The most vital part of a camera is its lens. It’s not only the camera's sensor that dictates how well your photos turn out but also the camera's lens. The quality of the image gravely depends upon it.
Anyone with a camera can take a good photo, but it’s the lens which transforms a shot into a truly artistic creation.
Nowadays, cameras don’t matter that much…yes, it’s true. The reason behind that is, pretty much every camera is so good, even the entry-level models can take outstanding photos. Just think about the camera in your smartphone and how much further it has come over the last decade.
It’s the lens which makes the difference. An entry level DSLR with a great lens will produce great photos, while a $10,000 professional camera with a bad lens will produce…well, not-that-great photos.
It’s always an advantage to have a great camera at your disposal, but it’s very important that you have a great camera lens also.
Before going any further, I want to draw your attention to the two most important fundamental parameters of an optical lens. They are, the focal length and the maximum aperture. The following sections will hopefully help you understanding the lenses and this whole article a little better.
Don’t worry, I’ll stay true to the title and explain the “expensive” bit later on.
Table of Contents
Aperture and focal length
So, the first one is the lens' focal length. It determines the magnification of the image projected onto the image plane. On the other hand, the aperture determines the light intensity of that image.
For a given photographic system the focal length determines the angle of view. Short focal lengths provides a wider field of view than longer focal length lenses does. A wider aperture, identified by a smaller f-number, allows using a faster shutter speed for the same exposure.
Now, the maximum usable aperture of a lens is specified as the focal ratio or f-number. It’s going to be used a lot in this article… So, pay attention: if the f-number is lower then the light intensity at the focal plane will be higher.
Keep note, larger apertures (smaller f-numbers) provide a much shallower depth of field than smaller apertures.
Let’s not waste any more time on the technicalities and move on to the matter that, why lenses are so important and why they cost so much...
Which lens to use for which moment helps define a photographer’s style. Also, there are different types of photography which call for different types of lenses. So, for the sake of clear understanding, we’ll divide the lens in four categories.
In this category, falls the variable aperture lenses with f/3.5, slower aperture and cheap f/1.8 prime lenses. These are cheap because you can’t zoom in or out with them. You have to get closer to your subjects physically in order to get a close-up shot.
Also, they were made a long ago and can produce crisp photos. Usually designed for crop sensor cameras, they have plastic build and sometimes a plastic mount to stay cheap
Price range for consumer lenses is typically under $500, but in some cases can be more for higher quality consumer lenses and superzooms.
Lenses for Photography Enthusiasts
This category lenses are a bridge between consumers and professional lenses with medium price range and slower constant maximum aperture. It means that, with a constant or fixed aperture lens, the aperture functions independently of the lens’ focal length. The barrel of the lens doesn’t expand or retract when the focal length changes.
There’s a benefit in that. Having larger aperture all throughout the focal range will let more light in. it’ll help you to take photos in low light situations.
Normally, lenses like these are heavier and better constructed than consumer lenses. They also have more advanced optical formula and coated elements. The glass used in these lenses are also of high quality. So, it’s very natural that, these’ll cost more.
Price range is typically between $500 and $1500. Although, some lenses might cost more. Higher-end models will have a golden ring (Nikon) or a red ring (Canon) in the front.
Professional Photo Lenses
These are simply top-class lenses. Hence, it’s no surprise that their build would be very strong and sturdy. Coupled with metal mount they have constant aperture full-frame lenses (between f/1.4 and f/2.8) with superb optics. Not to mention, fast autofocus motor is also available in them.
Professional lenses’ optical design is more advanced than previously mentioned. They’re made to function well in rough weather. Top coating technologies are integrated in them too.
With better coating, the surface of a lens element reduces the light reflection and increase light transmission within the lens. So you won’t have any unwanted optical degradation. The application of lens coatings are extremely complex and costly as well.
For this type of lens, you can expect the price to start from 1500$. If the lens is older like prime lenses, then the price can be a bit lower.
Exotic/Special Purpose Lenses
Lenses like this can transmit more light than you can imagine. Often hand crafted for specialized mount formats, these lenses mean real deal. Here, loss of light is totally negligible. With these, you can shoot in pitch-black darkness.
To simply put, these lenses aren’t for everyone to fool around. These are extremely expensive and require experienced hands to manoeuvre.
Example: Leica Noctilus-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH, Zeiss APO Sonnar T* 135mm f/2
It would be wrong to think that it’s the price point which creates the divider between the above categories. I wish it was as simple as that. In fact, there’re a number of factors that separate one lens form the other. Such as features, quality of the build, autofocus moto, size and optical features.
