Geek Articles

More Ultra High-Resolution MTF Experiments


Let’s be absolutely clear; this is not a practical or useful article. It won’t help your photography or cinematography become better. It won’t help you choose equipment any time in the next couple of years. It won’t provide any fodder for your next Forum War. It’s just a geek article that may interest some people. It may give a little peek into what may come in the future, and some insight into the kind of work we’re actually doing behind the scenes at Olaf. So if you’re interested in that kind of stuff, read along

A couple of years ago, a testing customer asked us to find which lenses could get maximum resolution from a 150-megapixel sensor. Many people assumed that the highest resolving lenses at standard resolutions would be the highest resolving lenses at higher resolutions. Assumptions are the dark matter of the internet; we can’t see them, but we know they account for most of the mass.

We try hard not to assume, so we tested a bunch of lenses at high frequencies on the MTF bench (high-frequency MTF is basically high resolution on the camera). This requires testing MTF at ultra-high resolutions, way higher than any camera of today. The manufacturer wanted 240 lp/mm (compared to the 50 lp/mm we use currently). I wasn’t sure that was necessary, and actually wasn’t sure we could do it, so we settled on 200 lp/mm. If you want some understanding of what all that means, you can read the above post or Brandon Dube’s excellent post. Or you can just accept it and move on.

There was no photo or video lens that could resolve 200 lp/mm wide-open. (Our standard for ‘resolve’ was an MTF 0f 0.3; an MTF of 0.2 was borderline. There’s some evidence to support those cut-offs, but someone could argue them. Wait, this is the internet. Someone WILL argue them; it’s what someone lives for.)

We did find several prime lenses that could meet those criteria stopped down to f/4 in the center of the image, but none could near the edges. The best results were for the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 lens at f/4. A few other lenses (Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar; Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art; Zeiss 55mm f1.4 Otus) were acceptable at f/4 in the middle portion of the image. Nothing wider than 50mm was really acceptable, although the Canon 35mm f1.4 Mk II and Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art were close.

Back to the Future

Two years later, that customer asked us if we knew of any other lenses that they should consider. There’ve been a lot of lenses released since we did these tests, and some of those lenses fit the criteria for possible ‘ultra-high’ resolution; primes with focal lengths of 85mm or more. The manufacturers are obviously making these lenses with at least moderately higher resolution cameras in mind. So perhaps some of the newer lenses would resolve ‘ultra-high’ frequencies better than some of the older lenses we had tested.

So we checked some new lenses all the way up to 240 lp/mm, something sufficient to make a 200 megapixel FF camera worthwhile. To be clear, this is NOT coming to a camera near you anytime soon; it’s a research project. But if the researchers are making such a sensor, it makes sense they want to know which lenses would get the best results from the sensor. It is not a test for if the lens or sensor out resolves the other, because that doesn’t happen.  (For those of you who believe in perceptual megapixels or that the earth is flat, I’ve included an appendix to clarify this a bit – with no math more complicated than multiplication.)

The Best We Found Last Time

Last time we found some tendencies: longer focal lengths perform better, and f/4 is the minimum aperture that any lens can resolve such high frequencies. To give you a reference, here are several lenses that met our criteria last time (notice on these we set the highest frequency at 200 lp/mm).

Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art at f/4, 2017

Zeiss 85mm APO-Planar Otus at f/4, 2017

Zeiss 55mm Otus Distagon at f/4, 2017

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4 Mk II USM, 2017

The 35mm Lens Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken

You’ve seen the best results we had from lenses you could actually buy and use. We did see one lens that you can’t purchase, a prototype lens that will probably never be made, that was truly amazing, particularly for a 35mm focal length.

Olaf Optical Testing, 2017

So here is a 35mm lens that is as good as the 55m Otus; it’s that it’s this good at f/2.8 and doesn’t improve much at f/4. I put this up just to show that current lenses are not designed to do their best at ultra-high resolution, but they could be.

