Optic Components & Image Quality
No other factor determines
image quality more than the lenses in the optic. There is a vast array
of conditions that ultimately determines the overall performance. As the
precision and quality of the mountings, lenses, coatings, and glass increases
so does the cost. Light passes through and reflects on glass surfaces
with multiple effects. The challenge is to utilize the light entering
the optic and focus it into an image with minimal loss to obtain as bright
and sharp an image as possible.
The different colors (or wavelengths)
of light pass through the lenses and bend at slightly different angles,
similar to a prism. Several lenses of different types of glass and designs
are required to get each of the basic colors to focus correctly in the
image. Uncorrected elements produce blurred images with distortions and
muddied colors. Special types of glass are now commonly used to help alleviate
some of the distortions and problems associated with the light passing
through lenses. Optic manufacturers are progressively using more exotic,
very dense (ED, HD, SD, etc.) glass and minerals such as fluorite (CaF2)
along with sophisticated designs to solve these problems.
The mirrors (or prisms) within
an optic are just as important as the lenses. Some of the inherent problems
associated with the mountings were addressed previously in the discussion
(Basics I) of
the differences between Porro and Roof Prism designs.
Like the lenses the mirrors
must also be coated to prevent the scatter of light. Roof prism designs
generally also include anti-phase shifting coatings that prevent an interference
problem associated with this type of optic. Other special coatings are
also applied to the mirrors of optics to improve light transmission. Since,
as consumers, we do not get to choose the type of process the mirrors
receive we do not address these in detail although it should be noted
that they are important to image quality.
Lower priced optics will often
use BK7 prisms where better optics use BAK4 prisms. BK7 prisms produce
an exit pupil with shaded edges. The BAK4 prism projects a nice round
exit pupil (see Figure #1). In bright daylight where your eye pupils are
smaller than the exit pupil of the optic, you may not notice this distortion.
As the light level drops and your eye pupils become larger, this aberration
becomes more apparent around the edges of your view with BK7 prisms.
As noted previously, whenever
light is transmitted through a lens, some light reflects from the lens
surface and is lost. Thin coatings are deposited on the lens faces to
reduce reflective loss and improve light transmission. With the large
number of lenses in a binocular or scope, these coatings can be as important
as the quality of the lens itself. Without these coatings, each lens may
lose up to 5% of the light. Lenses with multi-coatings may reduce this
loss to tenths of a percent. Thus, a poor optic may loose as much as 35%
of the light entering the objective where quality designs may lose less
than 5% total.
The coatings also improve the
image quality since the reflected light bouncing around in the interior
of the optic washes out detail and blurs colors. Manufacturers of quality
optics add several thin coatings (as many as 7) to optimize transmission
of each of the basic colors. The coatings typically described in the literature
are defined in the following ways:
Coated (C) Optics
A thin anti-reflective coating
(usually of Magnesium Fluorite) is deposited on one or more of the lens
Fully Coated (FC) Optics
At least one thin anti-reflective
coating coating on both sides of the objective lens system, both sides
of the ocular lens system, and the long side of the prism.
Multi-coated (MC) Optics
One or more of the lens surfaces
have multiple coatings. Even some of the best optics have only a single
coating on the outside lens surface. This is done under the theory that
a single coating is harder, more durable and the light reflected from
the outer surface does not affect image contrast.
Fully-multi-coated (FMC) Optics
All lens surfaces have multiple
coatings. This is generally the case with the top-of-the-line optics.
This does not guarantee the best quality, (quality is in the execution!)
but it is an indicator that greater care and thought has gone into the
In conclusion, optical coatings
are extremely important to delivering a sharp and bright image. Some coating
schemes simply work better than others. An FMC 8 x 35 binocular can actually
appear both sharper and brighter than a 8 x 42 binocular with poor coatings.
Modern optics generally do
a good job at presenting a normal image to the eye, although an absolutely
perfect image is close to impossible, even with modern materials. Lenses
have curved surfaces to focus the light. Thus, presenting a flat image
to the eye can be a challenge. As you move from the center towards the
edges, the image tends to stretch out... much as a map does. These distortions
are called Curvature of Field and are probably the most common
Field is probably the least damaging to the view since it is most
obvious only very close to the edges. It is commonly noticed when you
have a straight object, like a telephone pole, at the edge of the view.
In this case, the image of the telephone pole will begin to curve slightly
as it nears the edge of the view. Since most of us center what we are
looking at, this is usually not a big problem.
The problem is more of a nuisance
when the edges of the view also focus at a different point than the center.
This is most common with wide-angle designs. Sometimes it is impossible
to get the center of the field of view in focus at the same time as the
edges. There are optics on the market, including wide-angle designs, that
completely alleviate this distortion although they are both heavy and
expensive. Most optics deal with this type of distortion quite well and
it does not generally cause any great problems.
