How are Photographic Lenses Designed?

The design of photographic lenses (or photographic lens design) for use in still or cine cameras is intended to produce a lens that yields the most acceptable rendition of the subject being photographed within a range of constraints that include cost, weight and materials. For many other optical devices such as telescopes, microscopes and theodolite where the visual image is observed but often not recorded the design can often be significantly simpler than is the case in a camera where every image is captured on film or image sensor and can be subject to detailed scrutiny at a later stage.

Design requirements

From the perspective of the photographer, the ability of a lens to capture sufficient light so that the camera can operate over a wide range of lighting conditions is important. Designing a lens that reproduces color accurately is also important as is the production of an evenly lit and sharp image over the whole of the film or sensor plane.

For the lens designer, achieving these objectives will also involve ensuring that internal flare, optical aberrations and weight are all reduced to the minimum while zoom, focus and aperture functions all operate smoothly and predictably.

However, because photographic films and electronic sensors have a finite and measurable resolution, photographic lenses are not always designed for maximum possible resolution since the recording medium would not be able to record the level of detail that the lens could resolve. For this, and many other reasons, camera lenses are unsuited to use as projector or enlarger lenses.

The design of fixed focal length lenses (also known as Prime lenses) presents fewer challenges than the design of a zoom lens. A high quality prime lens whose focal length is about equal to the diameter of the film frame or sensor may be constructed from as few as four separate lens elements, often as matched pairs on either side of the aperture diaphragm. Good examples includes the Zeiss Tessar or the Leitz Elmar.

Design constraints

To be useful in photography any lens must be able to fit the camera for which it is intended and this will physically limit the size where the bayonet mounting or screw mounting is to be located.

Photography is a highly competitive commercial business and both weight and cost constrain the production of lenses.

Refractive materials such as glass have physical limitations which limit the performance of lenses. In particular the range of refractive indices available in commercial glasses span a very narrow range. Since it is the refractive index that determines how much the rays of light are bent at each interface and since it is the differences in refractive indices in paired plus and minus lenses that constrains the ability to minimize chromatic aberrations, having only a narrow spectrum of indices is a major design constraint.


Diagram of Petval's 1841 portrait lens - crown glass shaded pink, flint glass shaded blueThe lenses of the very earliest cameras were simple meniscus or simple bi convex lenses. It was not until 1840 that Chevalier in France introduced the achromatic lens formed by cementing a crown glass bi-convex lens to a flint glass plano-concave lens. By 1841 Voigtländer working with Petval in Austria developed the first true two element lens.

The role of Zeiss

The Zeiss company was responsible for many innovations in optical design and engineering. Early on, Carl Zeiss realised that he needed a competent designer so as to take the firm beyond just being another optical workshop. In 1866, the service of Dr Ernst Abbe was enlisted. From then on novel products appeared in rapid succession which brought the Zeiss company to the forefront of optical technology.

Abbe was instrumental in the development of the famous Jena optical glass. When he was trying to eliminate astigmatism from microscopes, he realized that the range of optical glasses available was insufficient. After some calculations, he realized that performance of optical instruments would dramatically improve, if optical glasses of appropriate properties were available. His challenge to glass manufacturers was finally answered by Dr Otto Schott, who established the famous glassworks at Jena from which new types of optical glass began to appear from 1888, and employed by Zeiss and other makers.

The new Jena optical glass also opened up the possibility of increased performance of photographic lenses. The first use of Jena glass in a photographic lens was by Voigtländer, but as the lens was an old design its performance was not greatly improved. Subsequently the new glasses would demonstrate their value in correcting astigmatism, and in the production of apochromatic lenses. Abbé started the design of a photographic lens of symmetrical design with five elements, but went no further.

Zeiss' domination of photographic lens innovation was due to Dr Paul Rudolph. In 1890, Rudolph designed an asymmetrical lens with a cemented group at each side of the diaphragm, and appropriately named "Anastigmat". This lens was made in three series: Series III, IV and V, with maximum apertures of f/7.2, f/12.5, and f/18 respectively. In 1891, Series I, II and IIIa appeared with respective maximum apertures of f/4.5, f/6.3, and f/9 and in 1893 came Series IIa of f/8 maximum aperture. These lenses are now better known by the trademark "Protar" which was first used in 1900.

