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How To Read An MTF Chart

Modulation Transfer Perform (MTF) – A chart that displays the potential optical performance and traits of a lens across its aperture vary.

Most of you’ll have come across MTF charts when visiting lens manufacturer’s web sites, or studying a lens assessment.  At first look, they seem like fairly complicated, however as soon as you realize the which means of the varied parts, they’re truly a simple method to gauge and examine the potential efficiency of specific lenses.  I promise they don’t seem to be as complicated as they first appear!



To perceive what an MTF chart represents when it comes to lens quality, first we have to know a bit of more concerning the chart itself, and what the axis mean. The x-axis (horizontal), represents the space from the centre to the nook of a picture.  The horizontal axis for all full frame lenses would be the similar, since all manufacturers use 24mm x 36mm sensors.  APS-C sensors differ although, with Nikon using 1.5x cropped sensors, while Canon makes use of 1.6x.  The diagram under represents a full body sensor and utilizing Pythagorus’ theorem, c=√(a2+b2), we all know that the space from the centre of the sensor to the nook is 21.6mm.  MTF charts for full frame lenses subsequently function the markings zero, 5, 10, 15 and 20, with knowledge continuing just a bit past the 20 mark (to 21.6).

full frame mtf chart

Full body sensor measurement

Some producers make lenses which are only useable on APS-C measurement sensors, like Canon EF-S lenses for example.  MTF charts for crop sensor lenses could have a special scale on the x-axis that varies relying on the producer.  Canon’s present 1.6x crop APS-C sensor produces a measurement of 13.5mm from a sensor measurement of 22.4mm x 15mm, whilst Nikon’s (and other manufacturer’s) 1.5x crop sensor provides us a measurement of 14.2mm from a sensor measurement of 23.7mm x 15.6mm.  You’ll be able to shortly inform an APS-C MTF chart aside by the numbers on the size of the x-axis. Nikon ones may have zero, 3, 6, 9 and 12, whilst Canon could have 0, 5, 10 and 13.

aps-c mtf chart

1.6x and 1.5x crop sensor measurement

Observe: Canon has additionally produced APS-C sensors with a sizing of 22.5× and 22.2×14.eight.  This might produce a really slightly totally different wanting MTF chart as the dimensions of the x-axis can be totally different by a couple of tenths of a millimetre but the whole numbers on the x-axis remain the identical: zero, 5, 10 and 13.  I’m only mentioning it because it’s some extent that confused the heck out of me whilst I was researching this text, and stored reading totally different diagonal sensor lengths quoted for Canon sensors. 🙂

Utilizing full frame lenses on an APS-C digital camera?

In the event you plan on capturing with an APS-C digital camera for the foreseeable future, there’s a very good probability that you simply gained’t just be taking a look at lenses that solely work on crop cameras.  You possibly can nonetheless use an MTF chart for a full body lens to make a comparison to an APS-C only lens.  All it’s a must to keep in mind is that on the x-axis, there isn’t a point wanting past the measurements at 13.5mm for Canon, and 14.2mm for all different 1.5x cameras.  The whole lot as much as that time, is what it is possible for you to to see by way of your digital camera.  In reality this demonstrates one of many benefits of an APS-C digital camera, in that a lens loses resolution and sharpness in the direction of the sides, but with a full frame lens on a crop sensor digital camera, your picture gained’t ever attain that far!  That’s why vignetting, chromatic aberration and common sharpness seem better on the sides of an image shot with an APS-C digital camera.


Resolution And Distinction

Before we dig deeper into the which means of the y-axis, we’d like some elementary understanding about distinction, resolution and the way this impacts our photographs.  We are likely to assume in quite simple terms about lenses: are they sharp or not?  The truth is that our perception of sharpness is affected by both contrast and determination, and a very good lens needs to have each in order for it to seem sharp.

  • Contrast – The power to differentiate between darkish and lightweight topic ranges

  • Decision – The power to breed fantastic detail

A lens with low contrast and high decision is not any good, and neither is a high distinction lens with low decision.  It’s essential for producers to strike a stability between these two standards. There lies one of the largest challenges in optical design because on the excessive end of performance, a change that results in a rise in one in every of them can typically result in a decrease within the different!