 We Wanna Take it Higher

Last time around, we set our peak at 200 lp/mm, even though the client really wanted 240 lp/mm. We didn’t think the higher number was really necessary, and honestly, we weren’t sure that any of our lenses would adequately resolve even 200 lp/mm. This time, though, we felt comfortable we could test at 240 lp, and doing that, let us also test at 192 lp/mm, which is pretty close to the original 200 lp peak.

For starters, we repeated the test using a Sigma 135mm f1.8 Art. You can compare it to the one done at 200 lp up above. Remember, these are single copy tests, so there is a little sample variation, but you can see the light blue line of this run (192 lp/mm) is comparable to the purple line of the previous lens (200 lp/mm). Even at 240 lp/mm, the MTF still exceeds our ‘borderline’ MTF cut-off of 0.2, at least in the center, but it doesn’t quite reach and MTF of 0.3., 2019

We’ll consider this our standard for the new tests, then, and see if any of the other lenses do as well.

Results for New Lenses

Sony 135mm f1.8 GM

We’ll start with the usual “Roger had expectations and was disappointed” part, because, after all, disappointment is the sole purpose of expectations. One of the reasons I was excited about testing new lenses was that the Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM had the best normal-range MTF scores we’d ever seen, besting the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art. It seemed logical that it might also best the Sigma in ultra-high resolution tests. Reality 1, Logic 0. We tried the lens at f/4, but it was actually a bit better at f/5, which we show below. At high frequency, it’s not as good as the Sigma., 2019

Let me repeat, for those of you who want to mistake this test as having something to do with, say, the 60-megapixel full-frame camera you’re shooting; it doesn’t. Somewhere around 80 lp/mm would be more than sufficient for that. If you compare the orange lines of the Sony and Sigma 135mm graphs, you’ll see that at 96 lp/mm the Sony is actually a bit better than the Sigma. At ridiculously high frequencies, the Sigma is better. The takeaway message is important: better MTF at one frequency doesn’t mean better MTF at all frequencies.

So let’s look at a couple of other candidates I thought might do really well.

Sigma 105mm f1.4 Art at f/4

Even though this copy was slightly tilted, in the center, at least, it is the first lens to make, albeit barely make, our ‘acceptable’ cut-off of MTF 0.3 at 240 lp/mm. At 192 lp/mm, it actually touches MTF of 0.4. So we have a new high-resolution champion, and that’s despite, as you can see below, this copy of the lens having a slight tilt., 2019

Zeiss APO Sonnar 100mm f/1.4 Otus at f/4

Another good contender; not quite as good as the Sigma 105mm, but very similar to the Sigma 135mm., 2019

Canon 90mm f2.8L TS-E Macro

This one I had low expectations for, but we had one handy, so we thought we’d give it a try. Set your expectations low, and they will be met. Again, don’t get me wrong, this is a really, really good lens, it’s just not as good at ultra-high resolutions., 2019

Sigma 40mm f1.4 Art

We learned from earlier testing that wider-angle lenses don’t do as well at these frequencies. But the Sigma 40mm Art tested so spectacularly at normal MTF that we thought it was worth a shot, at least., 2019

Here’s a case where good at normal resolution translates to good at ridiculously high resolution. This is close to, although not quite as high in the center as the Otus 55mm. It stays acceptable further away from the center than the Otus 55mm does, however.


I say summary, because there are no practical or useful conclusions to be made. The only thing of interest, probably, is that only really good lenses can resolve ultra-high resolutions you’ll never need. However, even among these really good lenses, you can’t assume how a lens will perform at ultra-high resolutions based on its results at normal resolutions. You can also see that ultra-high-resolution performance is a bit easier to obtain in short telephoto focal lengths than in standard or wide-angle lengths.

Oh, yeah, and you can also wonder why someone, somewhere, is wondering what lenses will perform well at resolutions more than twice as high as what you might need today.


Roger Cicala, Aaron Closz, and Brandon Dube

October, 2019

Appendix: Why Perceptual Megapixels are Stupid

I get asked several times a week if this lens or that is ‘capable of resolving’ this number of megapixels. Some people seem to think a lens should be ‘certified’ for a certain number of pixels or something. That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of it works.

