When my article on field curvature was published a while ago, where I talked about how one could do a quick analysis of lens MTF data and determine if it exhibits any field curvature, some of our readers expressed interest in understanding how to read MTF charts. Since we talk quite a bit about lens performance and MTF data here at Photography Life, I decided to write a detailed article on the subject and do my best to thoroughly explain everything related to MTF curves, charts and all the verbiage that comes with them.
Field Curvature, also known as “curvature of field” or “Petzval field curvature”, is a common optical problem that causes a flat object to appear sharp only in a certain part(s) of the frame, instead of being uniformly sharp across the frame. This happens due to the curved nature of optical elements, which project the image in a curved manner, rather than flat. And since all digital camera sensors are flat, they cannot capture the entire image in perfect focus, as shown in the below illustration:
In a simple field curvature scenario like above, the light rays are perfectly focused in the center of the frame, at Image Plane A (where the sensor is). Since the image is curved, sharpness starts to drop as you move away from the center, resulting in less resolution in the mid-frame and much less resolution in the corners. The circular “dome-like” image in three dimensional form is shown to the right of the illustration. If the corner of the image is brought into focus, which would move the image plane closer (Image Plane B), the corners would appear sharp, while mid-frame would stay less sharp and the center would appear the softest. The effect of field curvature can be very pronounced, especially with older lenses.
Chromatic Aberration, also known as “color fringing” or “purple fringing”, is a common optical problem that occurs when a lens is either unable to bring all wavelengths of color to the same focal plane, and/or when wavelengths of color are focused at different positions in the focal plane. Chromatic aberration is caused by lens dispersion, with different colors of light travelling at different speeds while passing through a lens. As a result, the image can look blurred or noticeable colored edges (red, green, blue, yellow, purple, magenta) can appear around objects, especially in high-contrast situations.
A perfect lens would focus all wavelengths into a single focal point, where the best focus with the “circle of least confusion” is located, as shown below:
Focus Shift is an optical problem that occurs due to Spherical Aberration, when an object is brought into focus at maximum aperture and captured with the lens stopped down. Focus shift can lead to blurry images and focus errors, when working with subjects at close distances and using fast aperture lenses. With the lens aperture fully open or “wide open”, incoming rays of light converge at different focal points due to spherical aberration along the optical axis, as shown in the top illustration below:
Spherical Aberration is an optical problem that occurs when all incoming light rays end up focusing at different points after passing through a spherical surface. Light rays passing through a lens near its horizontal axis are refracted less than rays closer to the edge or “periphery” of the lens and as a result, end up in different spots across the optical axis. In other words, the parallel light rays of incoming light do not converge at the same point after passing through the lens. Because of this, Spherical Aberration can affect resolution and clarity, making it hard to obtain sharp images. Here is an illustration that shows Spherical Aberration:
As shown above, light rays refract or change their angle when passing through the lens. The ones closer to the top and the bottom of the illustration end up converging at a shorter distance along the optical axis (black/red dotted line), while the ones closer to the optical axis converge at a longer distance, creating different focal points along the same axis. The point of best focus with the “circle of least confusion” is illustrated as the thick green line. Spherical Aberration is not just caused by lens design, but also by the quality of the lens material. Lenses made of poor quality material and large bubbles can drastically impact light refraction.