The human visual system : focus and acuity

There is a third difference between cameras and the human visual system (HVS). While some camera lenses may share a similar perspective of the world with the HVS with respect to the angle-of view, where they differ is what is actually in the area of focus. Using any lens on a camera means that a picture will have an area where the scene is in-focus, with the remainder being out-of-focus. This in-focus region generally occurs in a plane, and is associated with the depth-of-field. On the other hand, the in-focus region of the picture our mind presents us does not have a plane of focus.

While binocular vision allows approximately 120° of (horizontal) vision, it is only highly focused in the very centre, with the remaining picture being increasingly out-of-focus depending on how far a point is away from the central focused region. This may be challenging to visualize, but if you look at an object, only the central point is in focus, the remainder of the picture is out-of-focus. That does not mean it is necessarily blurred, because the brain is still able to discern shape and colour, just not fine details. Blurring it usually a function of distance from the object being focused on, i.e. the point-of-focus. If you look at a close object, distant objects will be out-of-focus, and vice versa.

Fig.1: Parts of the macula

Focused vision is related to the different parts of the macula, an oval-shaped pigmented area in the centre of the retina which is responsible for interpreting vision, colour, fine details, and symbols (see Figure 1). It is composed almost entirely of cones, into a series of zones:

  • perifovea (5.5mm∅, 18°) : Details that appear in up to 9-10° of visual angle.
  • parafovea (3mm∅, 8°) : Details that appear in peripheral vision, not as sharp as the fovea.
  • fovea (1.5mm∅, 5°) : Or Fovea centralis, comprised entirely of cones, and responsible for high-acuity, and colour vision.
  • foveola (0.35mm∅, 1°) : A central pit within the fovea, which contains densely packed cones. Within the foveola is a small depression known as the umbo (0.15mm∅), which is the microscopic centre of the foveola.
Fig.2: Angle-of-view of the whole macula region, versus the foveola. The foveola provides the greatest region of acuity, i.e. fine details.

When we fixate on an object, we bring an image of that object onto the fovea. The foveola provides the greatest amount of visual acuity, in the area 1-2° outwards from the point of fixation. As the distance from fixation increases, visual acuity decreases quite rapidly. To illustrate this effect, try reading the preceding text in this paragraph while fixating on the period at the end of the sentence. It is likely challenging, if not impossible, to read text outside a small circle of focus from the point of fixation. A seven letter word, like “outside”, is about 1cm wide, which when read on a screen 60cm from your eye represents about an angle of 1°. The 5° of the fovea region allows for a “preview” of the words either side, and parafovea region, 8° of peripheral words (i.e. their shape). This is illustrated in Figure 3.

Fig.3: Reading text from 60cm

To illustrate how this differential focus affects how humans view a scene, consider the image shown in Figure 4. The point of focus is a building in the background roughly 85m from where the person is standing. This image has been modified by adding radial blur from a central point-of-focus to simulate in-focus versus out-of-focus regions as seen by the eye (the blur has been exaggerated). The sharpest region is the point of fixation in the centre – from this focus on a particular object, anything either side of that object will be unsharp, and the further away from that point, the more unsharp is becomes. The

Fig.4: A simulation of focused versus out-of-focus regions in the HVS (the point of fixation is roughly 85m from the eyes)

It is hard to effectively illustrate exactly how the HVS perceives a scene as there is no way of taking a snapshot and analyzing it. However we do know that focus is a function of distance from the point-of-focus. Other parts of an image as essentially de-emphasized, there is still information there, and the way our minds process it, it provides a complete vision, but there is a central point of focus.

Further reading:

  1. Ruch, T.C., “Chapter 21: Binocular Vision, and Central Visual Pathways”, in Neurophysiology (Ruch, T.C. et al. (eds)) p.441-464 (1965)
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The human visual system : image shape and binocular vision

There are a number of fundamental differences between a “normal” 50mm lens and the human visual system (HVS). Firstly, a camera extracts a rectangular image from the circular view of the lens. The HVS on the other hand is not circular, nor rectangular – if anything it has somewhat of an oval shape. This can be seen in the diagram of binocular field of vision shown in Figure 1 (from [1]). The central shaded region is the field of vision seen by both eyes, i.e. binocular (stereoscopic) vision, the white areas on both sides are the monocular crescents, seen by only by each eye, and the blackened area is not seen.