Two other types of distortions
that should be mentioned here are pincushion and barrel
distortions. These are not commonly noticed in modern optic designs. They
are caused by the center and edge of the field of view being at different
magnifications. The variations in magnification causes the whole view
to slightly distort from center to edge and draw shapes out of true perspective.
Specifically, barrel distortions magnify the center of an image
more than the edges causing it to "bow out". Pincushiondistortions
magnify the center of an image less than the edges causing it to "bow
Aberrations are similar to
distortions and the terms are sometimes interchanged. Strictly speaking,
aberrations are considered to be a result of an intrinsic defect prohibiting
all of the information from an object to be focused orderly in the image.
This results in reduced image sharpness and color-smear or loss of definition.
Chromatic aberration is most
commonly mentioned since it is the most obvious. As was noted earlier,
different colors of light bend at slightly different angles when they
pass through a normal lens. Uncorrected, this produces an image with a
muddy fringe of unfocused light. The overall damage to the true colors
and contrast can be dramatic since this muddy fringe is actually happening
throughout the whole image. Most optics deal with this problem by using
a pair of achromatic lenses. These are lenses made of different glasses,
each one keyed to bringing a different color into focus.
Low-dispersion (ED, HD, SD,
etc.) glasses are becoming more popular. These high-density glasses reduce
color separations dramatically. Contrary to achromatic lenses that key
on focusing specific spectra of light, these new high-density glasses
greatly reduce color separation altogether. They are not perfect nor do
they completely eliminate chromatic aberration, but they produce an observable
difference over standard achromatic lenses. These new materials combined
with complex designs produce optimum color fidelity and contrast.
Another aberration receiving
more attention is coma. The results of this are that light that passes
through the center of a lens can be focused to a point. The light the
passes through the lens off-axis (at an angle) will not focus to a point
and look like a fuzzy circle. The further off-axis the more the light
smears, giving objects a comet-like look. This is not to be confused with
curvature of field and cannot be focused out. This is generally fairly
well-controlled in modern optics.
Last is spherical aberration,
that results from the actual curvature of the lens. A spherical lens surface
focuses the light from the edge of the lens to a closer focal point than
the light from the center of the lens. The result is an image lacking
sharpness, detail and brightness. The solution to the problem is to add
another lens in the path with a complex curve computed to correct the
Often you hear the term "residual
aberration". This term is used as a "catch all" to describe
combinations of aberrations that are not fully dealt with in the design.
Residual aberrations lead to all the negative optical outcomes described
above. In combination we get a sort of optical mud. The images lack sharpness,
true colors, detail, contrast, etc. Optics manufacturers are getting better
at resolving these problems through both design and materials but there
is no optic that completely eliminates all distortions and aberrations.
Modern optics may have as many
as 10 pieces of glass serving different functions and most have at least
6. Proper alignment of all the elements, including the mirrors, will determine
the final image quality. The position of all these elements must be precise
in order for them to function and do what they are supposed to do. Each
element must also be held and secured firmly. If the alignment shifts,
the image quality suffers no matter how well the lenses were designed
In scopes, the distances are
larger than with binoculars and slight misalignments can dramatically
degrade image quality. With binoculars, the two barrels that must match
so that the same image, focused to the same point and size, reaches our
eyes. Our eyes may not be perfectly aligned and our brain will make some
adjustments to differences between the images reaching our eyes. Improper
alignment causes fatigue, eyestrain, inferior or double images and even
The term for the alignment
between the barrels of a binocular is “collimation”. Collimation is
a measure of how exactly parallel the barrels are mounted. The barrels
are hinged so that they can be adjusted to suit the differentdistances
between people’s pupils. This hinge must be precise to maintain collimation
between the barrels and eliminate slop or play in their position. Low-priced
optics often have trouble with consistently accurate barrel placement.
The layman test for proper
barrel collimation or alignment is to look through the binoculars backwards
(through the objective lenses) and try to sight on a horizontal line.
If the alignment is not correct, the line will not be straight as seen
through both objectives (the view through one side will be tilted).
- The lenses in optics are
of critical importance. New materials are providing images with enhanced
purity of colors and contrast.
- Lens coatings can be as important
as the lenses themselves. The coatings improve light transmission and
reduce internal light scatter that degrade image quality and brightness.
- Distortions are less damaging
to image quality and are becoming better controlled with modern optics.
- Residual aberrations are
mostly a combination of 3 common intrinsic defects. They cause poor
image quality, contrast and reduce color fidelity.
- Precise and secure alignment
of elements is critical to the optic performance. If the elements move,
the image quality suffers.
- Poor barrel collimation causes
fatigue and can be difficult to notice. The hinge must firmly secure
the barrels in parallel position and eliminate sideways play.
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