Take this photograph of my canine under for instance.  For the purposes of demonstration, I’ve lowered the distinction of the image manually in Photoshop.  The picture doesn’t look like that sharp, however it was truly shot with a Canon 300mm f/2.eight L IS II, Canon’s sharpest lens ever!  The effective details stay in the image as a result of this can be a lens that delivers unimaginable decision, however when the contrast is lowered, it quantities to very little.  We’d like both distinction AND resolution to realize “sharpness”.

What is nice about MTF charts is that they show us each of this stuff!



Low contrast



As-shot distinction

I’ve typically had individuals take a look at my iPhone pictures on social media channels and say “wow, that’s sharp!” when the pictures have been edited to provide more ‘pop’ and contrast.  You might nicely have experienced the same thing and as a photographer, I feel to myself… no it isn’t! I know that an iPhone photograph isn’t even near being as sharp as an image from my DSLR, however contrast can do wonders for what we name, perceived sharpness.  You might make a superb argument that a lens with high contrast is best than a lens with excessive decision.  I definitely discover it more once I get a lens which delivers exceptional contrast.  Relating to professional lenses, I’ve to actually pixel peep to see the distinction in decision lately, however increased contrast jumps right out at me from the display.

Measuring Contrast & Decision

An MTF chart is actually a graphical representation of a lens’ distinction and determination throughout the entire picture, and typically the chart will even present these results for two totally different apertures.  However now that we all know that each of this stuff are necessary, how are they measured?

Optical software or physical check benches measure a lens’ means to reproduce an image that accommodates a set of repeating black and white strains, referred to as line pairs.  Line pair patterns are outlined by their spacing, how many strains there are in a single millimetre. Usually, lens producers check with patterns of 10 strains/mm and 30 strains/mm.  Typically you may see these written as 10 lpm and 30 lpm.


(representations only, spacing not correct)

The decrease 10 strains/mm sample checks for contrast, because the strains are spaced far sufficient apart that any half-decent lens will resolve them with no hassle, their accuracy of copy merely comes right down to the lens’ capability to display contrast.  The higher 30 strains/mm pattern is an effective check for decision.  Imagine 30 strains within the area of 1 millimetre!  That’s some high quality detail!

Since we know what the check sample should seem like, the image that is captured in testing is compared to this good representation of the strains.  The MTF score is a proportion score of how nicely the lens was capable of reproduce the check sample.  A rating of 100 can be an ideal rating, and this rating is what provides us the values to plot the curves on an MTF chart.  The copy checks are carried out with each sets of line pairs, positioned at totally different distances from the centre of the lens.  Not that difficult now you realize, right?

The vertical axis of an MTF chart is often annotated with decimals from 0 to 1, however truly these numbers are representative of percentages from zero% to 100%.  The nearer the info level gets to 1, the nearer it is to good decision and distinction.  An ideal MTF chart would have good distinction and determination right from the centre of the image, to the nook.

a perfect MTF chart

A theoretical good MTF chart


A extra typical MTF chart

Sagittal And Meridional Testing

Now we know what we are testing, how it’s examined and how it’s plotted on an MTF chart.  There’s another piece to this puzzle although because lenses truly reproduce effective detail and contrast in several quantities, depending on the orientation of the check patterns (or some other subject for that matter).  This presents us with a problem: Can we just use one standardized orientation of the strains, can we check quite a lot of orientations and present a mean outcome, or can we show outcomes from multiple orientations on the graph so you’ll be able to truly see by how much the distinction and determination modifications?

The reply is, for all major lens manufacturers, the latter choice.  Check patterns are oriented in two alternative ways which are perpendicular to each other and outcomes are recorded and plotted for each these reproductions.  The 2 orientations are referred to as Sagittal and Meridional, and because of this an MTF chart from a lens manufacturer could have a minimum of 4 strains on it:

  • 10 strains/mm Sagittal
  • 10 strains/mm Meridional
  • 30 strains/mm Sagittal
  • 30 strains/mm Meridional

The sagittal outcomes will all the time be larger than the meridional ones  and it ought to be famous that the orientations are very specific.  Sagittal signifies that the check sample strains run parallel to a line operating from the centre of the image to the nook, and meridional strains are perpendicular to that diagonal.  This produces results for both the best-case state of affairs, and the worst-case state of affairs, so it provides us probably the most correct overview for any variation.