At the time, single combination lenses, which occupy one side of the diaphragm only, were still popular. Rudolph designed one with three cemented elements in 1893, with the option of fitting two of them together in a lens barrel as a compound lens, but it was found to be the same as the Dagor by C.P. Goerz, designed by Emil von Hoegh. Rudolph then came up with a single combination with four cemented elements, which can be considered as having all the elements of the Protar stuck together in one piece. Marketed in 1894, it was called the Protarlinse Series VII, the most highly corrected single combination lens with maximum apertures between f/11 and f/12.5, depending on its focal length.

But the important thing about this Protarlinse is that two of these lens units can be mounted in the same lens barrel to form a compound lens of even greater performance and larger aperture, between f/6.3 and f/7.7. In this configuration it was called the Double Protar Series VIIa. An immense range of focal lengths can As a result be obtained by the various combination of Protarlinse units.

Rudolph also investigated the Double-Gauss concept of a symmetrical design with thin positive meniscii enclosing negative elements. The result was the Planar Series Ia of 1896, with maximum apertures up to f/3.5, one of the fastest lenses of its time. While it was very sharp, it suffered from coma which limited its popularity. However, further developments of this configuration made it the design of choice for high-speed lenses of standard coverage.

Probably inspired by the Stigmatic lenses designed by Hugh Aldis for Dallmeyer of London, Rudolph designed a new asymmetrical lens with four thin elements, the Unar Series Ib, with apertures up to f/4.5. Due to its high speed it was used extensively on hand cameras.

The most important Zeiss lens by Rudolph was the Tessar, first sold in 1902 in its Series IIb f/6.3 form. It can be said as a combination of the front half of the Unar with the rear half of the Protar. This proved to be a most valuable and flexible design, with tremendous development potential. Its maximum aperture was increased to f/4.7 in 1917, and reached f/2.7 in 1930. It is probable that every lens manufacturer has produced lenses of the Tessar configuration.

Rudolph left Zeiss after the First World War, but many other competent designers such as Merté, Wandersleb, etc. kept the firm at the leading edge of photographic lens innovations. One of the most significant designer was the ex-Ernemann man Dr Ludwig Bertele, famed for his Ernostar high-speed lens.

With the advent of the Contax by Zeiss-Ikon, the first serious challenge to the Leica in the field of professional 35 mm cameras, both Zeiss-Ikon and Carl Zeiss decided to beat the Leica in every possible way. Bertele's Sonnar series of lenses designed for the Contax were the match in every respect for the Leica for at least two decades. Other lenses for the Contax included the Biotar, Biogon, Orthometar, and various Tessars and Triotars.

The last important Zeiss innovation before the Second World War was the technique of applying anti-reflective coating to lens surfaces. A lens so treated was marked with a red "T", short for "Transparent". The technique of applying multiple layers of coating was developed from this basis after the war, and known as "T*" (T-star).

After the partitioning of Germany, a new Carl Zeiss optical company was established in Oberkochen, while the original Zeiss firm in Jena continued to operate. At first both firms produced very similar lines of products, and extensively cooperated in product-sharing, but they drifted apart as time progressed. Jena's new direction was to concentrate on developing lenses for the 35 mm single-lens reflex camera, and many achievements were made, especially in ultra-wide angle designs. In addition to that, Oberkochen also worked on designing lenses for large format cameras, interchangeable front element lenses such as for the 35 mm single-lens reflex Contaflex, and other types of cameras.

Since the beginning of Zeiss as a photographic lens manufacturer, it has had a licensing programme which allows other manufacturers to produce its lenses. Over the years its licensees included Voigtländer, Bausch & Lomb, Ross, Koristka, Krauss, Kodak. etc. In the 1970s, the western operation of Zeiss-Ikon got together with Yashica to produce the new Contax cameras, and many of the Zeiss lenses for this camera, among others, were produced by Yashica's optical arm, Tomioka. As Yashica's owner Kyocera ended camera production in 2006, and Yashica lenses were then made by Cosina, who also manufactured most of the new Zeiss designs for the new Zeiss Ikon coupled rangefinder camera. Another licensees active today is Sony who uses the Zeiss name on lenses on its video and digital still cameras

Lens elements

Except for the most simple and inexpensive lenses, each complete lens is made up from a number of separate lens elements arranged along a common axis. The use of many lens elements is designed to minimize aberrations and to provide a sharp image, free from flare and other optical imperfections. To do this requires lens elements of different compositions and different shapes. To minimise chromatic aberrations, in which different wavelengths of light are refracted to different degrees, requires, at a minimum, a couplet of lens elements with a positive element having a high refractive index matched with a negative element of lower refractive index. If the front element is a meniscus design and the second is a bi-concave design, it is relatively simple to achieve a good degree of convergence of different wavelengths in the visible spectrum. Most lens designs do not attempt to bring infrared wavelengths to the same common focus and it is therefore necessary to manually alter the focus when photographing in infrared light. Most lens elements are made with curved surfaces with a spherical profile. That is the curved shape would fit on the surface of a sphere. This is partly to do with the history of lens making but also because grinding and manufacturing of spherical surface lenses is relatively simple and cheap. However, spherical surfaces also give rise to lens aberrations and can lead to heavy lens designs. Achieving higher quality lenses and lower weights can be achieved by using aspheric lenses in which the curved surfaces are not spherical.

