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Focus/Lens Breathing: What Is It and Does It Matter?

By Kishore Sawh on December 17th 2014

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No, it’s not pat of some meditation exercise for relaxation. Focus breathing, or lens breathing as it’s also called, is really the term used in reference to the change in focal length (magnification etc.) as your focal distance changes. A good way to think about it, if you don’t have a lens handy (I’m sure you do), is to manipulate the focus ring of the lens and look into the viewfinder and notice if/how the field of view and magnification changes. That change is focus breathing.

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One of the reasons it can be frustrating for some people is that camera and lens manufacturers don’t ever put it in their marketing material, and so it can catch you off your guard, and the problem is not isolated to either zoom or prime lenses – it’s all fair game. Fair to say, too, that many people don’t even notice it happens, so don’t feel bad if this is the first you’re really hearing about it.

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It certainly will pop out to you now that you know about it and there’s no getting away from that now. Typically, it won’t matter to the casual shooter or even most avid and professional shooters, but anyone can be frustrated with it. It’s more of a trouble for macro photographers. To illustrate a scenario where this would be frustrating, consider that a 105mm prime, will get higher magnification at 105mm, especially at closest focus, than say, some 70-200mm lenses when they are set to 105mm.

In my personal experience, I haven’t seen a particular difference in the rate at which zooms or primes breathe. I’ve seen primes, especially some 85mm primes that really change your frame when focusing, but again, it doesn’t much bother me if I have to reframe a little. In the video below, Matt Granger does a pretty good job at illustrating the problem visually, and I dare say for some of you it will be an ‘a-ha’ moment.

[REWIND: F-Stops & T-Stops? Which One Matters To You & Why]

Source: Matt Granger YouTube

About

Kishore is, among other things, the Editor-In-Chief at SLR Lounge. A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

8 Comments

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  1. Lee Coates

    @David Hall, a thing? Focus breathing has always been an issue for the observant. 

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  2. Basit Zargar

    interesting

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  3. David Hall

    Interesting… never knew this was “a thing”.

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  4. fotosiamo

    yea, it’s one of the reason cine lenses are far more expensive. Minimal focus breathing, parfocal focus (subject stays in focus as you zoom in and out on a zoom lens), and other criterias are important for cine lenses:

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/video/hands-reviews/cinema-zoom-lenses

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  5. Hans photoWerks

    Controlled breathing helps to stablise… trying shooting after intense running or chasing, you will need breathing to control the aiming and eventual shot to ensure a good focus, esp for the long shots.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Agreed. Important to keep this in mind for the moments the subject you’re stalking on the street notices and takes off… ;-)

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  6. adam sanford

    Cine lenses handle this phenomenon a lot better than stills lenses, don’t they?

    I caught a discussion on this very topic at LensRentals from the people’s Optical Nerd-in-Chief:
    http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2013/04/first-look-zeiss-cz-2-70-200mm-t2-9

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    • Stan Rogers

      On the other hand, even perfectly-controlled breathing (optimal internal focus) bugs the heck out of me. I’m old, and grew up with bellows draw as a fact of life. These days, if you want a 100mm-ish macro lens, you actually have to buy a 150 or a 180, since IF means that your 100 is really only a 60 or so at minimum focusing distance. It’s still 1:1, but your stand-off distance to get that magnification shrinks severely. The Lensmaker giveth, and the Lensmaker taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lensmaker.

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