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Understanding Lens Diffraction

Monday, March 30th, 2015 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography, Photo Editing

In this tip, I’m going to tackle lens diffraction. I’ll explain what it is and the practical applications for your photography. There’s a lot of misconceptions about this topic. I want to kick the myths to the curb and give you the real scoop.

First: What is diffraction? When photographers speak about the effects of diffraction, they usually mean the softening of an image as you use smaller and smaller f- stops.


On the surface it seems straightforward, but it can be a real source of confusion for a lot of folks. As you stop your lens down to progressively smaller f-stops like 16, 22, 32 etc… you start to lost some sharpness in the overall photo.


In the example below I grabbed an old map and took a couple of quick photos.  Both images are 100% crops. The image on the left was at F5.6 and the image on the right was at F22. Note the loss of detail in the image on the right.  You’ll notice that the letters aren’t nearly as crisp. Also note the loss of clarity on the lines of the map.


What caused diffraction? To put it as simply as possible, when a light wave hits an obstacle like the edge of an aperture blade, it starts to disperse. This has the effect of changing the various wavelengths so they have to travel different distances and they begin to interfere with each other.


When this happens, there’s a loss of sharpness. The bottom line: the smaller the opening, the more the light diffracts and the more softening you see in your photos. And that’s the part you have to worry about.

I’m much better at showing the telling, so I’m going to explain a little bit more about why this happens, answer common questions about diffraction in a helpful video I’ve put together. Click here to watch the video.

If you’d like more great tips on wildlife photography check out my new guide, Secrets To Stunning Wildlife Photography

~ Steve

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