Numerical aperture

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In optics, the numerical aperture (NA) of an optical system is a dimensionless number that characterizes the range of angles over which the system can accept or emit light. The exact definition of the term varies slightly between different areas of optics.


General optics

In most areas of optics, and especially in microscopy, the numerical aperture of an optical system such as an objective lens is defined by

where n is the index of refraction of the medium in which the lens is working (1.0 for air, 1.33 for pure water, and up to 1.56 for oils), and θ is the half-angle of the maximum cone of light that can enter or exit the lens. In general, this is the angle of the real marginal ray in the system. The angular aperture of the lens is approximately twice this value (within the paraxial approximation). The NA is generally measured with respect to a particular object or image point and will vary as that point is moved. In microscopy, NA generally refers to object-space NA unless otherwise noted.

In microscopy, NA is important because it indicates the resolving power of a lens. The size of the finest detail that can be resolved is proportional to λ/NA, where λ is the wavelength of the light. A lens with a larger numerical aperture will be able to visualize finer details than a lens with a smaller numerical aperture. Assuming quality (diffraction limited) optics, lenses with larger numerical apertures collect more light and will generally provide a brighter image, but will provide shallower depth of field.

Numerical aperture is used to define the "pit size" in optical disc formats.[1]

Numerical aperture versus f-number

Numerical aperture is not typically used in photography. Instead, the angular aperture of a lens (or an imaging mirror) is expressed by the f-number, written f/# or N, which is defined as the ratio of the focal length to the diameter of the entrance pupil:

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