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Focal length

A measure of the distance, in millimeters, between the optical centre of the lens and the camera’s sensor.

The focal length of an optical system is a measure of how strongly the system converges or diverges light. For an optical system in air, it is the distance over which initially collimated (parallel) rays are brought to a focus. A system with a shorter focal length has greater optical power than one with a long focal length; that is, it bends the rays more sharply, bringing them to a focus in a shorter distance.

In most photography and all telescopy, where the subject is essentially infinitely far away, longer focal length (lower optical power) leads to higher magnification and a narrower angle of view; conversely, shorter focal length or higher optical power is associated with lower magnification and a wider angle of view. On the other hand, in applications such as microscopy in which magnification is achieved by bringing the object close to the lens, a shorter focal length (higher optical power) leads to higher magnification because the subject can be brought closer to the center of projection.

Camera lens focal lengths are usually specified in millimetres (mm), but some older lenses are marked in centimetres (cm) or inches.

Focal length (f) and field of view (FOV) of a lens are inversely proportional. For a standard rectilinear lens, FOV = 2 arctan x/2f, where x is the diagonal of the film.

When a photographic lens is set to "infinity", its rear nodal point is separated from the sensor or film, at the focal plane, by the lens's focal length. Objects far away from the camera then produce sharp images on the sensor or film, which is also at the image plane.

Key Terms

distance
film
focal length
focus
lens
magnification
optical power
rays
subject
system

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Focal length
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Last modified on May 14 2019
Content adapted from Wikipedia
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