sagittal and meridional

Distinction and determination is now examined in both sample orientations throughout the width of the picture.  As the sagittal and meridional strains on an MTF chart begin to diverge, referred to as astigmatism, it’s successfully telling us that the amount of image deterioration occurring as we strategy the sting of the lens, isn’t the identical in all directions.  Think about it like this: If your image is going to be a bit of bit blurry, you’d no less than hope that the blur happens in equal amounts in all directions, right?  In any other case it’s going to trigger a slight distortion impact in your subject.  That’s astigmatism, and it’s not good!  In reality it’s stated that astigmatism is one ingredient in the magical recipe for ‘good’ bokeh.

With the ability to see how shortly the sagittal and meridional strains diverge throughout a picture, can start to give us our first clues about distortion. Typically astigmatism may be brought on by lateral chromatic aberration as properly (LCA).  We usually think of chromatic aberrations as being one thing we will scale back through the use of a smaller aperture, however lateral aberrations are actually unbiased of aperture and may trigger pink/cyan color fringing that needs to be eliminated in publish production.  If these colored fringes appear in the check charts then this causes a decrease MTF rating because, in fact, the colors will not be present in unique check sample.  Robust astigmatism is a positive signal of lateral chromatic aberration in a lens.

And that’s it!  With the mixture of contrast and determination exams, with both sagittal and meridional line orientation, we will get a superb concept as to how a lens will perform when it comes to our perceived sharpness.  Totally different producers do things barely in a different way when it comes to how they show their charts, so the subsequent section will walk by means of this for the preferred brands.

This diagram sums up the testing process fairly properly, displaying which checks are performed, and where.

mtf chart testing procedure

Before I knew any higher, I assumed that the strains on an MTF chart have been a lens’ efficiency at quite a lot of apertures.  From asking a number of different photographers earlier than scripting this piece, this appears to be a reasonably widespread false impression, or ought to I say… half false impression.  The truth is the strains solely symbolize two totally different aperture values, and that’s provided that we’re talking Canon’s charts!  Canon chooses to show check results for a lens at two totally different apertures, whereas Nikon and some other producers show solely the vast open performance.

How To Read Canon MTF Charts

Black strains characterize results for a lens at its widest potential aperture, and blue strains characterize results at f/8.  Why f/8, you may ask?  Properly that is sometimes though of as being the “sweet spot” of a lens, when it comes to image sharpness.  Smaller apertures begin to endure from diffraction, and whilst a lens’ sweet spot may range considerably based mostly on the worth of its maximum aperture, it’s a reasonably protected guess to say that f/eight is going to be simply concerning the sharpest worth.

As you’ll be able to see though, there’s extra to it than merely black and blue.  There are 4 line variations inside every color: thick and skinny, strong and dotted.

Strong strains characterize results from meridional exams, whereas the dotted strains present sagittal results, as discussed earlier on within the article.


  • Black strains – Outcomes at widest attainable aperture
  • Blue strains – Outcomes at f/eight (“sweet spot”)
  • Strong strains -Meridional outcomes
  • Dotted strains – Sagittal results
  • Thick strains – 10 strains/mm
  • Thin strains – 30 strains/mm

(Word: Should you simply skipped proper right down to this half, you’ll in all probability need to again up a bit and skim concerning the Meridional and Sagittal exams with the thicker and thinner line sets. Sorry to be a bore, however it’s essential!)

How To Read Nikon MTF Charts

how to read a nikon mtf chart

Nikon MTF charts solely present results for the lens with a wide open aperture.  Handily, they are typically revealed with a key, so you don’t want to recollect precisely what each line represents.  Personally, I discover the shortage of a second set of results for a second aperture to be a loss.  One of the great indicators of a lens’ high quality is how properly the lens performs large open, in comparison with its full potential when within the sweet spot.  While it’s better to have broad open results than just outcomes from the candy spot, I do wish Nikon would offer each like everybody else.