How it does work is this. Any image you capture is not as sharp as reality. Take a picture of a bush and enlarge it to 100%. You probably can’t see if there are ants on the leaves. But in reality, you could walk over to the bush (enlarge it if you will) and see if there are ants by looking at a couple of leaves.

What if I got a better camera and a better lens? Well, theoretically, things would be so good I could see the ants if I enlarged the image enough. MTF is somewhat of a measurement of how sharp that image would be and how much detail it contains. (The detail part would be the higher frequency MTF.) That would, of course, be the MTF of the entire system, camera, and lens.

Lots of people think that will be ‘whichever is less of the camera and lens.’ For example, my camera can resolve 61 megapixels, but my lens can only resolve 30 megapixels, so all I can see is 30 megapixels.

That’s not how it works. How it does work is very simple math: System MTF = Camera MTF x Lens MTF. MTF maxes at 1.0 because 1.0 is perfect. So let’s say my camera MTF is 0.7, and my lens MTF is 0.7, then my system MTF is 0.49 (Lens MTF x Camera MTF). This is actually a pretty reasonable system.

Now, let’s say I get a much better camera with much higher resolution; the camera MTF is 0.9. The system MTF with the same lens also increases: 0.7 X 0.9 = 0.63. On the other hand, I could do the same thing if I bought a much better lens and kept it on the same camera. The camera basically never ‘out resolves the lens.’

You could kind of get that ‘perceptual megapixel’ thing if either the lens (or the camera) really sucks. Let say we were using a crappy kit zoom lens with an MTF of 0.3. With the old camera; 0.3 X 0.7 =.21. Let’s spend a fortune on the newer, better camera, and we get 0.3 X 0.9 = 0.27. So our overall system MTF only went up a bit (0.07) because the lens really sucked. But if it had been just an average lens or a better lens (let say the MTF was 0.6 or 0.8), we’d have gotten a pretty similar improvement.

If you have a reasonably good lens and/or a reasonably good camera, upgrading either one upgrades your images. If you ask something like ‘is my camera going to out resolve this lens’ you sound silly.

Roger’s rule: If you have either a crappy lens or crappy camera, improve the crappy part first; you get more bang for your $. I just saw a thread for someone wanting to upgrade to the newest 60-megapixel camera, and all of his lenses were average zooms. I got nauseous.

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Geek Articles
  • Dimy

    „ MTF maxes at 1.0 because 1.0 is perfect.“
    Are you referring with 1.0 to 100% contrast? Because that is very mentionable.
    The criteria for our lens designs are minimum 50% for the nominated frequency, e.g. 25lp/mm.

    I would like to see anyone enjoying an image with 200lp/mm at only 30% washed out contrast…

  • Dimy

    This is searching for a needle in a haystack. With my experience I would have told the customer, „get yourself more space for a bigger sensor“.

    Just for reference: A specially designed lens with 80lp/mm @50% contrast needs a so called „Molten glass adopted calculation.“, which means that e.g. Hoya/Schott must analyze the true refractive index of the actual glass delivered to the 4th digit behind the comma and that data is entered into the calculation of the spacing of some of the single lenses placed within this 2kg beast calculated for a 1“ sensor image circle.

  • Casimir Fayt

    Thanks for the article. I was wondering out of the blue how you proceeded to measure those MTFs? Which spatial resolution target did you use, what collimator?
    I am interested in the experimental setup you assembled to proceed to those lens’ MTF measurements. Could you drive me through it, or show a scheme perhaps?
    Thanks again for the work!

  • Lee A Pseudogrammaton

    Late comment that probably wont get read: These metrics may already matter to those intrepid souls adapting 35mm format lenses to mirrorless medium format camera bodies (steelsring, fringer…).

    Aspect ratios aside, a 50×37.5mm sensor is approx a .7x crop (conversely 35mm is 1.4x crop of 50mm “crop-645”), so we anticipate losing 1 stop when adapting (a la mounting a 1.4x TC).

    Take a camera body like the 100mp Fuji gfx, it needs matching resolution, but not necessarily fast glass, so adapted f2.8 (f1.4 without teleconversion) would be plenty fast for MF.