It often happens that, old lenses are sold at a relatively low price. It doesn’t mean that those lenses belong to different category.
Let me give you an example… Nowadays, you can buy a brand new Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 lens for just under $1000. This is half the price of the modern Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II lens. Even though the 80-200mm is sold at a cheap price, it’s still an excellent professional lens.
So, don’t write off the old lenses from your list yet…they’re still very much in the game!
To make things simple, manufacturers tend to combine enthusiast and professional lenses into one single category. Ironically, that creates more confusion for the consumers.
That’s because, how would one differentiate between lenses like 70-200mm f/4 and 70-200mm f/2.8, when both are levelled as ‘professional?’
Instead of breaking up the “Professional” category into other sub-categories, it would be easier to just introduce a separate one for “Enthusiast” level lenses.
However, we’re going to combine these two categories into one for the sake of making things a bit easier in the next section.
What Determines Cost of Consumer vs Professional Lenses?
The section’s purpose is not to go over the different lens categories in detail, rather to explain the price differences between the mentioned groups.
For many beginners, the world of camera can be pretty hard to fathom at first. When the subject of lens is put on top of that, it gets even harder. From choosing a suitable lens to understanding all the variables that make the price differ from one lens to another is a difficult task.
Like, why does the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G cost over 8 times more than the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX? Does it mean that the lens is 8 times better? In the following paragraphs, we’ll try our best to break it down and show you why professional lenses cost so much more:
Production Costs and Quality of Components
The manufacturer always sets the standard high while producing professional lenses. Which ultimately shots up the price point of them. On the other hand, consumer grade lenses are created in batches in an automated way.
In consumer lenses, the manufacturer uses relatively lower-grade acrylic elements where the bubbles are formed naturally. Nonetheless, every single glass/fluorite lenses still has to go through a complex process of which the quality is highly maintained.
But in case of professional lenses, the story is different. The glass elements go through a number of rigorous testing and inspection before they’re ready to use. The optics which pass all the tests, can only make their way into pro-grade lenses.
While, creating consumer grade lenses, the manufacturer takes a bit hands off approach, they are automated. But professional lenses are made by hands on approach, which always mean real deal. By experienced engineers the glass elements are hand-pressed, shaped, and handled.
They also run both visual and computerized inspection to detect any potential problems. No defected optics can make its way to the assembly.
There’re also big differences in physical assembly of lenses and other components used within lenses. Consumer-grade lenses are made of cheaper/lower-end, plastic, and aluminium parts. They are assembled by machines.
But professional lenses are hand-assembled and only the best components are used like brass or metal to create them (Just so you know).
Thus, naturally the production costs of professional lenses are higher than the consumer lenses. Not to mention, they also require a huge amount of research and development to perform constantly in the highest level, which also adds to the cost.
On top of the above-mentioned production costs and component differences, professional lenses have much different Quality Assurance (QA) thresholds.
For example, if a consumer lens variance is between numbers 1 and 10, professional lenses would have a much tighter variance, something like 1 to 3.
These threshold differences are set throughout the manufacturing process – from variances in optical glass to assembly, inspection and final QA checks.
This process of designing a lens is to meet a set of performance requirements and constraints, including cost and manufacturing limitations.
Optical design is computationally intensive. In this process, ray tracing and other complex techniques are used to model how the lens affects light that passes through it. Also, it requires many optical elements to reduce or correct various lens aberrations.
For example, the above-mentioned Nikon 35mm f/1.4G has 10 elements in 7 groups, while the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX lens has 8 elements 6 groups.
While the difference is the physical number of elements, which is not that big… there is a huge difference in the size of each individual lens element.
Lens Element and Coating
Lens coating is applied to the surface of a lens element which reduces light reflection and increases light transmission within the lens.
Reflection within the lens causes problems like, image duplication, and the transmission of non-image light to the image: phenomena known as ghosts and flares.
So, lens manufacturers use lens coatings to produce optics that can render an image with the least unwanted optical degradation. This process is extremely complex and costly.
Here, magnesium fluoride (MgF2) or silicon monoxide (SiO) are used as coating materials, with very thin coatings being applied evenly over the surface through such techniques as vacuum deposition or plasma sputtering.
But light is made up of different wavelengths. As a result, one coating cannot possibly reduce all reflected light. To cut down reflections of light of various wavelengths requires many layers of coatings. Such multilayer coatings are applied to high-end professional lenses.
