What Makes Exotic Lenses So Special?

This is a part two to my “why are some lenses so expensive?” article that I wrote yesterday. I already explained the difference between consumer and professional-level lenses in the first post, so now it is time to talk about exotic lenses. With so many exotic lenses on the market today, some of which seem to be in relatively high demand (at least judging by their lack of availability), one might wonder about what makes them so special when compared to everything else. This post is not meant to be technical or basic – I think you can get most of that from the first article. Instead, I want to focus on craftsmanship, price, perceived value and niche marketing – the main drivers behind exotic lenses.

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 vs Nikon 35mm f/1.4 vs Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 vs Rokinon 35mm f/1.4

I once had a conversation with a photography veteran, who was trying to convince me that the new Nikkor and Canon lenses lack “soul”, with their plastic barrels, rubber focus/zoom rings and industrial “mainstream” designs. I disagreed, because I was blown away by the performance of new generation lenses and I just did not care about everything else. Plus, the notion of a lens having a soul just disturbed me and I remember thinking how ridiculous it was even to think about such things. But as time passed by and I got a chance to experience some of the rare and older optics, I started to understand what the photographer was trying to tell me. Most modern lenses do feel as if they are just taken from a conveyor line, where thousands of other lenses are made exactly the same way with little intervention. Older lenses were hand-crafted, one by one, and each lens was unique in its own way. And that was the beauty of it, because you never knew what you got – it was a game of random cards.

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Why Are Some Lenses So Expensive?

Every once in a while, I get asked why some lenses are so much more expensive compared to others. Interestingly, this question comes from both beginners and advanced photographers, but in different contexts. Beginners want to know why pro-level lenses are a lot more expensive than consumer lenses, while knowledgeable photographers wonder about what makes niche/exotic lenses from companies like Zeiss and Leica so much more expensive than modern professional lenses. These are all interesting and valid questions, so I thought writing a couple of articles to attempt to answer these questions would be useful for our readers. In this article, I want to answer the first beginner question on what makes professional lenses expensive.

Nikon Lens Comparison

1) Lens Categories

To understand differences between lenses, I believe it is important to first categorize them into different groups. This is obviously a subjective categorization, something I personally came up with to group lenses in our lens database:

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Canon EOS 70D DSLR Announcement

Canon has just announced a successor to the popular but aging 60D. The new member of EOS family is called 70D and packs a number of improvements over the rest of the line-up, including the higher-end 7D model. 70D is positioned squarely against Nikon’s D7100 DSLR with virtually identical body-only price and competitive on-paper specifications.

Canon EOS 70D Front

Canon 70D Overview and Key Specifications

The first thing that should be mentioned about 70D is the new APS-C CMOS sensor. Canon has been using the same 18 megapixel unit in its crop sensor cameras ever since 7D was launched back in 2009. For a while now, every single crop sensor camera from Canon featured this sensor. While competitive at the time of its launch, it has begun to show its age when compared to newer units found in Sony, Pentax and Nikon cameras. They all offered better low-light high ISO performance and better dynamic range. It was just a matter of time before Canon updated it. The new sensor has a slightly higher resolution at 20.2 megapixels. We are yet to see if there’s any improvement in these areas, but manufacturing a new sensor usually is a good start. At just over 20 megapixels, it’s also not that far off 24 megapixel mark of its closest rivals.
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Canon vs Nikon Telephoto Lenses

One of our readers, Simon Speich sent me an interesting article that compares Canon and Nikon Telephoto lenses. He created a couple of fun charts that take into account lens weight, maximum aperture and focal length and he came up with a graph that shows which manufacturer offers the best focal length to weight ratio. Give it a read, I thought this was great to share with our readers!

When transporting your photo equipment, the weight of your lenses can play an important role, especially when travelling on foot or by airplane. To find out which telephoto lens gives you the best compromise between weight and reach, I created a few charts to compare all professional lenses of Nikon and Canon with focal lengths equal to or greater than 300mm (see the table further below). The following comparison should not be taken too seriously, but nonetheless might give you some valuable insight when deciding on a lens.

1) Lens Weight

The first three charts show lens weight, diameter and length against focal length. The first thing you will notice is that both lines of lenses have more or less the same dimensions, but the Canon lenses are between 0.5 and 1 kg lighter than the Nikon counterparts, except for the new Nikon 800mm (see below).

Lens Weight

 
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Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L Announcement

A much more exciting news today is for Canon shooters – the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L with a built-in 1.4x teleconverter has finally been announced. The Canon 200-400mm f/4 was released in response to the highly regarded Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR, which Nikon has been making for a decade now. Many Canon enthusiasts and pros have been craving badly for such a lens, because it can be invaluable for photographing wildlife. Instead of creating the same lens, Canon took optical design a step further and designed the lens with a built-in 1.4x teleconverter, making it a versatile lens with 200-400mm or 280-560mm focal lengths.

