A lens is an optical device which transmits and refracts light, converging or diverging the beam. A simple lens consists of a single optical element. A compound lens is an array of simple lenses (elements) with a common axis; the use of multiple elements allows more optical aberrations to be corrected than is possible with a single element. Lenses are typically made of glass or transparent plastic. Elements which refract electromagnetic radiation outside the visual spectrum are also called lenses: for instance, a microwave lens can be made from paraffin wax.
The word lens comes from the Latin name of the lentil, because a double-convex lens is lentil-shaped. The genus of the lentil plant is Lens, and the most commonly eaten species is Lens culinaris. The lentil plant also gives its name to a geometric figure.
The oldest lens artifact is the Nimrud lens, dating back 2700 years to ancient Assyria. David Brewster proposed that it may have been used as a magnifying glass, or as a burning-glass to start fires by concentrating sunlight. Another early reference to magnification dates back to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in the 8th century BC, which depict "simple glass meniscal lenses".
The earliest written records of lenses date to Ancient Greece, with Aristophanes' play The Clouds (424 BC) mentioning a burning-glass (a biconvex lens used to focus the sun's rays to produce fire). Some scholars argue that the archeological evidence indicates that there was widespread use of lenses in antiquity, spanning several millennia. Such lenses were used by artisans for fine work, and for authenticating seal impressions. The writings of Pliny the Elder (23–79) show that burning-glasses were known to the Roman Empire, and mentions what is arguably the earliest written reference to a corrective lens: Nero was said to watch the gladiatorial games using an emerald (presumably concave to correct for nearsightedness, though the reference is vague). Both Pliny and Seneca the Younger (3 BC–65) described the magnifying effect of a glass globe filled with water.
Excavations at the Viking harbour town of Fröjel, Gotland, Sweden discovered in 1999 the rock crystal Visby lenses, produced by turning on pole lathes at Fröjel in the 11th to 12th century, with an imaging quality comparable to that of 1950s aspheric lenses. The Viking lenses were capable of concentrating enough sunlight to ignite fires.
Between the 11th and 13th century "reading stones" were invented. Often used by monks to assist in illuminating manuscripts, these were primitive plano-convex lenses initially made by cutting a glass sphere in half. As the stones were experimented with, it was slowly understood that shallower lenses magnified more effectively.
Lenses came into widespread use in Europe with the invention of spectacles, probably in Italy in the 1280s. This was the start of the optical industry of grinding and polishing lenses for spectacles, first in Venice and Florence in the thirteenth century, and later in the spectacle-making centres in both the Netherlands and Germany. Spectacle makers created improved types of lenses for the correction of vision based more on empirical knowledge gained from observing the effects of the lenses (probably without the knowledge of the rudimentary optical theory of the day). The practical development and experimentation with lenses led to the invention of the compound optical microscope around 1595, and the refracting telescope in 1608, both of which appeared in the spectacle-making centres in the Netherlands.
With the invention of the telescope and microscope there was a great deal of experimentation with lens shapes in the 17th and early 18th centuries trying to correct chromatic errors seen in lenses. Opticians tried to construct lenses of varying forms of curvature, wrongly assuming errors arose from defects in the spherical figure of their surfaces. Optical theory on refraction and experimentation was showing no single-element lens could bring all colours to a focus. This led to the invention of the compound achromatic lens by Chester Moore Hall in England in 1733, an invention also claimed by fellow Englishman John Dollond in a 1758 patent.
Construction of simple lenses
Most lenses are spherical lenses: their two surfaces are parts of the surfaces of spheres, with the lens axis ideally perpendicular to both surfaces. Each surface can be convex (bulging outwards from the lens), concave (depressed into the lens), or planar (flat). The line joining the centres of the spheres making up the lens surfaces is called the axis of the lens. Typically the lens axis passes through the physical centre of the lens, because of the way they are manufactured. Lenses may be cut or ground after manufacturing to give them a different shape or size. The lens axis may then not pass through the physical centre of the lens.
Toric or sphero-cylindrical lenses have surfaces with two different radii of curvature in two orthogonal planes. They have a different focal power in different meridians. This is a form of deliberate astigmatism.
