Mastering the Art of Lens Testing – 8. Spherical aberration

What it is

Spherical lens elements are easy and cheap to produce and test, for manufacturers. But they have one problem: light rays at the periphery of the lens come to focus closer or further than those at the center (instead of all coming to focus at exactly the same point on the axis). This is called spherical aberration.


What it does to the image

The central rays come to focus at one point, and the outer rays further up (or down) along the axis, creating a little blob of light around the central point. So a point in the image is imaged with a hazy halo, and really small detailed are slightly blurred and a light veil is visible, which uniformly softens the global contrast.





How to test for it

Spherical aberration produces a veil over highlights that can be difficult to tell from misfocusing. See below, a frame made at full aperture with the Leica Summicron-R 50/2 (full frame and enlargement).




Out of focus highlights are more useful tell-tales of the presence of spherical aberration. In a lens with spherical aberration, out of focus highlights have an outer ring instead of being uniformly bright. You can see this on the enlargement of the rev counter (speedo ?) and handlebars, below.





Combination of spherical aberration and chromatic aberration produces what is known as spherochromatisicm, which is characterised by out of focus highlights with a pinkish outer ring and greenish inner disk. This happens because spherical aberration is corrected to a different degree for various colours.




So, the best way to test for spherical aberration, in its various forms, if a lens if showing blurry images, if to shoot out of focus highlights and analyse the shape of the blur patterns.

Another symptom is uniformity over the field. While sharpness naturally declines from center to corner in almost all lenses, spherical aberration is more constant all over the frame. And it disappears when you stop down.


How to cure it

Spherical aberration is highly desirable in some lenses, because it softens the look of the image. The Leica Summicron-R 50/2 mentioned above is loved because if its ability to produce a soft-ish image wide open and critically sharp one closed down. An artist lens. See the image below, made with the same lens at f/8 and sharp enough to cut through steel.




Not all lenses with spherical aberration manage to sharpen-up so drastically, but stopping down the lens is essentially the only way to get rid of the aberration (it blocks-out the outer rays). It is almost impossible in post-processing.

Unfortunately, spherical aberration can be responsible for focus-shift, so make sure you refocus your shot if you stop-down.



  • Yeahhh says:

    What about veiling haze of in-focus highlights? Is that also spherical aberration? I have an old Tessar design lens and it’s only usable from F/4 onwards. But than it’s excellent sharp. I’m struggling with that particular lens because when you peep into the off-focus areas it’s full of spherical and chromatic aberration, with green outlines and certain harshness … but when you look at the picture at a whole, it looks very natural and pleasing to my eye.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, haze of in-focus highlights is often a sign of spherical aberration.
      It possible that lenses made for the film era and small enlargements look quite ugly when blown up to 100% on a high pixel count sensor but retain their lovely global look. That’s the main danger of pixel-peeping. It actually tells us very little about the reality of the imaging qualities of the lens.

  • Steve says:

    Thanks for the series, Pascal, most enjoyable and easy to follow.
    I’ve got some ‘heritage’ Minolta lenses that I’ll be using on my NEX7 (with adaptor).
    It will be interesting to see which of the aberrations they throw up (and whether I can ‘cure’ them in Lightroom!).

  • Cedy says:

    Very educational and well done. Is there a page where I can see links to each installment? Or do I have to hang on to the emails. These will be good to refer to often.

  • Micheal says:

    Agree with the above comments, excellent series. I too, will be hanging on to the e-mails for reference. Through gifts and local purchases I have a few lenses to practice looking for the different features and how I will handle them. Or, even recognize some of them.

    Thanks again for the series.


  • Paul says:

    One more note of thanks for this series. You’ve explained a diverse range of complicated phenomena in clear and understandable terms. My knowledge of lens design and testing is significantly improved as a result. Many thanks!


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