Canon 200-400mm f/4 IS 1.4x

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Third Party Lens Manufacturers are On The Rise

I remember not that long ago there were two types of lenses. Brand lenses, those designed by known manufacturers for their own cameras, such as Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Olympus, and the cheapskate third party lenses you’d buy if you couldn’t afford the first type. Brand lenses were more expensive, but well worth the extra price. Better build quality, better optical capability, better dependability, better compatibility, better autofocus and fewer quality control and manufacturing issues were what you got for your hard-earned cash. Not to mention respectful nods from anyone spotting letters Nikkor or a red ring around the front of that lens barrel. A few years have gone by now and situation seems to be changing, however. Third party manufacturers have moved the game up and started producing some serious alternatives. Sigma is very keen to prove the point with the launch of its latest lens, the new 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM for APS-C DSLR cameras. In this article, I will introduce you to this new lens and give insight as to why it is such an important step forward in current smaller-format lens market.

Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM

What is it About This Lens?

In a nutshell, this new lens sports a useful wide-to-normal focal length range of 18-35mm on an APS-C sensor camera (27-52.5mm full-frame equivalent), for which it is designed. It also has Sigma’s fast HSM AF motor, which is similar to Nikon’s SWM and Canon’s USM technology. Zooming and focusing are internal, so length remains constant. The new Sigma also has 17 elements in 12 groups and sports 9 rounded diaphragm blades for smooth out of focus highlights. Some of the optical elements are aspherical while minimum focus distance is 0.28m. The lens accepts 72mm filters and is, unfortunately, not protected against dust and moisture. It’s also quite hefty at around 810g. The lens sits in Sigma’s Art lineup alongside Sigma 35mm f/1.4 HSM and is designed with aesthetic flexibility in mind. But the spotlight is the f/1.8 aperture throughout the zoom range. Oh yes. This is the first ever f/1.8 zoom lens for DSLRs.

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How to Read MTF Charts

When my article on field curvature was published a while ago, where I talked about how one could do a quick analysis of lens MTF data and determine if it exhibits any field curvature, some of our readers expressed interest in understanding how to read MTF charts. Since we talk quite a bit about lens performance and MTF data here at Photography Life, I decided to write a detailed article on the subject and do my best to thoroughly explain everything related to MTF curves, charts and all the verbiage that comes with them.

How to Read MTF Charts

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Canon 700D/Rebel T5i and 18-55mm STM Lens Announced

Along with the diminutive 100D, Canon has also announced a replacement for the upper entry-level 650D, the 700D (Rebel T5i). The new 700D, however, isn’t actually all that new, but a mild refresh. Despite Canon’s claims, improvements are as minor as they get. There’s the same 18 megapixel sensor with built-in phase-detect AF points, the same DIGIC 5 processor with the same ISO sensitivity and the same 9-point AF system with cross-type sensors. In fact, almost all the specifications are identical between the two models, except that 700D comes with a slightly different mode dial, has live preview of Creative Filters and a slightly different body finish. Are camera manufacturers taking the habit of announcing cameras for the sake of announcing? In any case, 650D was a popular and likable model. There’s no reason to think 700D will be any different (pun intended). What’s likely more interesting is the renewed kit lens. The EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM now comes with Canon’s stepper AF motor for silent video recording during focusing.

Canon 700D Rebel T5i

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Canon Announces World’s Smallest APS-C DSLR

Camera industry has been obsessed with size lately and Canon has moved the standards of small DSLR cameras with the introduction of 100D (Rebel SL1). As of today, this is the smallest and lightest APS-C DSLR camera. At this point, you could say – big deal! Mirrorless cameras are the way to go if you want small. Well, perhaps in most cases. But the 100D is indeed tiny, not just as a DSLR, but even compared to some mirrorless cameras. The Panasonic GH3 – a compact system camera with a smaller sensor – is actually bigger in every dimension. Quite a feat by Canon, I’d say.

Canon 100D Rebel SL1 Announced

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Canon EOS M Review

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This is an in-depth review of the Canon EOS M camera that came out on July 23, 2012, the first mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera from Canon. Along with the EOS M, Canon also announced the first two lenses for the new “EF-M” mount: Canon EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM and Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 STM. Among major camera manufacturers, Canon was the last to enter the mirrorless market. Aside from Panasonic and Olympus sharing the same Micro Four Thirds sensor and Nikon going with a smaller “CX” sensor, all other manufacturers chose large APS-C sized sensors (Samsung, Sony, Fuji and Pentax), each with its own proprietary lens mount. With the introduction of the EOS M system, Canon has officially joined the APS-C club. Instead of developing a new sensor format, Canon chose to reuse the same 18 MP sensor from the EOS Rebel 650D / T4i DSLR camera. Canon also released an EF-M to EF / EF-S adapter for mounting existing and future DSLR lenses on the EOS M, with full compatibility with all lens functions such as autofocus and image stabilization. In this review, I will go over the features and capabilities of the camera and compare it to other mirrorless options, including Nikon 1, Sony NEX series and Olympus OM-D E-M5.

Canon EOS M

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