Types of lenses

Example of a prime lens - Carl Zeiss Tessar.

Cross-section of a typical short-focus wide-angle lens.

Cross-section of a typical retrofocus wide-angle lens.

Cross-section - typical telephoto lens.

The type of lens being designed is significant in setting the key parameters.

 Prime lens - usually the simplest to design. In very inexpensive cameras this can be a simple meniscus lens. Such a simple lens exhibits a number of failings including circular and color aberrations. In addition it produces a curved field of illumination. In the plastic bodied Kodak Box Brownie this problem was minimized by using a curved track for the film.

Wide angle lens - the problem posed by the design of wide angle lenses is to bring an accurate focus light from a wide area without causing internal flare. Wide angle lenses therefore tend to have more elements than a prime lens to help refract the light sufficiently and still minimize aberrations while adding light-trapping baffles between each lens element.

Extreme wide angle lenses share the same issues as ordinary wide angle lenses but the focal length of such lenses may be so short that there is insufficient physical space in front of the film or sensor plane to construct a lens. This problem is resolved by constructing the lens as an inverted telephoto, or retrofocus, with the front element having a very short focal length, often with a highly exaggerated convex front surface and behind it a strongly negative lens grouping that extends the cone of focused rays so that they can be brought to focus at a reasonable distance.

Long focus lenses, in which the focal length is significantly greater than the diagonal of the film frame or sensor, are relatively simple to design, the challenges being comparable to the design of a prime lens. However, as the focal length increases the length of the lens and the size of the objective increase in size and length and weight quickly become significant design issues in retaining utility and practicality for the lens in use. In addition because the light path through the lens is long and glancing, the importance of baffles to control flare increases in importance.

Telephoto lens - the design of telephoto lenses reduces some of the problems encountered by designers of long focus lenses but introduces others.

Zoom lenses - cover a range of focal lengths by utilising movable elements within the barrel of the lens assembly. In early zoom lenses the focus also shifted as the lens focal length was changed. All modern zoom lenses are now confocal, meaning that the focus is maintained throughout the zoom range. Because of the need to operate over a range of focal lengths and maintain confocality, zoom lenses typically have very many lens elements. More significantly the front elements of the lens will always be a compromise in terms of its size, light-gathering capability and the angle of incidence of the incoming rays of light. For all these reasons, the optical performance of zoom lenses tends to be lower than fixed focal length lenses.

Mirror lens - Mirror lenses are a form of telephoto lens but with a light path that doubles back on itself and with an objective that is a Catadioptric mirror rather than a lens. A second centrally-placed mirror and small lens group bring the light to focus. Such lenses are very lightweight and can easily deliver very long focal lengths but they can only deliver a fixed aperture and have none of the benefits of being able to stop down the aperture to increase depth of field.

Specialist lenses

Anamorphic lenses are used principally in cinematography to produce wide-screen films where the projected image has a substantially different ratio of height to width than the image recorded on the film plane. This is achieved by the use of a specialized lens design which compresses the image laterally at the recording stage and the film is then projected through a similar lens in the cinema to recreate the wide-screen effect. Although in some cases the anamorphic effect is achieved by using an anamorphising attachment as a supplementary element on the front of a normal lens, most films shot in anamorphic formats use specially-designed anamorphic lenses, such as the Hawk lenses made by Vantage Film or Panavision's anamorphic lenses. These lenses incorporate one or more aspheric elements in their design.

Lens glass

The majority of photographic lenses have the lens elements made from glass although the use of high quality plastics is becoming more common in high quality lenses and has been common in more inexpensive cameras for some time. The design of photographic lenses is very demanding as designers push the limits of existing materials to make more versatile, better quality and lighter lenses. As a consequence many exotic glasses have been used in modern lens manufacturers. Caesium and lanthanum glass lenses are now in use because of their high refractive index and very low dispersion properties. It is also likely that a number of other transition element glasses are in use but manufacturers often prefer to keep their material specification secret to retain a commercial or performance edge over their rivals.