They are often made with special coating such as Nikon’s Super Integrated Coating (SIC) and Nano Crystal Coat. Such coatings provide light transmission of 99.9% over a range that extends from ultraviolet to near-infrared light.
Image Quality (Sharpness, Contrast, and Color)
People often tend to believe that the higher the megapixels or better the camera body, the more excellent the image will be. Well, that’s not true. Yes, there are lot of factors which impact the final quality of a photo where lens is unarguably at the top of that list.
Thanks to complex optical designs, professional lenses are optimized to provide very high image quality with superb colour and sharp centre to corner resolution.
Yet, all lenses are affected by aberrations. Most appear when points of light in the image aren’t translated into single points with the same relationship to each other after passing through the lens. The manufacturer has seen to it too.
That’s exactly why they pay special attention to reduce that optical problem including distortion and vignetting.
Consumer lenses are often made for APS-C size sensor cameras. This type of cameras use a smaller area to form the image than traditional 35 mm cameras, and so lenses used on APS-C format cameras have a correspondingly narrower field of view.
Because the smaller sensors only use the centre area of the frame and chop off the corners, only the centre portion of lenses are effectively used.
To reduce the cost and size of consumer lenses, manufacturers made lenses with smaller image circles, because the corners are wasted anyway.
Maximum / Constant Aperture
Most consumer lenses are slow, variable aperture lenses. It means the aperture changes based on your focal length. Also, there’s limitation in terms of aperture choices. It affects depth-of-field and the range exposure choice as well.
In addition, each time you zoom to bring your subject closer, there’ll be loss of light, because the front element of the lens isn’t big enough to let in more light. So… yes, they don’t perform that well in low-light condition.
Their slow aperture always confuses autofocus systems, causing focus errors in challenging light. On the other hand, professional lenses are mostly faster, constant aperture lenses. The differences are often quite big.
For example, the Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G variable aperture superzoom lens at 200mm is an f/5.6 lens, while the Nikon 70-200m f2/2.8G stays at f/2.8 no matter what focal length you choose. That’s a big, two stop difference at 200mm.
In photography, bokeh is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in out-of-focus parts of an image. It’s also been defined as ‘the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light’.
The thing is, slow, variable aperture lenses are also quite bad at this. In addition, slow aperture translates to larger depth of field, which means that consumer lenses are limited in their subject isolation capabilities.
Whereas, professional lenses are designed specifically to render backgrounds in a smooth, straightforward way that is aesthetically pleasing to look at, and their large maximum aperture allows for much more effective subject isolation.
Consumer-grade lenses often come with slow autofocus motors. These type of lenses aren’t up to the task when it comes to taking photos of fast moving objects or actions, such as wildlife and sports photography.
Professional lenses are typically equipped with very fast autofocus motors that can snap subjects into focus almost immediately.
In telephoto lenses, autofocus settings can be easily optimized for long range shooting, which further reduces focus acquisition time.
Fixed Lens Size
Consumer and enthusiast lenses often change in proportion in case of zooming in or focusing in. this can be a sort of nuisance every now and then. Because, you can’t use filters with these type of lenses especially with rotating front elements.
Not only that, because of changing in size, they are prone to malfunction or break in future. Moreover, some optical elements can shift over time. What this will do is that, it’ll significantly affect sharpness, contrast and the final result of your image’s quality.
To simply put, consumer grade lenses are more fragile than professional lenses. They’re simply not built like that. It’s very unlikely that consumer lenses will handle occasional bumps, drops or any unwanted accident.
If you end up dropping one, it’s better to buy a new one than to repair that. Because repairing will often cost more. As already mentioned, this type of lenses having fragile plastic parts will break easily or dislocate if hit with force. So, you always have to be extra careful while manoeuvring them.
But professional lenses can take a lot of abuse (that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be casual while using them). They are built to last. When you hold them, you’ll feel the extra weight which indicates their sturdy nature.
Because, components that are used for both inside and outside of the barrel are usually metal. They protect the lenses from any sort of accident within their limits.
Another big difference is in weather sealing. Weather sealed lenses are considered as excellent insurance policy for photographing in inclement weather. This doesn’t add much weight and often adds durability as well as water resistance.
These seals are often made with rubber and they are placed in spots where the shooting situation can become compromised in tough weather.
