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Understanding Lens Contrast

Understanding Lens Contrast

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Published by: c_LaRa on Nov 01, 2008
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12/21/2010

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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 "
 speed 
" (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 "
contrast 
" actually refers to several different things."
Contrast 
" in photo paper, for instance, or in a finished image, refers to overall (sometimes called"
 global 
") 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 "
microcontrast 
." 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 "
 softening 
" 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("
 frequency
" 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"
 sense
" 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 "
 sharpness
".To see a great visual demonstration of this, check out Canon's excellent primer on optics at the back of their book 
 Lenswork 
 
(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
 
relatively low-cycle contrast, meaning in the 5—20 lp/mm range, and then let resolution fall where itmay. This is the smartest approach (in my opinion) for black-and-white film. Lenses that have beenoptimised this way look best for black-and-white. But now that so many people are shooting in colour,giving a little more weighting to resolution at higher frequencies (as, say, Canon and Mamiya seem todo pretty consistently) and expecting colour to "help with contrast" is a smart approach, too.What is an MTF Chart?Basically, how lenses are evaluated is by looking at how well they transmit evenly spaced lines of black and white; ten, 20, or 30 "
line pairs per millimeter 
" (lp/mm) means exactly what it says. As these linesget more and more closely spaced, the "
noise
" between them blurs the edges and makes the black lineslook dark gray and the white lines look light gray to the lens (and also to your eye, especially as you getfarther away). As the lines get closer and closer together, pretty soon the lens can't distinguish themtonally, and the lens "
 sees
" one undifferentiated gray. This ability on the part of the lens, chartedgraphically, is what MTF, or Modulation Transfer Function, is all about.MTF graphs typically chart a lens's performance at various "
image heights
". This just means thedistance from the optical axis, which would correspond to the centre of the negative. The exact centrewould have a height of zero, and so forth out to the corners. Thus, the left-hand side of most MTFgraphs corresponds to the centre of the image, and as the graph line moves to the right, it correspondsto areas of the negative further from the centre. So the MTF chart describes a radius of the image circlecast by the lens. Any other radius from the optical centre is presumed to mirror the one that's charted(which assumes the lens elements are perfectly centred, but manufacturing defects and quality controlis another article).You'll note that most MTF charts have two graph lines per frequency, one solid and one dotted. This just measures object lines ("
object 
" in optic speak corresponds to what we'd call the "
 subject 
", what thelens is pointed at and focused on) that are either parallel to the radius of the image circle (called"
 sagittal 
") and those that are perpendicular to the radii ("
tangential 
"). Most lenses are unable to doequally well with both simultaneously.Technically speaking, MTF measures both contrast and resolution more or less simultaneously. In a photographer's reading of an MTF chart, however, generally the position of the topmost lines (typically10 lp/mm, sometimes 5) will have the highest correlation to visible lens contrast. The lowest set of lines (30 or 40 lp/mm) will correspond best to actual resolving power. Personally, I pretty much ignorethe lowest set or sets of lines when reading an MTF chart.You should note here that different manufacturers provide different MTF frequency measurements. Onecompany may provide 5 lp/mm graph lines, which makes their lenses look good. These lines are oftenvery close to the top boundary of the chart. Other manufacturers may provide lines for 10 lp/mm as thecoarsest structures they measure. The two shouldn't be compared directly. In fact, MTF charts from twodifferent sources shouldn't be compared directly, either. There are enough experimental and proceduralvariations to make direct comparisons meaningless.To get a really good idea of a lens's performance using MTF, you'd need a "
 family
" of charts. For starters, every lens will perform differently at different apertures and at different distances. Justcharting an F/16 lens for three different object distances — say, infinity, close focus, and perhaps 20 xF, where F = focal length, would mean you'd need 21 different charts. Really, you should have chartsfor at least six (and ideally, thirty!) randomly chosen production samples, too, to account for samplevariation. There are a dozen or so other conditions you should measure at every aperture and takingdistance. You can see how the volume of data would quickly get out of hand for enthusiasts. But do bear in mind that when manufacturers give you one chart, it only measures performance at one apertureand one distance. That doesn't really tell you much, except comparatively, and it may not tell you wantyou need to know.Often, usefully (sort of), they'll provide two charts; one for the lens stopped down, and one for fullaperture. The more closely these two charts resemble each other, the better and more consistent the2
 
