Would you expect, that the optical performance of your photographic lenses can be seriously influenced by the operating temperature? Have you ever realized lack of sharpness in extreme environmental temperature conditions?
The simple answer is, of course, that within the specifications for use, given by the makers, there should be no such concern. But it is not that simple.
For amateur astronomers with their mostly very long telescope-focal-length optics (mirror or lens) this fact is very common:
before using the instrument in the clear and mostly cold winter-nights, you have to put the telescope early enough outside (shielded against due) to bring it into a thermal equilibrium with the ambient air at the time you start your observations. The reason: during essential temperature-changes of the optical components (mirrors, lenses) and their mounting devices, their surface-shapes and adjustment change and destroy the extremly precise optical alignment – until the thermal equilibrium is restored. The refractor-lenses may be mounted to allow for some thermal differences, but large mirrors have to be mounted and adjusted extremely precise, so that the cooling-down of the mount, that holds the mirror, may even generate mechanical tension on the mirror – and that generates optical distortions! So we should remind: the absolute temperatures are not the problem – but the thermal transition stages from warm to cold or opposite way!
This fact is also an important design aspect for telescopes: the preferred structure is „as open as possible“ to allow the air to circulate and to generate a good heat-exchange with the internal telescope structure to speed up this process. While the air gets colder during the night, the instrument’s optics can follow close enough to keep the temperature difference low.
There is an impressive document in the archives of the Mt. Wilson Observatory (near L.A., USA) describing the „first-light“-moment of the new 2,5 meter mirror telescope (Hooker-Telescope) on November 1, 1917 – use this link to the adventurous story! („First light“ is the moment, when somebody looks through the finished instrument for the first time.) Here the first-light moment at Mt. Wilson is described near the end of the long text in this link and shows, what a three hour cool-down time made to the optical properties of the 2.5 meter mirror, (which was made by George Willis Ritchey – and allowed for the detection of the expansion of the Universe by Edwin Hubble shortly after taking this telescope into service.).
Picture 1: 2,5 m (100 inch) Hooker-telescope on Mt. Wilson: just struts hold the mirrors to ease the circulation of air for for a fast achievement of temperature equilibrium – source: Ken Spencer, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Many instruments in astronomy are closed assemblies, using a corrector-plate (Schmidt-system) or meniscus-lens (Maksutov-System) in the entry of the tube and the mirror at the rear-end (catadioptric telescope – see also my specific blog-article here.) The big disadvantage of these closed systems is the „inertia“ in cooling down due to the closed volume in the telescope tube. Therefore often slits around correctors and mirrors are placed, which allow for sufficient circulation of air through the tube – and even active ventilation is used to shorten the period to reach equilibrium. In some big modern telescopes, the mirror may even be actively temperature-controlled.
Picture 2: „Closed“-tube optical system Maksutov-Cassegrain-Teleskop – source: Wikipedia – Author: Halfblue – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/.
Long telephoto-lenses for normal photography can not be open systems, because the lens-barrels definitely have to be tightly sealed to avoid the invasion of dust, humidity or corrosive gases.
This means, that you have to plan and prepare carefully to bring your equipment to ambient temperatueres in time to avoid these thermal problems. For photographic equipment this would equally refer to the situation, when you come from climate-controlled environment (e.g. hotels) into wery hot (and humid) areas. There is an additional problem, that in bringing cold equipment into hot-humid environment, there might be condensation of humidity on the lenses/mirrors.
This problem is even more delicate with catadioptric lenses (mirror/lens-systems often called just „mirror-lenses“ – in German „Spiegel-Objektive“). In these the surface-shape of the mirrors and the adjustment from mirror to mirror is extremely sensitive for the optical performance of the lens-systems.
I have to-date not realized this with focal lengths of up to 350 mm (though it might be also there to a certain dergree) – but this is definitely an important aspect for focal lengths between 500 mm and 1,000 mm or longer.
From which focal length on these problems may occur, will mainly depend of the type of optical system – and of course the resolution of your cameras sensor!
