Defeating Diffraction: Steps to Preserve Image Quality in Your Photography!

Diffraction, often referred to as the "Mother of ALL Photography Lens Problems", is a concept that perplexes many photographers. While the term may sound intriguing, its understanding eludes most.

Karl Taylor explaining what the problem of lens diffraction does to your images

Karl Taylor explaining what the problem of lens diffraction does to your images.

What is Lens Diffraction?

Simply put, diffraction occurs when light waves encounter obstacles, causing them to bend and interfere with each other. In the context of photography, diffraction becomes a critical consideration as it directly impacts the sharpness and overall quality of images.

As photographers, we manipulate various parameters such as aperture size, lens selection, and sensor size to achieve desired results. However, understanding diffraction is paramount to optimizing these variables effectively.

Keep reading as we unravel the complexities of diffraction and explore its implications on capturing stunning photographs.

Example illustrating loss of image quality to lens diffraction and aperture size

Example illustrating loss of image quality to lens diffraction and aperture size.

Impact of Aperture Size

The aperture size plays a crucial role in how diffraction affects our photographs. As we adjust the aperture, we control the amount of light entering the lens, but it also influences the depth of field — the range of sharpness in our images. 

When we decrease the aperture size to, say, f/16 or f/22 for maximum depth of field, we might expect to enhance sharpness across the frame. However, the reality is not so simple.

While smaller apertures theoretically increase sharpness either side of the focus point, they also intensify diffraction, leading to a decline in image quality. This trade-off challenges photographers to strike a balance between depth of field and diffraction-induced softness.

By understanding the impact of aperture size, we can make informed decisions to achieve optimal image quality in our photography endeavours.

All lenses have a sweet spot BUT as we deviate from optimal aperture  diffraction begins to undermine lens performance.

All lenses have a sweet spot BUT as we deviate from optimal aperture diffraction begins to undermine lens performance.

Sweet Spot and Optical Performance

Every lens possesses a sweet spot — a specific aperture setting where it delivers its best optical performance.

At this sweet spot, typically found around mid-range apertures like f/8, the lens exhibits excellent sharpness and clarity. However, as we deviate from this optimal aperture and adjust to smaller apertures such as f/16, f/22, or f/32, diffraction begins to undermine the lens's performance.

Despite the intention of depth of field to enhance sharpness, the effects of diffraction start to manifest, resulting in a loss of contrast and softening of the image.

Thus, while understanding the sweet spot is essential for maximising optical performance, it's equally crucial to navigate the trade-offs between aperture settings and diffraction to achieve the desired image quality.

Basic demonstration of how waves interact and interfere with each other.

Basic demonstration of how waves interact and interfere with each other.

Basic demonstration of how waves interact and interfere with each other.

Experiment using laser light to demonstrate diffraction interference of light waves.

Physics Behind Diffraction

To comprehend the impact of diffraction on photography, it's essential to grasp the underlying physics.

Diffraction occurs when light waves encounter an obstacle, causing them to bend, change direction and interfere with each other. This phenomenon stems from the wave properties of light.

When light waves pass through an aperture, such as the lens of a camera, they create interference patterns, leading to diffraction effects such as the phenomena known as the "Airy Disk".

Karl explaining the Airy Disk problem on a blackboard

Karl explaining the Airy Disk problem on a blackboard.

Portrait by Christin Snyders

The Airy Disk problem caused by Knife Edge Diffraction.

The Airy disk problem, compounded by knife-edge diffraction, occurs as light waves encounter sharp edges, causing them to change direction and contribute to the formation of interference patterns. This phenomenon results in the creation of circular patterns known as "Airy disks" where the interfering light waves can actually cancel light out.

This complex interaction between light waves and obstacles results in the characteristic softening and loss of image quality associated with diffraction in photography.

Understanding the physics behind diffraction enables photographers to anticipate its effects and employ techniques to mitigate its impact on image sharpness and clarity.

Example of lens diffraction and aberration affects on a photo

In this example we see chromatic aberration illustrating how poor optical and aperture design can exacerbate the diffraction problem.

Factors Exacerbating Diffraction

While diffraction is an inherent property of light encountering obstacles, certain other factors can exacerbate poor image quality. Inferior optical and aperture design in lenses can intensify diffraction, leading to further decreased image quality.

