Lens Magnification

A thin lens collects incoming parallel light rays into a focal point F. Its behaviour can be described by the well-known lens equation

1 / f = 1 / g + 1 / h (M1)

where f is the focal length of the lens, g is the object distance between object and lens, and h is the image distance between lens and image sensor (fig. 3). Only if this equation is satisfied, the picture of a point is again a point, and the image appears fully sharp.

When the lens is focused, it is actually moved back or forth a little such that the lens equation is satisfied, i.e. the distances g and h are adjusted. However, the focusing distance d which you can read and set on your lens measures the full distance between object and image plane, i.e.

d = g + h (M2)
lens magnification

Fig. 3.

Magnification of a thin lens as a function of focal length f and focusing distance d.

The magnification m in which we are interested here is defined as the ratio of image size H and real object size G

m = H / G (M3)

By similar triangles along the central ray (yellow), this is equivalent to

m = h / g (M4)

For a given focusing distance d, we can calculate g and h according to equations (L12) and (L13), respectively:

g = d / 2 + r (M5)
h = d / 2 - r (M6)

where r is

r = sqrt (d² / 4 - f d) (M7)

With equation (M4), we can now easily calculate the magnification m of a lens as

m = (d / 2 - r) / (d / 2 + r) (M8)

This formula is used for the lens magnification calculator. It is interesting to note that the magnification only depends on focal length and focusing distance of the lens, but not on other factors such as aperture or the size of the image sensor. Results are thus valid for full frame, crop cameras and even mobile phone cameras alike. However, for a given magnification, you can of course capture a larger object with a larger image sensor.

Minimum focusing distance

Note that equation (M8) can only be solved if the expression under the root in equation (M7) is non-negative, i.e.

d² / 4 - f d 0 (M9)

Division by d (positive for all meaningful cases) gives

d 4 f (M10)

Since we are interested in the maximum magnification, it is clear that we must get as close to the object as possible. Equation (M14) defines a lower bound for the focusing distance d, i.e. we cannot get any closer than 4 times the focal length. How close we can actually get also depends on the mechanical construction of the lens. The closest possible distance dmin that still gives a sharp image is called the minimum focusing distance (MFD) of the lens. It is usually the smallest figure printed on the focus ring of your lens.


If we solve the lens equation (M1) for h and substitute it into equation (M4), we get

m = f / (g - f) (M11)

This formula looks more simple than equation (M12) and is thus sometimes published to calculate the lens magnification, but remember that we usually do not know the object distance g, but only the focusing distance d. For close-up situations, these may differ significantly.

However, if the object is reasonably far away, i.e. d is much bigger than f, we can approximate (g - f) by g and g by d and get

m f / d (M12)

Easy to remember, but for macro photography, the resulting figures are much too small.


The magnification as derived by one of the given formulas is a positive real number. For example, for a focal length of 50 mm and a focusing distance of 0.3 m (1 ft), we get a magnification of 0.27. This means that the size of the image H is 0.27 times (or 0.27×, 27%) of the size of the original object G.

In photography, a commonly used notation for lens magnification is

1 : M (M13)

where M is calculated as the inverse of m. In our example, the magnification is 1 : 3.7, which indicates that the size of the image is 1 / 3.7 or about 1 / 4 of the size of the original.

The next section on lens extension tubes describes how a lens can be modified to provide a higher magnification.