Fixed-length professional lenses with tough construction are mostly sealed, so they continue to perform in those tough situations. But consumer lenses don’t have the same level of protection and they are much more prone to accumulating dust, moisture and fungus overtime.
What Makes Exotic Lenses So Special?
Currently, there’re many exotic lenses on the market. Almost every single one of them has staggering price tag. Instead of the high pricing, they’re way too popular in their world. Also you won’t see them in every corner. They are scarce and manufactured for a very limited market.
This might naturally invoke you into thinking that, what it is about this category of lenses that makes them so exceptional when compared to everything else.
So, in this part of the article we’ll reflect on the factors that are responsible for making the exotic lenses so special. Hence, we’ll be focusing mainly on the craftsmanship, perceived value and niche marketing of these lenses and see whether it justifies the myth that are in the ether.
If we look closely at how the modern lenses are made, it’ll be quite apparent that those products have no life in them. I’m not crazy for incorporating the word life to these lifeless products. Yet, you’ll agree with me that the lenses can bring even the most mundane thing to life…
Having said that, modern lenses are honestly devoid of life. They are automated. So, quite often they don’t have the artistry or character in them. I’m emphasising on these terms because photography is an art from, right? So, how can you create art with robots?
They will draw perfectly symmetrical body as they are programmed, but that’s not art. Art is more organic and unprecedented. Now, the modern lenses are like robotic offspring. Taken from a conveyor line, where thousands of other lenses are being made exactly the same way with little intervention.
But back in the days, older lenses were hand-crafted, one by one. So, each lens was unique in its own way. They were like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. That was the beauty of it.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being seeking perfection, since it’s available because of the latest technology. So, what did that do to the notion of hand-crafted, imperfect, but unique in their way? Well, they’ve started to disappear.
If you’ve read the short story “Quality” written by John Galsworthy, you’ll know what I’m talking about. In that story, two tradition German shoemakers who didn’t compromise with quality and craftsmanship, met the sad fate of extinction in the modern age of marketing and technology.
In this industry too, machines replaced human. Quantity replaced quality. Also things like, computerized/automated testing, QA/variance thresholds and SLAs started dictating the manufacturing process rather than human.
But rest assured, the exotic lens companies are still out there unlike the Gessler Brothers from the story mentioned above.
As we already discussed, we’re prone to seeking perfection- we expect everything to be perfect and consistent all across the board.
That’s why manufacturers started to become more and more mainstream and consistency in their products has become one of their chief objective as expected from the consumers. Consumers who cannot stand variance or uniqueness.
Such monotonous mentality and expectations of the consumers have stripped the products of character and life. It is that same feeling you get when you walk into a furniture store and see dozens of plastic chairs stacked on top of each other, all looking exactly the same.
This type of modern plastic lens usually doesn’t last long. There’s a dirty monopoly that’s being played by the manufacturers. They know we, the consumers always want the better product at a cheaper price. As a result, we’re always trying to save money to get the best product with our savings.
By the time we get the product in our hand, the companies bring a slightly more upgraded version. We start saving for that upgraded version. This cycle never ends. This short term experience of ours always leaves us wanting for more.
Enter the scene companies like Zeiss, Leica and Schneider. Companies that don’t need mass production or stacks of specifications to be their motivation. They don’t offer short term experience.
Instead, they make lenses that last. Lenses that have character and radicalism. Products with quality that transcendent time, which will inspire a person today and continue to inspire for more years to come.
Those companies mentioned above, don’t have the word mainstream in their vocabulary. For example, Carl Zeiss has been in optics and imaging for more than 160 years. Blockbuster movies such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ benefit from the unique images made possible by ZEISS lenses.
They pay so much attention to each produced lens that you’ll be surprised. Zeiss’s head of Test Center for EMC, Norbert Wittekindt says that he’s motivated by the reliability of a product that you can be confident of picking it up and using it when you need.
That’s why they run tests like, temperature test or vibration tests to offer the best reliable product that you can have. You can clearly understand that, cost of manufacturing isn’t necessarily the only reason for high prices.
So, it’s no myth why Zeiss and Leica lenses cost more than contemporary lens providers. They charge for the amount of care and huge number of hours that are spent behind each lenses individually.
What happened to Nikon and Canon?
They were also like Leica and Zeiss for a long period of time with their legendary high-end professional lenses. I can bet that Nikon lens users still reminiscence about the all-metal legendary AIS lenses. Those built to last lenses were of so high calibre that, they still have huge demand in the market.
