and focal length shorter than normal.
  • Telephoto lens or long-focus lens: angle of view narrower and focal length longer than normal. A distinction is sometimes made between a long-focus lens and a true telephoto lens: the telephoto lens uses a telephoto group to be physically shorter than its focal length.
  • The 35mm film format is so prevalent that a 90mm lens, for example, is sometimes assumed to be a moderate telephoto; but for the 7×5cm format it is normal, while on the large 5×4 inch format it is a wide-angle. In general, the smaller the film or sensor surface, the smaller the angle of view. This can be corrected with lenses with shorter focal lengths.

An example of how lens choice affects angle of view. The photos below were taken by a 35 mm camera at a constant distance from the subject. 28 mm lens 50 mm lens 70 mm lens 210 mm lens

A side effect of using lenses of different focal lengths is the different distances from which a subject can be framed, resulting in a different perspective. Photographs can be taken of a person stretching out a hand with a wideangle, a normal lens, and a telephoto, which contain exactly the same image size by changing the distance from the subject. But the perspective will be different. With the wideangle, the hands will be exaggeratedly large relative to the head. As the focal length increases, the emphasis on the outstretched hand decreases. However, if pictures are taken from the same distance, and enlarged and cropped to contain the same view, the pictures will have identical perspective. A moderate long-focus (telephoto) lens is often recommended for portraiture because the perspective corresponding to the longer shooting distance is considered to look more flattering.

Number of elements

Photographic lens design
Distinct reflections are visible from the surfaces of different lens elements in this 45mm f/2 MD-Rokkor lens. The lens contains 6 elements in 5 groups

The complexity of a lens—the number of elements and their degree of asphericity—depends upon the angle of view and the maximum aperture, among other variables including intended price point. An extreme wide-angle lens of large aperture must be of very complex construction to correct for optical aberrations, which are worse at the edge of the field and when the edge of a large lens is used for image-forming. A long-focus lens of small aperture can be of very simple construction to attain comparable image quality; a doublet (with two elements) will often suffice. Some older cameras were fitted with "convertible" lenses of normal focal length; the front element could be unscrewed, leaving a lens of twice the focal length and angle of view, and half the aperture. The simpler half-lens was of adequate quality for the narrow angle of view and small relative aperture. Obviously the bellows had to extend to twice the normal length.

Good-quality lenses with maximum aperture no greater than f/2.8 and fixed, normal, focal length need at least three (triplet) or four elements (the trade name "Tessar" derives from the Greek tessera, meaning "four"). The widest-range zooms often have fifteen or more. The reflection of light at each of the many interfaces between different optical media (air, glass, plastic) seriously degraded the contrast and color saturation of early lenses, zoom lenses in particular, especially where the lens was directly illuminated by a light source. The introduction many years ago of optical coatings, and advances in coating technology over the years, have resulted in major improvements, and modern high-quality zoom lenses give images of quite acceptable contrast, although zoom lenses with many elements will transmit less light than lenses made with fewer elements (all other factors such as aperture, focal length, and coatings being equal).

Zoom lenses

Some lenses, called zoom lenses, have a focal length that varies as internal elements are moved, typically by rotating the barrel or pressing a button which activates an electric motor. Commonly, the lens may zoom from moderate wide-angle, through normal, to moderate telephoto; or from normal to extreme telephoto. The largest range commonly available across most makes of 35mm of DSLR camera is 18mm - 200mm. The zoom range is limited by manufacturing constraints; the ideal of a lens of large maximum aperture which will zoom from extreme wideangle to extreme telephoto is not attainable. Zoom lenses are widely used for small-format cameras of all types: still and cine cameras with fixed or interchangeable lenses. Bulk and price limit their use for larger film sizes.

Lens mounts

Lens mount

Many Single-lens reflex cameras, and some rangefinder cameras have detachable lenses. A few other types do as well, notably the Mamiya TLR cameras. The lenses attach to the camera using a lens mount, which often also contains mechanical or electrical linkages between the lens and camera body. The lens mount is an important issue for compatibility between cameras and lenses; each major camera manufacturer typically has their own lens mount which is incompatible with others; notable exceptions are the Leica M39 lens mount for rangefinders, M42 lens mount for early SLRs, the later Pentax K mount, and the Four Thirds System mount for dSLRs, all of which are used by multiple camera brands. Most large-format cameras take interchangeable lenses as well, which are usually mounted in a lensboard or on the front standard.

Special-purpose photographic lenses

A tilt/shift lens, set to its maximum degree of tilt relative to the camera body
  • Apochromat (APO) lenses have added correction for chromatic aberration.
  • Process lenses have extreme correction for aberrations of geometry (pincushion distortion, barrel distortion) and are generally intended for use at a specific distance.
  • Process and apochromat lenses are normally of small aperture, and are used for extremely accurate photographs of static objects. Generally their performance is optimized for subjects a few inches from the front of the lens, and suffers outside this narrow range.
  • Enlarger lenses are made to be used with photographic enlargers (specialized projectors), rather than cameras.
  • Lenses for aerial photography.
  • Fisheye lenses: extreme wide-angle lenses with an angle of view of up to 180 degrees or more, with very noticeable (and intended) distortion.
  • Stereoscopic lenses, to produce pairs of photographs which give a 3-dimensional effect when viewed with an appropriate viewer.
  • Soft-focus lenses which give a soft, but not out-of-focus, image and have an imperfection-removing effect popular among portrait and fashion photographers.
  • Infrared lenses .
  • Ultraviolet lenses.
  • Swivel lenses rotate while attached to a camera body to give unique perspectives and camera angles.
  • Shift lenses and tilt/shift lenses (collectively perspective control lenses) allow special control of perspective on SLR cameras by mimicking view camera movements.

History of photographic lenses

The first permanent images produced by Daguerre and Fox Talbot in 1830 were almost certainly made using a single double convex lens which were in common use at that time in Camera obscuras. As photography developed the simple lens was replaced by achromatic couplets taken from telescope objectives. By 1840 Chevalier, a Parisian optician, and Wollaston in Britain had developed meniscus achromats. However in 1841 Voigtlander and Professor Petzval from Vienna had developed and sold commercially the first portrait lens comprising a cemented planoconvex couplet separated by a fixed diaphragm from an air separated couplet at the rear. Modifications of this design were soon in production by Dallmeyer and Grubb. By 1885 lenses having an intermediate couplet instead of a diaphragm had been introduced which became the model for the Dallmeyer triplet which has been the inspiration for many lenses since.

The first modern doublet lens in which the aberrations of the outer elements was carefully balanced by the corrective actions of the inner elements were designed by Ross and were subsequently developed by other manufacturers to provide such lenses as the Zeiss Tessar and the Leitz Elmar.

Subsequent developments lead to the production of wide-angles lenses and a substantial increase in effective aperture led by the work of Steinheil which enabled lenses with apertures as wide as f2.5 to be in use by 1890. 

Notable photographic optical lens designs

A simple lens cleaning kit, consisting of a detergent, microfiber cloth, and an anti-dust airbrush

Some notable photographic optical lens designs are:

  • Angenieux retrofocus
  • Cooke triplet
  • Double-Gauss
  • Goerz Dagor
  • Leitz Elmar
  • Rapid Rectilinear
  • Zeiss Tessar
  • Zeiss Sonnar
  • Zeiss Planar

See also

Leica III lens.