Here I want to show you this effect with an example of a catadioptric lens of 800 mm focal length: the Vivitar Series 1 Solid Catadioptric 800mm f/11, used on the Sony A7Rm4 (60,3 MP, 35mm format – 3.77 µm pixel-pitch).
Picture 3: Vivitar Series 1 Solid Catadioptric 800mm f/11 – source: fotosaurier
It was the first day this year with just sligtly above zero outside temperature (+2 degree Celsius) and very clear air. At ca. 1:15 p.m.I set out the 800mm f/11 lens on the tripod on the balcony and tried to focus on my favorite landscape test target: a roof-top at about 40 m distance.
The advantage of this target is, that it has large AND fine details, low contrast AND high contrast areas and – most important – a sufficient depth, so that I can detect focusing errors very well!
Picture 4: Overview picture – complete field of view of the „roof-top“ landscape target in ca. 40 m distance taken with Sony A7Rm4 and Vivitar Series 1 Solid Cat 800mm f/11 – this is the „sharp“ picture after the cool-down period of the lens – source: fotosaurier
It was nearly impossible to meet the positive focus position – so I did the best guess and made the photo – and here is the 100%-crop around the focus-position, which is the first steel spring at the right side of the roof edge:
Picture 5: The 67% detail of the focus-area (clamp and spiral-spring!) made 15 minutes after setting the lens outside. Best guess of focus, however, you will find no sharper point in front or behind – the distance scale on the lens says 50 meters in this non-equilibrium temperature situation – source: fotosaurier
At this point of time the lens internally is still on room temperature of about 21 degrees … starting to cool down for about 15 minutes, which it took me to set everything up and focus carefully – but desperately, becaus no really sharp focus was seen in high viewing-magnification.
I had focused using the maximum viewfinder enlagement in the Sony camera and was sure: this is not a really sharp picture. But I could not find a better focus. Picture 5 is a 67% crop of the image taken. And as the subject has some depth: no – there is no better focus to be seen on this picture in front or behind the plane of the spring.
I left the lens with camera in this position for three hours and refocused the lens: now I experienced a quite snappy focus – and you can see the same crop-area here:
Picture 6: The 67% detail of the focus-area (refocused!) after additional 3 hours of the lens outside – source: fotosaurier
The gain in sharpness is damatical – and it exists over the whole field of view, not only in the plane of focus! Also out-of-focus areas show higher contrast now.
However, it connot be ignored, that this catadioptric lens in this picture does by far not use the potential 3,168 Line-Pairs per Picture Height Nyquist frequency of the cameras sensor. My estimate is, that we have here an MTF30 of about 1,100-1,200 LP/PH. So either the three hours of cool-down time were not yet sufficient – or the lens may be not better than this.
(The 1,200 LP/PH MTF30-resolution would correspond to 100 Lines/mm in older „analog“ data. Very good CATs in the 1970s had center-resolutions (measured on film) between 50 and 60 Lines/mm. This relation makes sense, as the difference (factor 0.6 lower for film!) may be owed to the effect of grain and the thickness of the emulsion.)
The „Solid Cat“ 800mm f/11 is a massiv piece of optics – the lens barrel is nearly completely filled with glass, as you see in the lens-scheme:
Picture 7: Lens-scheme of the Vivitar Series1 Solid Cat – source: Perkin Elmer Patent application
It is an absolutly unusual mass of glass – so I would not exclude, that the cooling time should even be longer to reach the thermal equilibrium. My plan is, to make a sequence of photos taken in shorter intervals and over a longer time – as soon as the outside temperatures go down again.
I am not so happy with the fact, that I had to use landscape-scene-shots to demonstrate the performance of the lens, however, for 800mm focal length my IMATEST testing-arena is too short. Maybe I will make a parallel IMATEST-trial then with a 500mm CAT.
So, please, consider this as a first teaser for the topic which has shown clearly, that photographic lens performance may seriously suffer during the time, a lens is undergoing strong temperature-change and before equilibrium is reached.
I promise to come back with a more elaborate research-plan soon.
Berlin, December 4th, 2020
Aphorism of the day: Scientific research is most successfull, when it brings up more new questions than it has answered. (fotosaurier)