Spherical aberration

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Optical aberration
Barrel distortion.svg Distortion

Spherical aberration 3.svg Spherical aberration
Lens coma.svg Coma
Astigmatism.svg Astigmatism
Field curvature.svg Petzval field curvature
Chromatic aberration lens diagram.svg Chromatic aberration
Out-of-focus image of a spoke target..svg Defocus
HartmannShack 1lenslet.svg Tilt

Not to be confused with barrel distortion, in which the image appears to be warped onto a sphere.

Spherical aberration is an optical effect observed in an optical device (lens, mirror, etc.) that occurs due to the increased refraction of light rays when they strike a lens or a reflection of light rays when they strike a mirror near its edge, in comparison with those that strike nearer the centre. It signifies a deviation of the device from the norm, i.e., it results in an imperfection of the produced image.

On top is a depiction of a perfect lens without spherical aberration: all incoming rays are focused in the focal point.

The bottom example depicts a real lens with spherical surfaces, which produces spherical aberration: The different rays do not meet after the lens in one focal point. The further the rays are from the optical axis, the closer to the lens they intersect the optical axis (positive spherical aberration).

(Drawing is exaggerated.)
Spherical aberration of collimated light incident on a concave spherical mirror.

A spherical lens has an aplanatic point (i.e., no spherical aberration) only at a radius that equals the radius of the sphere divided by the index of refraction of the lens material. A typical value of refractive index for crown glass is 1.5 (see list), which indicates that only about 43% of the area (67% of diameter) of a spherical lens is useful. It is often considered to be an imperfection of telescopes and other instruments which makes their focusing less than ideal due to the spherical shape of lenses and mirrors. This is an important effect, because spherical shapes are much easier to produce than aspherical ones. In many cases, it is cheaper to use multiple spherical elements to compensate for spherical aberration than it is to use a single aspheric lens.

"Positive" spherical aberration means peripheral rays are bent too much. "Negative" spherical aberration means peripheral rays are not bent enough.

The effect is proportional to the fourth power of the diameter and inversely proportional to the third power of the focal length, so it is much more pronounced at short focal ratios, i.e., "fast" lenses.

Longitudinal sections through a focused beam with negative (top row), zero (middle row), and positive spherical aberration (bottom row). The lens is to the left.

In lens systems, the effect can be minimized using special combinations of convex and concave lenses, as well as using aspheric lenses.

For simple designs one can sometimes calculate parameters that minimize spherical aberration. For example, in a design consisting of a single lens with spherical surfaces and a given object distance o, image distance i, and refractive index n, one can minimize spherical aberration by adjusting the radii of curvature R_1 and R_2 of the front and back surfaces of the lens such that

\frac{R_1+R_2}{R_1-R_2}=\frac{2 \left( n^2-1 \right)}{n+2}\left( \frac{i+o}{i-o}\right) .


A point source as imaged by a system with negative (top row), zero (middle row), and positive spherical aberration (bottom row). The middle column shows the focused image, columns to the left shows defocusing toward the inside, and columns to the right show defocusing toward the outside.

For small telescopes using spherical mirrors with focal ratios shorter than f/10, light from a distant point source (such as a star) is not all focused at the same point. Particularly, light striking the inner part of the mirror focuses farther from the mirror than light striking the outer part. As a result the image cannot be focused as sharply as if the aberration were not present. Because of spherical aberration, telescopes shorter than f/10 are usually made with non-spherical mirrors or with correcting lenses.

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