Generally each curved surface of a lens is made as a portion of a spherical surface. The center of the sphere is called the center of curvature of the surface; every point on the surface is equidistant to it, this distance being the radius of curvature. The line joining the two centers of curvature also passes through the optical center of the lens and is called the principal axis. Any other line through the optical center at an angle to the principal axis is called a secondary axis. In converging lenses all rays entering parallel to the principal axis are bent toward a point on the principal axis called the principal focus. The distance from the principal focus to the optical center of the lens is the focal length of the lens. It varies with different lenses, according to the curvature of the surfaces and index of refraction of the lens material. Conjugate points are two points on opposite sides of a lens in such position that rays from one, after passing through the lens, will converge at the other. Light rays are not always brought to a focus at one point; this condition of inexact focus is known as aberration and may be of two types: spherical, resulting from the shape of the lens, and chromatic, resulting from the fact that different colors are refracted by different amounts (see aberration, in optics).
Lenses have long been made of glass; a piece roughly approximating the desired size and shape of the lens is cut from a glass block and then ground and polished to the correct curvature. Great skill and accuracy are required in this process and also in mounting the lenses so that the principal axes of all the lenses fall on the same line. A number of transparent plastics that permit the lenses to be cast in a mold are used as substitutes for glass.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.