More complex are aspheric lenses. These are lenses where one or both surfaces have a shape that is neither spherical nor cylindrical. Such lenses can produce images with much less aberration than standard simple lenses. These in turn evolved into freeform (digital/adaptive/corrected curve) spectacle lenses, where up to 20,000 ray paths are calculated from the eye to the image taking into account the position of the eye and the differing back vertex distance of the lens surface and its pantoscopic tilt and face form angle. The lens surface(s) are digitally adapted at nanometre levels (normally by a diamond stylus) to eliminate spherical aberration, coma and oblique astigmatism. This type of lens design almost completely fulfills the sagittal and tangential image shell requirements first described by Tscherning in 1925 and further described by Wollaston and Ostwalt. These advanced designs of spectacle lens can improve the visual performance by up to 70% particularly in the periphery.
Types of simple lenses
Lenses are classified by the curvature of the two optical surfaces. A lens is biconvex (or double convex, or just convex) if both surfaces are convex. If both surfaces have the same radius of curvature, the lens is equiconvex. A lens with two concave surfaces is biconcave (or just concave). If one of the surfaces is flat, the lens is plano-convex or plano-concave depending on the curvature of the other surface. A lens with one convex and one concave side is convex-concave or meniscus. It is this type of lens that is most commonly used in corrective lenses.
If the lens is biconvex or plano-convex, a collimated beam of light travelling parallel to the lens axis and passing through the lens will be converged (or focused) to a spot on the axis, at a certain distance behind the lens (known as the focal length). In this case, the lens is called a positive or converging lens.
If the lens is biconcave or plano-concave, a collimated beam of light passing through the lens is diverged (spread); the lens is thus called a negative or diverging lens. The beam after passing through the lens appears to be emanating from a particular point on the axis in front of the lens; the distance from this point to the lens is also known as the focal length, although it is negative with respect to the focal length of a converging lens.
Convex-concave (meniscus) lenses can be either positive or negative, depending on the relative curvatures of the two surfaces. A negative meniscus lens has a steeper concave surface and will be thinner at the centre than at the periphery. Conversely, a positive meniscus lens has a steeper convex surface and will be thicker at the centre than at the periphery. An ideal thin lens with two surfaces of equal curvature would have zero optical power, meaning that it would neither converge nor diverge light. All real lenses have a nonzero thickness, however, which affects the optical power. To obtain exactly zero optical power, a meniscus lens must have slightly unequal curvatures to account for the effect of the lens' thickness.
The focal length of a lens in air can be calculated from the lensmaker's equation:
Sign convention of lens radii R1 and R2
The signs of the lens' radii of curvature indicate whether the corresponding surfaces are convex or concave. The sign convention used to represent this varies, but in this article if R1 is positive the first surface is convex, and if R1 is negative the surface is concave. The signs are reversed for the back surface of the lens: if R2 is positive the surface is concave, and if R2 is negative the surface is convex. If either radius is infinite, the corresponding surface is flat. With this convention the signs are determined by the shapes of the lens surfaces, and are independent of the direction in which light travels through the lens.
Thin lens equation
If d is small compared to R1 and R2, then the thin lens approximation can be made. For a lens in air, f is then given by
The focal length f is positive for converging lenses, and negative for diverging lenses. The reciprocal of the focal length, 1/f, is the optical power of the lens. If the focal length is in metres, this gives the optical power in dioptres (inverse metres).
Lenses have the same focal length when light travels from the back to the front as when light goes from the front to the back, although other properties of the lens, such as the aberrations are not necessarily the same in both directions.
As mentioned above, a positive or converging lens in air will focus a collimated beam travelling along the lens axis to a spot (known as the focal point) at a distance f from the lens. Conversely, a point source of light placed at the focal point will be converted into a collimated beam by the lens. These two cases are examples of image formation in lenses. In the former case, an object at an infinite distance (as represented by a collimated beam of waves) is focused to an image at the focal point of the lens. In the latter, an object at the focal length distance from the lens is imaged at infinity. The plane perpendicular to the lens axis situated at a distance f from the lens is called the focal plane.
If the distances from the object to the lens and from the lens to the image are S1 and S2 respectively, for a lens of negligible thickness, in air, the distances are related by the thin lens formula
This can also be put into the "Newtonian" form:
What this means is that, if an object is placed at a distance S1 along the axis in front of a positive lens of focal length f, a screen placed at a distance S2 behind the lens will have a sharp image of the object projected onto it, as long as S1 > f (if the lens-to-screen distance S2 is varied slightly, the image will become less sharp). This is the principle behind photography and the human eye. The image in this case is known as a real image.
