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Apodization literally means "removing the foot". It is the technical term for changing the shape of a mathematical function, an electrical signal, an optical transmission or a mechanical structure.
In optical design jargon, an apodization function is used to purposely change the input intensity profile of an optical system, and may be a complicated function to tailor the system to certain properties. Usually it refers to a non-uniform illumination or transmission profile that approaches zero at the edges.
The diaphragm of a photo camera is not strictly an example of apodization, since the stop doesn't produce a smooth transition to zero intensity, nor does it provide shaping of the intensity profile (beyond the obvious all-or-nothing, "top hat" transmission of its aperture).
The Minolta/Sony Smooth Trans Focus 135mm f/2.8 [T4.5] lens, however, is a special lens design, which accomplishes this by utilizing a concave neutral-gray tinted lens element as apodization filter, thereby producing a pleasant bokeh. The same optical effect can be achieved combining depth-of-field bracketing with multi exposure, as implemented in the Minolta Maxxum 7's STF function.
Simulation of a Gaussian laser beam input profile is also an example of apodization.
Apodization is used in telescope optics in order to improve the dynamic range of the image. For example, stars with low intensity in the close vicinity of very bright stars can be made visible using this technique, and even images of planets can be obtained when otherwise obscured by the bright atmosphere of the star they orbit. Generally, apodization reduces the resolution of an optical image; however, because it reduces diffraction edge effects, it can actually enhance certain small details. In fact the notion of resolution, as it is commonly defined with the Rayleigh criterion, is in this case partially irrelevant. One has to understand that the image formed in the focal plane of a lens (or a mirror) is modelled through the Fresnel diffraction formalism. The classical diffraction pattern, the Airy disk, is connected to a circular pupil, without any obstruction and with a uniform transmission. Any change in the shape of the pupil (for example a square instead of a circle), or in its transmission, results in an alteration in the associated diffraction pattern.