Understanding Lenses Selecting the most appropriate lens from installation can be a complex task. The choices constantly expanding in response to new Camera and Lens technology. Lenses have a number of characteristics that must be considered to match a particular requirement with the best Lens for the job.


Fixed Focus Length Lens

Fixed focus lenses are the simplest type of Lens, and therefore the cheapest. The presets focal length means a precise calculation is required to select the Lens most suitable for the location, based on the desired size of viewing area and its distance from the Camera. Typical Lens sizes offer either 30 degree view - narrow to allow more detail at distance - or 60 degree, which offers a much wider angle of view.

Varifocal Lens

Varifocal lenses offer more flexibility, allowing the field of view to be adjusted manually. Although more expensive these lenses of popular because the use it is able to get the view required rather than the limited by the constraints of the fixed Lens. Finally, Zoom Lens are the most complex type, offering the greatest functionality once installed - unsurprisingly, Zoom lenses offer the widest choice of associated features and technologies.

Zoom lenses can be remotely adjusted to allow variation of the focal length. This means that a single Lens can be used to view a wide area until an intruder is detected whereupon do it can be zoomed into capture facial details. Generally Zoom lenses incorporate an Auto Iris mechanism to permit 24-hour usage.


Lenses are also categorised according to size format. As Camera technology has advanced, sensor chips have reduced in size, requiring lenses to produce smaller images at the focal point. This has made smaller lenses possible (less glass resulting in less physical size and weight) although the requirements of precision manufacturing doesn't permit a proportional price reduction - the component materials of a Lens being a very small proportion of the overall manufacturing cost. The quoted format of the Lens (1", 1/2", 1/3" and now even 1/4") is derived from the ratio of diameter to the viewing image produced. Whilst it is often most cost effective to match the lens format to the camera sensor size, it is possible to use a larger lens on a smaller size camera since the image only needs to be at least as large as the sensor.

Using a larger lens can often be advantageous, since it offers greater depth of field (the range of distances from the lens before objects are too close or too far away to be in focus). Larger lenses also mean that the area of the image that is used is taken entirely from the central, flatter part of the lens causing much less corner distortion and better focus.


Lenses have traditionally been shaped to the arc of a sphere, which has the effect of causing some distortion of image at the very edges of the lens, as well as reducing its light gathering capability.

A recent innovation in lens manufacturing, aspherical technology, allows the edges of a lens to be less curved, producing a larger area of accurate image and allowing transmission of a greater amount of light. Aspherical lenses can therefore reduce distortion and give a lower effective f-stop permitting camera to operate at lower light levels.


To provide optimum performance neither too much nor too little light should fall on the camera sensor. This can be adjusted by means of the lens iris.

A smaller iris opening offers greater depth of field and better focus, but the reduced amount of light admitted into the camera results in poor quality images in low lighting levels. A fixed iris lens offers no adjustment to different lighting conditions, so is therefore limited in use and not suitable for applications where fine detail is consistently required. A manual iris can be adjusted at the time of installation, allowing an optimum picture to be obtained for a fixed lighting level.

These lenses are best suited to indoor applications, where the lighting level is controllable and consistent. Both manual and fixed iris lenses can be used with cameras which offer a feature known as 'electronic iris' - an on-board technology to effectively reduce the sensor exposure to compensate for the lack of iris control. This can be cost effective, but does not provide the increased depth of field offered by a correctly sized iris.

For external use (where conditions generally vary the most), an automatic iris lens offers the best performance, as the iris aperture automatically adjusts to create the optimum image by monitoring the output signal from the camera. There are a number of different lens types offering this method of iris control. The original design for automatic iris (Al) lenses was wholly self-contained, with the image analysing technology built into the lens and an iris that was adjusted by servomotors.

Market demand to produce smaller, lower cost lenses led to the introduction of direct drive technology which requires circuitry within the camera, replacing that previously located in the lens. This technique used a different iris control - galvanic drive. Subsequently this technology has been introduced into the original style auto iris lens where onboard camera circuitry is not required.

Today these are the choices for auto-iris control - traditional servo drive, galvanic iris and direct drive.

The final lens characteristic to take account of is the light-gathering speed of the lens-expressed as an f-stop number. This literally measures the amount of light captured by the lens in a given period of time; the lower the f-stop range, the more light that can be transmitted.

This article was supplied by Norbain and used with permission. Norbain are manufacturers of the Vista Protos range of state-of-the-art products designed for leading edge and performance critical applications - where extensive features and functionality are the key.