 performance of the lens is likely to be across the range of apertures. (I say "
 sort of 
" usefully becauseopen-aperture charts for an F/1.4 lens and an F/2 lens wouldn't tell you how the same lenses comparewhen they're both at F/2, which might be practical information to know.)Incidentally, as an aside for those of you who may have seen the articles on "
bokeh
" (bo-ke, theJapanese word meaning "
blur 
") in the March/April 1997 issue of 
 PHOTO Techniques
, off-axisaberrations are typically the cause of "
bad 
" or confused-looking blur. The relative superimposition of the sagittal and tangential lines of an MTF chart are one predictor of "good" or smooth bokeh. (
Thisarticle is available as a PDF filehere
.)So what does an "ideal" or very good MTF chart look like? A good pair (one wide open, one stoppeddown) would show the solid and dotted lines for each frequency on the stopped-down chart more or less superimposed (predicting good bokeh), moving straight across the chart (predicting good center-to-corner consistency), with the top set of lines (coarse image structures) as near as possible to the top of the chart (predicting good lens contrast). Then, the wide-open chart should look as much like thestopped-down chart as possible (predicting consistent performance throughout the aperture range). Inmy experience, the lenses that most closely approximate this description are highly corrected shorttelephotos of moderate aperture. Designers often have somewhat more money to work with whendesigning macro lenses, so macros such as the 100mms from Leica, Zeiss, and Canon, and the Zuiko90mm F/2 from Olympus, probably can be said to have the best MTF charts Iþve seen. (Iþm not being prejudiced against Nikon; it just so happens Iþve never seen any MTF charts for Nikkor lenses.)A Third DefinitionSo far I've mentioned overall contrast and lens contrast. The final type of contrast we have to deal withis something still different from either of the two definitions above, and this is "
local contrast 
", or tonaldifferentiation within certain specified tonal ranges. A film/paper combination whose characteristiccurves interrelate in a certain way can yield high highlight contrast (i.e., not much tonal discriminationin the highlights, but a greater sense of "snap" in the gradation you do see) and low shadow contrast, or good shadow contrast and low highlight contrast. In lenses, local contrast issues are accounted for mainly by flare and veiling glare, and are affected mainly by lens coatings. A lens can have exactly thesame level of overall contrast (i.e., it will transmit the same overall range from light to dark), but itmight have much worse shadow contrast, for instance, in certain real-world situations. Meaning, therewill not be as much separation between slightly different shades of gray in very dark areas of the picture. (Transmission of colour is also very much affected by the efficiency of the coatings and therelative contribution of flare.)The big question mark where local contrast is concerned is that almost all actual picture-takingsituations allow flare and veiling glare (the latter an overall dulling or haze of the image similar to"
 flashing 
" an enlargement with a low dose of non-image-forming light, or fog) to contribute in varyingamounts and varying ways. Despite lots of scientific research, there still seems to be not much way toquantify it exactly, or predict its contribution exactly with any given system ("
 system
" meaning camera-lens/film/enlarger-lens/paper) in real-world situations. Flare is always present to at least some degree, but it is seldom present in exactly the same way in two different systems encountering two differentsituations.Before lens coatings were invented, lens flare was a major determinant of image quality. The bestlenses were generally the ones that allowed performance to remain high with the fewest elements, because there were fewer air-to-glass surfaces to create flare. This explains the lifespan of theexceptionally long-lived Tessar-type, despite its speed limitations. Lens coatings are of criticalimportance to modern lenses; virtually all zoom lenses and many highly-corrected multi-element lenseswould be useless for general photography without them. Often, coating is what makes the mostdifference between an average lens and a very good one.Have you ever noticed how many early 35mm photographers tried to avoid bright sunlight? You might be forgiven for thinking that the decade of the 1940s was entirely overcast (and not just by the world3

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