Thursday, June 19, 2008

Aperture & Focal Length

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 close focusing 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.

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.
One of Canon's most popular wide-angle
zoom lenses, the 17–40mm f/4 L.

The Canon 85mm f/1.8 is a compact lens popular
with portrait photographers. Its large aperture
can be used to minimize flash requirements
or to produce a shallow depth of field.

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.

28mm lens

50mm lens

70mm lens

210mm 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.

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