Note that if S1 < f, S2 becomes negative, the image is apparently positioned on the same side of the lens as the object. Although this kind of image, known as a virtual image, cannot be projected on a screen, an observer looking through the lens will see the image in its apparent calculated position. A magnifying glass creates this kind of image.
The magnification of the lens is given by:
where M is the magnification factor; if |M|>1, the image is larger than the object. Notice the sign convention here shows that, if M is negative, as it is for real images, the image is upside-down with respect to the object. For virtual images, M is positive and the image is upright.
In the special case that S1 = ∞, then S2 = f and M = −f / ∞ = 0. This corresponds to a collimated beam being focused to a single spot at the focal point. The size of the image in this case is not actually zero, since diffraction effects place a lower limit on the size of the image (see Rayleigh criterion).
The formulas above may also be used for negative (diverging) lens by using a negative focal length (f), but for these lenses only virtual images can be formed.
For the case of lenses that are not thin, or for more complicated multi-lens optical systems, the same formulas can be used, but S1 and S2 are interpreted differently. If the system is in air or vacuum, S1 and S2 are measured from the front and rear principal planes of the system, respectively. Imaging in media with an index of refraction greater than 1 is more complicated, and is beyond the scope of this article.
Lenses do not form perfect images, and there is always some degree of distortion or aberration introduced by the lens which causes the image to be an imperfect replica of the object. Careful design of the lens system for a particular application ensures that the aberration is minimized. There are several different types of aberration which can affect image quality.
Spherical aberration occurs because spherical surfaces are not the ideal shape with which to make a lens, but they are by far the simplest shape to which glass can be ground and polished and so are often used. Spherical aberration causes beams parallel to, but distant from, the lens axis to be focused in a slightly different place than beams close to the axis. This manifests itself as a blurring of the image. Lenses in which closer-to-ideal, non-spherical surfaces are used are called aspheric lenses. These were formerly complex to make and often extremely expensive, but advances in technology have greatly reduced the manufacturing cost for such lenses. Spherical aberration can be minimised by careful choice of the curvature of the surfaces for a particular application: for instance, a plano-convex lens which is used to focus a collimated beam produces a sharper focal spot when used with the convex side towards the beam source.
Another type of aberration is coma, which derives its name from the comet-like appearance of the aberrated image. Coma occurs when an object off the optical axis of the lens is imaged, where rays pass through the lens at an angle to the axis θ. Rays which pass through the centre of the lens of focal length f are focused at a point with distance f tan θ from the axis. Rays passing through the outer margins of the lens are focused at different points, either further from the axis (positive coma) or closer to the axis (negative coma). In general, a bundle of parallel rays passing through the lens at a fixed distance from the centre of the lens are focused to a ring-shaped image in the focal plane, known as a comatic circle. The sum of all these circles results in a V-shaped or comet-like flare. As with spherical aberration, coma can be minimised (and in some cases eliminated) by choosing the curvature of the two lens surfaces to match the application. Lenses in which both spherical aberration and coma are minimised are called bestform lenses.
Chromatic aberration is caused by the dispersion of the lens material—the variation of its refractive index, n, with the wavelength of light. Since, from the formulae above, f is dependent upon n, it follows that different wavelengths of light will be focused to different positions. Chromatic aberration of a lens is seen as fringes of colour around the image. It can be minimised by using an achromatic doublet (or achromat) in which two materials with differing dispersion are bonded together to form a single lens. This reduces the amount of chromatic aberration over a certain range of wavelengths, though it does not produce perfect correction. The use of achromats was an important step in the development of the optical microscope. An apochromat is a lens or lens system which has even better correction of chromatic aberration, combined with improved correction of spherical aberration. Apochromats are much more expensive than achromats.
Different lens materials may also be used to minimise chromatic aberration, such as specialised coatings or lenses made from the crystal fluorite. This naturally occurring substance has the highest known Abbe number, indicating that the material has low dispersion.
Other types of aberration
Even if a lens is designed to minimize or eliminate the aberrations described above, the image quality is still limited by the diffraction of light passing through the lens' finite aperture. A diffraction-limited lens is one in which aberrations have been reduced to the point where the image quality is primarily limited by diffraction under the design conditions.