  • Pink strains – 10 strains/mm
  • Blue strains – 30 strains/mm
  • Strong line – Sagittal results
  • Dotted line – Meridional outcomes

How To Read Sony And Zeiss MTF Charts

While most of the MTF charts from Sony and Zeiss appear to be more durable to track down, they really present us with even more info than the Canon charts do. What’s extra, within the case of the Zeiss lenses a minimum of, the charts are stated to be generated from checks of real sample lenses, in contrast to Canon’s theoretical values.  For those which might be , Zeiss has a posh white paper on MTF charts here.


Sony MTF Chart

For these charts, we even have outcomes for 3 totally different line thicknesses, as well as meridional and sagittal results at two totally different apertures.  This yields a complete of 12 totally different strains so they are cut up onto two charts to avoid confusion.  It must be noted that while Sony exhibits outcomes at most aperture and f/eight, just as Canon does, Zeiss’ second stopped down aperture truly varies depending on the lens. It’s not all the time f/8!

Notice that here on this chart, Sony is referring to sagittal as radial, and meridional as tangential! While under, Zeiss chooses to use the sagittal and tangential terminology. Just to attempt to confuse you!


Zeiss MTF Chart

As we will see in this Zeiss MTF sample, the secondary aperture is chosen to be f/5.6.  Zeiss MTF charts additionally are typically in black and white, so you actually should know that they plot outcomes for three totally different line thicknesses, simply as Sony does: 10, 20 and 40 lp/mm.  Because the thinest line results (40 lm/mm) will all the time be on the bottom, you don’t actually need totally different colours.

Other Producers


Tamron MTF chart for a zoom lens, displaying max aperture outcomes at each ends of the zoom spectrum

The very fact is that most people studying this can shoot Canon, Nikon or Sony, and each producer has a barely totally different means of doing things. I’d love to offer info on every manufacturer’s methods, but in the mean time it’s not practical.  Having stated that, there’s more than enough info in the three varieties I have defined, to have the ability to decipher another manufacturer MTF charts.  Tamron, Fuji, Panasonic and Olympus all have comparable methods that use either similar charts to one of many massive three, or use a mixture of them that is straightforward sufficient to know with the knowledge that’s offered here.

Totally different brands, totally different charts…

Unfortunately it’s not attainable for us to make use of MTF charts to match lenses from totally different brands.  While the testing procedures inside a selected brand are intently managed, there isn’t a industrywide standardization.  Is the Nikon 70-200 f/2.eight sharper than the Canon 70-200 f/2.eight?  That’s one thing we simply can’t tell from MTF results since Canon base their charts on theoretical values for a lens, whilst Nikon base theirs on precise measurements from a set of lenses.  Given the expensive nature of correct optical check benches, it’s additionally not info that’s all the time out there online.

MTF Chart Limitations & A Conclusion

MTF charts can, at a quick look, give us a primary impression of the sharpness of a lens.  What they will’t do though, is give us an impression of what you may loosely name ‘quality’.  The quality of a lens doesn’t have a selected definition, or unit of measurement.  It’s made up of far more than just sharpness!  Vignetting, susceptibility to flare, chromatic aberrations and distortion, all contribute to the general high quality of a lens.  Whether a lens is best for you shouldn’t just be concerning the results you’ll be able to see on an MTF chart.  It’s necessary to take note of the other elements as properly, and usually these should be discovered by either studying the evaluations of trusted web sites and magazines or by renting a lens and making an attempt it for yourself. While it’s true that issues like distortion, aberrations and vignetting might be shortly fastened in packages like Adobe Lightroom, there’s a slight lack of high quality when this occurs.  To most, it’s imperceptible, but in case you are placing collectively a digital camera package with the utmost image quality in thoughts, then it will probably grow to be an element.  I used to personal the Canon 85mm f/1.8 for example, however it exhibited an unacceptable quantity of chromatic aberration, for me a minimum of, regardless of being razor sharp on the MTF charts.  It bugged me enough that I bought the lens.

Your personal photographic material also needs to factor into your determination. For instance, astrophotographers would need to pay shut consideration to vignetting performance, since brightening darkish skies within the corners of excessive ISO photographs can contribute appreciable noise to the ultimate image.  Again, something you merely couldn’t know from an MTF chart alone.

These charts are a superb start line to your lens research, and very often a lens with a high MTF efficiency does perform properly in other areas, however it should not be assumed.

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