Nikon, however… started to cut corners and move away from metal to lighter plastic parts. Especially, when the all-metal AF-D lenses were getting replaced by AF-S lenses and the consumers for DSLR market was on the rise.
Initially, that was a welcome move for the consumer lenses. Because the all-metal AF-D lenses were very heavy. But pretty soon the plastic parts were beginning to find their way in the high-end lenses as well.
Gradually, both Nikon and Canon started to make profit from selling cheap consumer grade lenses. As a result, there has been a transition in their marketing policy. They went from producing high quality optics to high-demand, plastic mass produced lenses.
For that reason, you’ll see more cheap and plastic parts used in some professional lenses. It’s true that plastic can withstand extreme weather better than metal. But if plastic lenses are exposed to very cold or hot temperatures then they are easily prone to getting damaged. Also, they can wear off over time.
These two companies did see some decline in overall quality of their lenses. But it’s not exactly clear what caused that. It could be that they had lowered the quality assurance controls or it could be the usage of more plastic parts.
But ever since they have been selling to the masses in addition with all the electronics and motors that go into those modern lenses, their rate of malfunctioning have grown higher than the manual focus lenses. That’s the reason why they don’t last that much than the exotic hand-crafted lenses.
They’re among the big guardians of these business nonetheless. That’s why with the more money coming in, they were able invest more bucks to upgrade the quality of their lenses.
Which is why, lenses like Nikon 35mm f/1.4G are able to surpass exotics like Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 in optical quality (the same goes for Nikon 50mm f/1.4G vs Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 and Nikon 85mm f/1.4G vs Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4).
Let me just remind you once more that, Zeiss’ fame is based upon its exceptional craftsmanship. No manufacturer can compete with them regarding Zeiss’ dexterity. But if you consider the quality of lenses, then both Nikon and Canon has supreme well-built lenses in their armoury too.
For example, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM are lenses like that. In a sense, they can be regarded as exotic lens as well.
However, Zeiss didn’t sit idly. They’ve been exploring more markets, as Nikon and Canon were mass producing lenses. To ensure a steady yet concrete future, Zeiss has been licensing its lens production to companies like Cosina and Sony for a while.
It was not that long ago, that Zeiss introduced “Touit” lenses for the mirrorless Fuji X and Sony E mounts. These Touit lenses do have the potential to add more popular mirrorless mounts in the future.
The thing is, if this lens becomes successful, then there is a possibility that Zeiss can become a mainstream company in near future just like Canon and Nikon.
Perceived Value, Niche Marketing and Rarity
You already have a pretty clear idea that the manufacturing exotic lenses isn’t cheap. But if you still look a little deeper, you’ll find that production cost still doesn’t explain why the rare lenses cost so much…
Why Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux (priced at $10,995) costs 3 times more than Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux (priced at $3,995)? It just doesn’t add up. The trick is here to take perceived value into consideration.
What is perceived value? It’s the value that comes down to the price the public is willing to pay for a good or service. The highest value of luxury goods isn’t associated with their utility but with the prestige that owning and using it entails.
You might think an f/0.95 Leica lens isn’t worth $11k. Yes, it’s a very nice lens… no doubt about that. Still eleven hundred grand? But for some people it really is.
The same goes for the new Nikon 800mm f/5.6 VR lens – at $18K that Nikon is asking for it, is it really about $8K more expensive to make than the Nikon 600mm f/4 VR?
No matter how many fluorite elements there are within the lens, it is still definitely not $8K more than what Nikon wants people to pay.
It doesn’t matter whether you and I think that they are asking way more than the product cost. Because the product has its own audience, a niche market that is willing to pay that kind of money. For a professional wildlife photographer, the 800mm f/5.6 is a dream lens to die for.
Finally, there’s the matter of rarity, something that has the potential to become a collectible item someday. Something that has history and character. Not the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G lens obviously.
On the other hand, A German engineered, state of the art Zeiss or a Leica lens has a very high chance of becoming a rare collectible in future. This also plays a role in increasing its future sale value.
In short, the reason behind such high price value of exotic lenses is many. Not only they’re exceptional and gorgeous in design, they’re the machines that are built with care. In every element, every part of the making process, they’re dealt with passion.
In this era of automata, you won’t find this type of care while manufacturing machines. When you hold such lenses, you’re not just holding a lifeless product…you’re holding a piece of history made with years of experience, breathing in your hands to help you capture moments.
I guess that’s what makes the exotic lenses so special and expensive.