Measuring the spatial resolution of an optical system in an undergraduate optics laboratory

Calvin Leung and Thomas D. Donnelly

American Journal of Physics 85 (2017) 429-438


Two methods of quantifying the spatial resolution of a camera are described, performed, and compared, with the objective of designing an imaging-system experiment for students in an undergraduate optics laboratory. With the goal of characterizing the resolution of a typical digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, we motivate, introduce, and show agreement between traditional test-target contrast measurements and the technique of using Fourier analysis to obtain the modulation transfer function (MTF). The advantages and drawbacks of each method are compared. Finally, we explore the rich optical physics at work in the camera system by calculating the MTF as a function of wavelength and f-number. For example, we find that the Canon 40D demonstrates better spatial resolution at short wavelengths, in accordance with scalar diffraction theory, but is not diffraction-limited, being significantly affected by spherical aberration. The experiment and data analysis routines described here can be built and written in an undergraduate optics lab setting.