Additionally, using small apertures to reduce aberrations can inadvertently increase diffraction, creating a dilemma for photographers. Other issues such as low contrast, aberration, and bad colour fidelity may also arise due to poor optical design and is then exacerbated by diffraction.

Furthermore, the size of the photo sites on the sensor can influence the severity of diffraction, with smaller photo sites experiencing more pronounced effects.

It's crucial for photographers to be aware of these factors and consider them when selecting equipment and shooting conditions to minimise the impact of diffraction on their images.

Diagram of Camera sensor sizes

Diagram of Camera sensor sizes.

Portrait by Christin Snyders

Modern medium format camera sensor.

Sensor Size and Diffraction

The size of the sensor in a camera plays a significant role in how diffraction affects image quality.

Larger sensors with bigger photo sites tend to experience less diffraction compared to smaller sensors with smaller photo sites. This is because larger photo sites are less likely to allow the "Airy disk" to 'spill'  into other photo-sites.

Conversely, smaller sensors with more tightly-packed photo-sites are more susceptible to diffraction, resulting in a greater loss of image sharpness and clarity.

Therefore, photographers must consider sensor and photo-site size when managing diffraction, opting for larger sensors when aiming for optimal image quality, especially in scenarios where diffraction may be a concern, such as using small apertures to maximise depth of field.

Using focus stacking to mitigate diffraction issues at just one focus point.

Using the technique of focus stacking so multiple images can be used at different focus points to avoid softness 

Mitigating Diffraction

While diffraction is inevitable in photography, there are techniques to mitigate its impact and preserve image quality.

One effective approach is focus stacking, where multiple images (that are captured at the sweet spot of the lens) using different focus points and then combined into a single image using specialised software.

Additionally, post-processing adjustments, such as localised contrast enhancements, can help compensate for diffraction-related loss of image quality.

By employing these techniques, photographers can minimise the negative effects of diffraction and produce clear, high-quality photographs.

Using focus stacking to mitigate diffraction issues at just one focus point.

An understanding of lens diffraction will help you master your photography

Manufacturer Solutions

Camera manufacturers employ various strategies to address the challenges posed by diffraction and ensure optimal image quality for their products.

One approach is to focus on improving optical quality, designing lenses with advanced optical elements to minimise diffraction effects.

Additionally, manufacturers may optimise aperture design to reduce diffraction while maintaining overall lens performance.

Furthermore, advancements in sensor technology and image processing algorithms can help mitigate diffraction related issues too, resulting in clearer and more detailed images.

By implementing these solutions, camera manufacturers strive to provide photographers with the tools they need to overcome diffraction challenges and capture exceptional photos.

Using focus stacking to mitigate diffraction issues at just one focus point.

Practical Methods You Can Use to Defeat Diffraction

Understanding diffraction and its implications is essential for photographers to make informed decisions in real-world shooting scenarios. When faced with the need for maximum depth of field, photographers can opt for mid-range apertures to balance depth and diffraction.

Focus stacking emerges as a powerful technique for subjects that demand both depth and clarity, allowing photographers to achieve sharpness across the entire image. Be sure to fully watch the video above to appreciate how you can mitigate diffraction in your photography.

Additionally, being aware of diffraction's impact on sensor size can influence equipment choices, with larger sensors offering better resistance to diffraction effects.

By applying these practical insights, photographers can navigate diffraction challenges effectively and produce high-quality images in diverse shooting conditions.

Getting stung by lens diffraction (or Karl Taylor!)

 IMPORTANT VIDEO NOTICE: No Tims were harmed in the making of this tutorial 😂  


In conclusion, diffraction presents a fascinating yet challenging aspect of photography that every photographer must grapple with.

While diffraction cannot be entirely eliminated, understanding its effects and implementing practical strategies can significantly improve image quality.

By mastering concepts such as aperture selection, focus stacking, and sensor size considerations, photographers can mitigate the negative impacts of diffraction and achieve sharper, more detailed images. Furthermore, advancements in optical design and sensor technology continue to push the boundaries of what is possible, offering photographers increasingly sophisticated tools to overcome diffraction challenges.

Ultimately, by embracing diffraction as an integral and unavoidable part of the physics of photography and employing the techniques outlined in this article, photographers can elevate their craft and produce truly exceptional images.

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Now that you've gained valuable insights into overcoming diffraction challenges and enhancing your photography skills, imagine having access to a comprehensive education platform dedicated to helping you master every aspect of photography and the visual arts. That's why we developed our unique training platform.

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