Aperture control

The aperture control, usually a multi-leaf diaphragm, is critical to the performance of a lens. The role of the aperture is to control the amount of light passing through the lens to the film or sensor plane. An aperture placed outside of the lens, as in the case of some Victorian cameras risks vignetting of the image in which the corners of the image are darker than the centre. A diaphragm too close to the image plane risks the diaphragm itself being recorded as a circular shape or at the very least causing diffraction patterns at small apertures. In most lens designs the aperture is positioned about mid-way between the front surface of the objective and the image plane. In some zoom lenses it is placed some distance away from the ideal location in order to accommodate the movement of floating lens elements needed to perform the zoom function.

Most modern lenses for 35mm format rarely provide a stop smaller than f22 because of the risk of diffraction effects caused by light passing through a very small aperture. Lenses for very small formats common in compact cameras rarely go above f/11 (1/1.8") or f/8 (1/2.5"), while lenses for medium- and large-format provide f/64 or f/128.

Very large aperture lenses designed to be useful in very low light conditions with apertures ranging from f1.2 to f0.9 are generally restricted to lenses of standard focal length because of the of the size and weight problems that would be encountered in telephoto lenses and the difficulty of building a very wide aperture wide angle lens with the refractive materials currently available. Very large aperture lenses are commonly made for other types of optical instruments such as microscopes but in such cases the diameter of the lens is very small and weight is not an issue.

Many very early cameras had diaphragms external to the lens often consisting of a rotating circular plate with a number of holes of increasing size drilled through the plate. Rotating the plate would bring an appropriate sized hole in front of the lens. All modern lenses use a multi-leaf diaphragm so that at the central intersection of the leaves a more or less circular aperture is formed; either a manual ring control or an electronic motor controls the angle of the diaphragm leaves and As a result the size of the opening.

The placement of the diaphragm within the lens structure is constrained by the need to achieve even illumination over the whole film plane at all apertures and the requirement to not interfere with the movement of any movable lens element. Typically the diaphragm is situated at about the level of the optical centre of the lens.

Shutter mechanism

A shutter controls the length of time light is allowed to pass through the lens onto the film plane. For any given light intensity, the more sensitive the film or detector or the wider the aperture the shorter the exposure time need to be to maintain the optimal exposure. In the earliest camera exposures were controlled by moving a rotating plate from in front of the lens and then replacing it. Such a mechanism only works effectively for exposures of several seconds or more and carries a considerable risk of inducing camera shake. By the end of the 19th century spring tensioned shutter mechanisms were in use operated by a lever or by a cable release. Some simple shutters continued to be placed in front of the lens but most were incorporated within the lens mount itself. Such lenses with integral shutter mechanisms developed in the current Compur shutter as used in many non-reflex cameras such as Linhof. These shutters have a number of metal leaves that spring open and then close after a pre-determined interval. The material and design constraints limit the shortest speed to about 0.002 second. Although such shutters cannot yield as short and exposure time as focal plane shutter they are able to offer flash synchronization at all speeds.

Incorporating a commercial made Compur type shutter required lens designers to accommodate the width of the shutter mechanism in the lens mount and provide for the means of triggering the shutter on the lens barrel or transferring this to the camera body by a series of levers as in the Minolta twin lens cameras.

The need to accommodate the shutter mechanism within the lens barrel limited the design of wide-angle lenses and it was not until the widespread use of focal plane shutters that con-focal zoom lenses were developed.


Until recent years focusing of a camera lens to achieve a sharp image on the film plane was achieved by means of a very shallow helical thread in the lens mount through which the lens could be rotated moving it closer or further from the film plane. This arrangement whille simple to design and construct has some limitations not least the rotation of the greater part of the lens assembly including the front element. This could be problematical if devices such as polarizing filters were in use that require to maintain an accurate vertical orientation irrespective of focus distance.

Internal focusing

An internal focus lens (sometimes known as IF) is a photographic lens design in which focus is shifted by moving the inner lens group or groups only, without any rotation or shifting of the front lens element. This makes it easy to use, for example, a screwed-in polarizing filter or a petal shaped lens hood. During macro photography, using an internal focus lens reduces the risk of the front of the lens accidentally hitting the subject during focusing as the front element does not move.

Later developments adopted designs in which internal elements were moved to achieve focus without affecting the outer barrel of the lens or the orientation of the front element.

Many modern cameras now use automatic focusing mechanisms which use ultrasonic motors to move internal elements in the lens to achieve optimum focus.

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