A camera lens (also known as photographic lens or photographic objective) is an optical lens or assembly of lenses used in conjunction with a camera body and mechanism to make images of objects either on photographic film or on other media capable of storing an image chemically or electronically.
There is no major difference in principle between a lens used for a still camera, a video camera, a telescope, a microscope, or other apparatus, but the detailed design and construction are different. A lens might be permanently fixed to a camera, or it might be interchangeable with lenses of different focal lengths, apertures, and other properties.
While in principle a simple convex lens will suffice, in practice a compound lens made up of a number of optical lens elements is required to correct (as much as possible) the many optical aberrations that arise. Some aberrations will be present in any lens system. It is the job of the lens designer to balance these and produce a design that is suitable for photographic use and possibly mass production.
Typical rectilinear lenses can be thought of as "improved" pinhole "lenses". As shown, a pinhole "lens" is simply a small aperture that blocks most rays of light, ideally selecting one ray to the object for each point on the image sensor. Pinhole lenses have a few severe limitations:
A pinhole camera with a large aperture is blurry because each pixel is essentially the shadow of the aperture stop, so its size is no smaller than the size of the aperture (third image). Here a pixel is the area of the detector exposed to light from a point on the object.
Making the pinhole smaller improves resolution (up to a limit), but reduces the amount of light captured.
At a certain point, shrinking the hole does not improve the resolution because of the diffraction limit. Beyond this limit, making the hole smaller makes the image blurrier as well as darker.
Practical lenses can be thought of as an answer to the question: "how can a pinhole lens be modified to admit more light and give a smaller spot size?". 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 the pinhole to be opened up significantly (fourth image) because a thin convex lens bends light rays in proportion to their distance to the axis of the lens, with rays striking the center of the lens passing straight through. 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.
A camera lens may be made from a number of elements: from one, as 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 there is 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); Canon calls it a floating system; and Hasselblad and Mamiya call it FLE (floating lens element).
Glass is the most common material used to construct lens elements, due to its good optical properties and resistance to scratching. Other materials are also used, such as quartz glass, fluorite, plastics like acrylic (Plexiglass), and even germanium and meteoritic glass. Plastics allow the manufacturing of strongly aspherical lens elements which are difficult or impossible to manufacture in glass, and which simplify or improve lens manufacturing 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.
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