Simple lenses are subject to the optical aberrations discussed above. In many cases these aberrations can be compensated for to a great extent by using a combination of simple lenses with complementary aberrations. A compound lens is a collection of simple lenses of different shapes and made of materials of different refractive indices, arranged one after the other with a common axis.
The simplest case is where lenses are placed in contact: if the lenses of focal lengths f1 and f2 are "thin", the combined focal length f of the lenses is given by
Since 1/f is the power of a lens, it can be seen that the powers of thin lenses in contact are additive.
If two thin lenses are separated in air by some distance d, the focal length for the combined system is given by
The distance from the second lens to the focal point of the combined lenses is called the back focal length (BFL).
As d tends to zero, the value of the BFL tends to the value of f given for thin lenses in contact.
If the separation distance is equal to the sum of the focal lengths (d = f1+f2), the combined focal length and BFL are infinite. This corresponds to a pair of lenses that transform a parallel (collimated) beam into another collimated beam. This type of system is called an afocal system, since it produces no net convergence or divergence of the beam. Two lenses at this separation form the simplest type of optical telescope. Although the system does not alter the divergence of a collimated beam, it does alter the width of the beam. The magnification of such a telescope is given by
which is the ratio of the input beam width to the output beam width. Note the sign convention: a telescope with two convex lenses (f1 > 0, f2 > 0) produces a negative magnification, indicating an inverted image. A convex plus a concave lens (f1 > 0 > f2) produces a positive magnification and the image is upright.
A Fresnel lens has its optical surface broken up into narrow rings, allowing the lens to be much thinner and lighter than conventional lenses. Durable Fresnel lenses can be molded from plastic, and are inexpensive.
A gradient index lens has flat optical surfaces, but has a radial or axial variation in index of refraction that causes light passing through the lens to be focused.
A single convex lens mounted in a frame with a handle or stand is a magnifying glass.
Lenses are used as prosthetics for the correction of visual impairments such as myopia, hyperopia, presbyopia, and astigmatism. (See corrective lens, contact lens, eyeglasses.) Most lenses used for other purposes have strict axial symmetry; eyeglass lenses are only approximately symmetric. They are usually shaped to fit in a roughly oval, not circular, frame; the optical centres are placed over the eyeballs; their curvature may not be axially symmetric to correct for astigmatism. Sunglasses' lenses are designed to attenuate light; sunglass lenses that also correct visual impairments can be custom made.
Other uses are in imaging systems such as monoculars, binoculars, telescopes, microscopes, cameras and projectors. Some of these instruments produce a virtual image when applied to the human eye; others produce a real image which can be captured on photographic film or an optical sensor, or can be viewed on a screen. In these devices lenses are sometimes paired up with curved mirrors to make a catadioptric system where the lenses spherical aberration corrects the opposite aberration in the mirror (such as Schmidt and meniscus correctors).
Convex lenses produce an image of an object at infinity at their focus; if the sun is imaged, much of the visible and infrared light incident on the lens is concentrated into the small image. A large lens will create enough intensity to burn a flammable object at the focal point. Since ignition can be achieved even with a poorly made lens, lenses have been used as burning-glasses for at least 2400 years. A modern application is the use of relatively large lenses to concentrate solar energy on relatively small photovoltaic cells, harvesting more energy without the need to use larger and more expensive cells.
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- Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (trans. John Bostock) Book XXXVII, Chap. 16
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- Applied photographic optics Book
- The properties of optical glass
- Handbook of Ceramics, Glasses, and Diamonds
- Optical glass construction
- History of Optics (audio mp3) by Simon Schaffer, Professor in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, Jim Bennett, Director of the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford and Emily Winterburn, Curator of Astronomy at the National Maritime Museum (recorded by the BBC).
- a chapter from an online textbook on refraction and lenses
- Thin Spherical Lenses on Project PHYSNET.
- Lens article at digitalartform.com
- Article on Ancient Egyptian lenses
- picture of the Ninive rock crystal lens
- Do Sensors “Outresolve” Lenses?; on lens and sensor resolution interaction.
- Fundamental optics
- FDTD Animation of Electromagnetic Propagation through Convex Lens (on- and off-axis) on YouTube
- The Use of Magnifying Lenses in the Classical World
- Learning by Simulations – Concave and Convex Lenses
- OpticalRayTracer – Open source lens simulator (downloadable java)
- Video with a simulation of light while it passes a convex lens
- Animations demonstrating lens by QED