Understanding Lens Contrast and the Basics of MTF
By Mike JohnstonMany photographers — even some experienced and knowledgeable ones — seem permanentlyconfused about contrast, especially when the word is used to describe lenses. In photography, like theword "
" (which can refer to the maximum aperture of a lens, the size of the gap in a constant-rateshutter, or the sensitivity of an emulsion), the word "
" actually refers to several different things."
" in photo paper, for instance, or in a finished image, refers to overall (sometimes called"
") contrast, meaning how the materials distribute tonal gradation from black to white or lightestto darkest.When we talk about lens contrast, we are not talking about that quality. What we're talking about is theability of the lens to differentiate between smaller and smaller details of more and more nearly similar tonal value. This is also referred to as "
." The better contrast a lens has (and this hasnothing to do with the lightdark range or distribution of tones in the final print or slide) means itsability to take two small areas of slightly different luminance and distinguish the boundary of one fromthe other.You can have a lens of very low contrast that can be made to transmit the same overall range of light todark or white to black as one with high contrast. It will just show much less micro detail in the scene,and look relatively muddy and lifeless. Some pictorialist-era pictures actually have a full range of tonesfrom white to black but show (by design) exceptionally low degrees of what we would call lenscontrast. Low lens contrast is also created when you put a "
" filter on a lens you can still printthe picture with an overall contrast from pure white to maximum black, but the microcontrast will beseverely curtailed.Savants talk about resolution and contrast being the same thing. Ultimately, they do go hand-in-hand, because you can't distinguish contrast without resolution and you can't distinguish resolution withoutcontrast. But this is for very fine detail, in the range of 30-40 lp/mm or even greater frequencies("
" in this sense refers to the spacing of the equal black and white lines used to determinelp/mm and MTF), which the eye generally can't see in prints and slides (although Ctein thinks we"
" it in terms of a subjective sense of richness in gradation).At coarser levels (or "
for larger structures
," as optical jargon might put it), say 5 lp/mm, you can havemore of one than the other, and, indeed, lens designers make choices in these areas. I have one lens, theLeica 35mm F/2 Summicron-R, which has very high large-structure contrast, but not terribly goodresolution. That is, if you shoot with a very fine-grained film and look at the detail under a microscopeor in well-made enlargements, you may see finer actual detail in pictures made with other lenses yet theLeica lens has a very high (and very pleasing!) sense of subjective "
".To see a great visual demonstration of this, check out Canon's excellent primer on optics at the back of their book
(a must-read for any photographer interested in, but not trained in, optics). Theyshow the same picture (of a cat) with a) poor contrast and poor resolution, b) good contrast but poor resolution, c) good resolution but poor contrast, and d) both good resolution and good contrast. Thiswill "key" your eye in to what is meant by lens contrast better than any verbal description can. As youcan see from those illustrations, it has nothing to do with overall contrast of the sort we mean when wetalk about paper grades.Colour Creates ContrastThe issue is further confused by colour, since colour sometimes functions similarly to contrast. Imaginetwo areas in an image of similar value, but one red, and one green. Take a picture of this with black-and-white film, and you have one undifferentiated gray. Take a picture of it in colour, and the greenarea easily stands apart from the red area and vice-versa. Although it has nothing to do with optical or sensitometric contrast, colour contrast helps with definition and hence with a sense of general imageclarity. What this means is that different lenses perform differently or perhaps I should say "
to different tastes
" in black-and-white and colour. I conjecture that Leica designers used to pay most attention to1