    But this is where 144lp/mm MTF begins to matter , b/c TC’d that same lens’ MTF now falls in the ballpark of 100lp/mm.

  • Massimo Ercolani

    Is your misterious 35mm, an ancestor of the current 35art 1.2?

  • Curtis Patterson

    I’ve seen on lenstip that the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 ASPH is “record breaking” at f/4. I don’t trust their testing methods though. Roger you should try doing some high resolution one-off testing of some of these newer Voigtlander lenses that have come out! It would be super interesting.

  • I would be interested in answers to this question too.

  • CryptoLover

    It would be very helpful if you just had a page with a list of all the lenses you’ve tested, with a link to each article where they were tested. Hope you could consider it

  • Chris Newman

    You refer to Brandon Dube’s article ‘The 8K Conundrum – When Bad Lenses Mount Good Sensors‘. I found that extremely informative. But, as a stills photographer with little knowledge or interest in video, I wanted confirmation that his curves applied directly to the pixel pitches he quoted for the various video resolutions, independently of the sensor size and type. I’d Googled “Super 35 sensor” in the hope that it would be the same size as a 35mm full frame still camera sensor. I found that it was smaller, but I also Googled “8K video resolution”, and the pixel count that was stated needed a rather larger pixel pitch than 2.9µm to match the claimed “Super 35 sensor” size. Unfortunately I mentioned these values when posting my comment asking Brandon whether his curves applied universally to pixel pitches, and, rather than answering my question, he gave details of how the “real” version of 8K video resolution that he’d used differed from what I’d found on Google.

    Would it be accurate to mentally relabel Brandon’s 1080p/2K, 3.4K, 4K, 6K and 8K curves as being for 11.6µm, 7µm, 5.8µm, 3.9µm and 2.9µm pixel pitches, irrespective of sensor type and dimensions?

    With thanks,

  • Lee

    I’m surprised no super-teles made the cut (or are you able to test lenses that big in these scenarios?); I thought that’s what the ‘answer’ was going to be when I clicked this.

  • Zak McKracken

    In light of your remarks about MTF for lens/camera combinations — what would a sensor-only MTF graph look like?

    Based on very simple, misunderstood theory, it would be 1 at lower frequencies than sensor nyquist frequency, then drop to 0. Based on a little more understanding of signal theory, off the top of my head, it would stay at 1.0 until half the Nyquist, then start dropping, reach about 0.5-ish at Nyquist frequency, then vanish rather quickly. But that’s just an average because a given line pair at Nyquist frequency could either happen to match a pair of pixels (perfect!), or might be shifted by half a pixel, so they’d average out to 0 — a test photo of such a pattern would be a huge sea of moiré.

    But based on the fact that we don’t see that much moiré because there are antialias filters, and colour interpolation going on (unless you have a monochrome camera…), the MTF will actually be less than that, except when it’s not because the demosaicing method does something smart and introduces either real or spurious detail …

    ==> so, it’s complicated. Who knew?

    But … could you actually measure sensor MTF with your equipment? Or have you got a better idea than me what those graphs would look like?

  • Federico Ferreres

    I think you make a great point to note it’s not a binary “outresolving” of any kind. I think most would benefit from “how much would I benefit” from a new lens or sensor. Anything that helps shed light into it is fantastic, as the article is. Thanks for taking the time to explain a bit further.

  • Michael Schagen

    I think the statement is in fact generally applicable. Tailor to taste, e.g.: Assumptions are the dark matter of software, we can’t see them, but they account for most of the behaviour of any piece of software.

  • This is such awesome work. Thanks Roger and team. Roger, you mentioned that testing at 80 lp/mm would be more than sufficient for getting the most out of a 60MP sensor. Can I ask how you arrive at that? Isn’t the Nyquist limit (including the Kell factor) around 92 lp/mm for that sensor?

  • Carleton Foxx

    So what you’re saying I would have to start making 4×5 internegs and sending them to a 90-year-old master printer in some tiny village in the Guatema because he’s the only person on earth with the equipment, chemistry, and knowledge to make a print that’s worth a damn?