Fig.1: One of the original diagrams illustrating both the shape of vision, and the extent of binocular vision [1].

Figure 1 illustrates a second difference, the fact that normal human vision is largely binocular, i.e. uses both eyes to produce an image, whereas most cameras are monocular. Figure 2 illustrates binocular vision more clearly, comparing it to the total visual field.

Fig.2: Shape and angle-of-view, total versus binocular vision (horizontal).

The total visual field of the HVS is 190-200° horizontally, which is composed of 120° of binocular vision, and two fields of 35-40° seen by one one eye. Vertically, the visual field of view is about 130° (and the binocular field is roughly the same), comprised of 50° above the horizontal line-of-sight, and 70-80° below it. An example to illustrate binocular vision (horizontal) is shown in Figure 3.

Fig.3: A binocular (horizontal – 120°) view of Bergen, Norway

It is actually quite challenging to provide an exact example of what a human sees – largely because trying to take the same picture would require a lens such as a fish-eye which would introduce distortions, something the HVS is capable of filtering out.

Further reading:

  1. Ruch, T.C., “Chapter 21: Binocular Vision, and Central Visual Pathways”, in Neurophysiology (Ruch, T.C. et al. (eds)) p.441-464 (1965)

Camera versus binocular optics in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”

The other interesting thing about Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” is the fact that the binocular shots, and the camera shots appear the same. Again we could mark this down to artistic license, but there are inherently some issues which persist from an optical point-of-view. Firstly, what kind of binoculars are they? Little is written in the literature about the brand, so that requires a little investigative work.

Jeff with his binoculars in Rear Window

The most telling feature of these binoculars is that these are porro prism binoculars. In Porro prism Binoculars the objective or front lens is offset from the eyepiece. This offset is often characterized by a cap, which terminates the transition from ocular to objective lens.

The cross-section of half of a binocular. showing the transition from ocular (left) to objective (right) lens.

With some manufacturers, the transition seems to be smooth, with streamlined curves. There are a couple of brands that stand out in this respect: Bausch and Lomb (USA), Bushnell (USA), Cadillac (USA, made in Japan). Brands like Zeiss on the other hand, had a capped, “hard” transition.

A pair of Zeiss binoculars, showing the hard black “caps” covering the lenses.

Beyond this, it is hard to tell what brand they were, because those markings would be on the front of the binoculars. More important are likely the power of magnification (how many times closer you are to the thing you are viewing), and the objective diameter of the lens. After doing some comparative measurements of the binoculars in the movie, with those in a early 1950s Bausch and Lomb catalog, I would guesstimate that these are the 7×50 binoculars, i.e. objective diameter was 50mm, and the power of magnification 7 times. A 400mm lens has a magnification factor of ×8, so binoculars with a power of ×7-8 would make sense (if we ignore the optical differences between binoculars and 35mm film lenses, e.g. cameras have a film plane, binoculars don’t).


A comparison of the binoculars in the movie, and the Bausch and Lomb 7×50 binoculars, circa early 1950s – notice the ergonomic flow of the lens parts.

The other factor which makes the B&L 7×50 the most likely candidate is that Bausch and Lomb supplied the US armed forces during WW2 (and Jeff was in the US Army Air Force), and this particular model was the Navy model, which had the “highest relative brightness of any binocular”, a so-called true “night glass”. So what are the issues between the 400mm camera lens and the binocular optics, assuming 7×50?

  • Field-of-View – The FoV of a 400mm lens is just over 5° (horizontal), which at 100′ distance (the width of the courtyard), translates to around 9 feet. The B&L 7×50 binoculars had a linear field of 381′ at 1000 yards, which would be about 12.7′ at 100′.
  • Full image circle – The camera would truncate the image circle of the lens to a rectangle, and therefore the maximum FoV is only possible along the diagonal of the frame. Binoculars allow you to see the full circle of the FoV and thus the maximum FoV in all directions. A 35mm camera with a 3:2 ratio only displays about 59% of an image circle with the same diameter as the diagonal of the rectangular image sensor.
  • Stereo Vision –  Binoculars allow both eyes to see slightly different angles of the same objects that allow use of depth perception. Other than specialized 3D cameras, most cameras are monocular.
Rear Window: The view through the binoculars.

So Hitchcock’s use of both binoculars and a 35mm camera with a 400mm lens does take a lot of artistic license, because they are not the same, but portray the same thing on screen.