Friday, March 6, 2009

Why is a Lens So Expensive?

Recently, I took to task a professional photographer for using a "prosumer" lens, and there was some defense of that photographer in their use of that prosumer lens. If you've ever shot with a prime lens versus a pro zoom, versus a prosumer variable aperture zoom, versus an off-brand zoom, and so on, you've likely seen a difference in quality, and variances in sharpness at the various apertures, which is one of the things I really like about the Popular Photography lens tests (read more here) so I can learn the sweet spot for each lens I own from a scientific standpoint.

Gizmodo has a great Article - Giz Explains: Why Lenses Are the Real Key to Stunning Photos (2/26/09) and there is this informative video about how a lens is actually made:

The Gizmodo article notes "The lens is, after all, your camera's eyeball—the image sensor or film can only record what comes in through the lens. It's what defines the picture's perspective, clarity and way more", which is why using the best lens (which almost always means 'most expensive') can assist in your producing better images.

(Comments, if any, after the Jump)

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Craig M. said...

The video was very interesting. Thanks for posting it.

Delane said...

Really cool, great find John!!!

Chicago photographer said...

This is especially true now, with the resolution in the sensors revealing deficiencies in even the best lenses.

Anonymous said...

While I certainly agree that there are differences in quality between name brand and off brand lenses, between the various grades of lenses and between primes and zooms, its not the lens that makes a great photograph, its the photographer.

I'm quite sure Bill Neill could make a superb landscape image using one of Canon's inexpensive "kit" lenses.

Edward said...

@ jefflynchdev:
There is always that argument and there are plenty of people making great images with nothing more than a plastic box and some film, however when push comes to shove I would prefer to work with the camera, not against it, in order to capture a great image be it landscape, portrait or reportage.

With cheap lenses the photographer needs to no only concentrate on composition but also on the limitations of the lens. With a properly designed lens the camera now works for the photographer, not the other way round.

Anonymous said...

Great article, but you left out a couple of huge chunks to the equation. Namely, One: Post File Management Considerations from the photographer, which include critical steps like exposure adjustment, sharpening, contrast adjustments, and degree of enlargement.
TWO: Post file handling from the printer which could include all of the above Along with unique adjustments based on the final print process used to reproduce the image, like paper and ink behaviors. I don't think it's fair to judge and analyze lenses in a vacuum and then blame bad images on their performances in real working and reproduction conditions.
Also, does the final consumer, who's not a lens nerd really care?

tcknight said...

Why is "use the best lens you can afford" still up for debate in photography circles? Enthusiasts keep climbing the megapixel ladder yet continue to use their third party consumer lenses.

I'll never forget the day I attached my first high quality professional lense. It cost three times what I paid for the camera i had at the time, yet what a feeling when I viewed the first slides taken with that lens.

I agree with Edward, but would add that a quality lens removes the usual limitation of the lens, but magnifies the limitations of the photographer.

Charles said...

The cost of a lens is determined by many factors. Optical quality is an important and major determinant, but not the only one. A professional lens needs to satisfy a range of requirements covering a base of differing working conditions. And those extra requirements very definitely add to the cost.

To take the most obvious factor - professional lenses are fast. A wide aperture adds exponential costs in terms of glass, special elements, machining tolerances and the build quality needed to keep it all together. Now, if you shoot sports or shoot in darkened conditions or need shallow DoF then you need that wide aperture. But if you're doing all your work below f5.6, you don't, so why pay for it?

The same goes for weather sealing. If you shoot outdoors in variable conditions then you need it and will be glad you paid for it. If you shoot indoors or in a studio, then it's adding nothing to your shot.

Optical quality certainly is absolutely crucial, but you're overlooking the fact that many 'prosumer' or even (gasp) 'offbrand' lenses can match the optical quality of the top-end when used within their limitations. If those limitations don't affect your working style, then why spend the money?

How many pros shoot with manual-focus Zeiss primes? They certainly have the optical quality.

Tim Broyer said...

eagerly await your flickr plus Getty respons.

花蓮 said...


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