  • What new photographic avenues will this open up for me?

    Uhm… the need for a $50,000 printer?

  • Stefanie Daniella

    thx for sharing data + insights!
    i noticed the astounding “The 35mm Lens Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken” only had a +/- 14mm MTF = 28mm image circle coverage (meant for S35 sensor)

    i can imagine if any lens MTF graph were truncated further down to only show +/- 10mm MTF = 20mm image circle coverage, micro-43 folks would be so pleased (gleeful-n-stoked) how great such an m43 lens MTF “performed” cropped so severely down to HALF that of larger lens MTF sensor coverage (FF or higher) where the peripheral performance falls short “uncropped” (no truncated MTF graphs)

  • Curtis Patterson

    Hi Roger, I love your geeky articles. I have a question that is almost on topic: What design factors result in high MTF scores in lenses? Obviously the smoothness and tolerances of the ground glass surfaces matters, but do lower lens element count improve MTF? i.e. I feel like high element count and more surfaces means more surface smoothness “tolerance stack-up” which could cause lower MTF scores. I also think if a lens has larger diameter lens elements that this also improves MTF, correct? I’m noticing that a lot of newer lenses have a high element count, but many also have very large diameter glass elements as well, and I suspect that is to compensate for this surface finish/tolerance stack-up I mention. Another thing I wonder is in bright situations, high element counts could make worse inter-element reflections causing loss of contrast in images, so lower element counts may be desirable for other reasons, but this is getting off topic.

  • Not at all. I wasn’t hired to find if anything outresolves anything, because it doesn’t. I was hired to find which lenses would give the best performance at those resolutions.

    It is possible, at great extremes for one to outresolve another. For example if I took a really bad 18-55 kit lens some high resolution sensor increase might no longer improve the overall image quality. Conversely if I have a 6 megapixel camera, an Otus might not look any better than a Canon 35mm f/1.4. But if you take normal lenses on normal cameras, then no, there is no ‘outresolves’.

  • Federico Ferreres

    Very good point. Had not thought about implications like this. I also think one extreme will go to MP, the other extreme will go to map (in the same timeframe 1 very large res is shot) many many shots at different apertures. Maybe a combination of both (10 lower res and 1 high res every X amount of time). This would maybe inform of DOF combined with other depth sensing for at least some extend of professional “fake bokeh” (sacrilege).

  • Federico Ferreres

    Also, if the term is so ridiculous, I find it ironic he is hired to find if any lens “outresolves” a 240MP sensor, defined as having 30%+ contrast at the highest frequency. Basically, readers asking if anything outresolves something else are called dumb, while the article itself SOLELY and openly explores only this question.

  • I think Monty Python and the whole Circus would approve of this thread.

  • Correct sir!

  • Roger Cicala

    That’s correct, Mike.

  • Maybe I’m squinting too hard, but something looks strange between the two measurements of the Sigma 135mm f/18@f/4. The first chart has it nearly hitting MTF 0.5 at 160lpmm (light blue), while the second has it just slightly over MTF 0.4 at 144lpmm.

    Is that because these are two different copies of the lens?

  • Carleton Foxx

    You sir, are a saint. May the zombies eat you last.

  • Carleton, I suspect a lot of this is for automated kinds of imaging, machine vision, etc. I know some cinematographers are considering ‘panning through stills’ kind of things. Consider someone staging a big battle scene, hundreds of actors over a field of several hundred yards. The editor could, in post, decide how and where he wants to zoom of change scenes, etc. With takes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each, that could be an incredible money saver.

    I think with most things like this, the workflow is ‘create the capability, people will come, people will do things we can’t really imagine’.

  • Dragon

    BTW, the same kind of barn swallows migrate between Africa and Europe, so my swallow is just as much an American Swallow as Roger’s swallows were European Swallows :-).

  • Dragon

    Yes, that is a barn swallow, but really I was just teasing Roger and his Monty Python line.

  • Carleton Foxx

    But seriously dude, why is everyone is so cagey about the use cases for a 200mp sensor with a 200 lp/mm lens.
    What new photographic avenues will this open up for me?

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