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.
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:
- Consumer – all affordable variable aperture lenses with f/3.5 and slower aperture and some cheap f/1.8 primes lenses (see prime vs zoom lenses). Plastic build and sometimes even a plastic mount to stay cheap. Often designed specifically for crop-sensor cameras. Price range for consumer lenses is typically under $500, but in some cases can be more for higher quality consumer lenses and superzooms. Examples: Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G DX VR, Canon 50mm f/1.8 II
- Enthusiast – a bridge between consumer and professional lenses with medium range pricing and slower constant maximum aperture. Better build than consumer lenses, more advanced optical formula with often coated elements. Price range is typically between $500 and $1500, but can extend further than that for certain lenses. Higher-end models will have a golden ring (Nikon) or a red ring (Canon) in the front to indicate “professional” quality. Examples: Nikon 24-120mm f/4G VR, Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS USM
- Professional – high-end, constant aperture full-frame lenses (between f/1.4 and f/2.8) with superb optics, metal barrel / mount, advanced optical design with top coating technologies, fast autofocus motor and weather resistance. Prices typically start in the $1500 range, but can be lower depending on age and other factors. Examples: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II
- Exotic / Special Purpose – expensive, manual focus hand-crafted lenses for specialized mounts and formats. Examples: Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH, Zeiss APO Sonnar T* 135mm f/2
The main differentiating factor between the above categories is not necessarily price. Features, quality, autofocus motor, size, optical features and price are what cumulatively separates one lens from another. Some lenses are sold at a cheap price just because of their age, but it does not mean that they move to a different category. For example, the Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 lens can be bought for under $1000 brand new nowadays, which is half the price of the modern Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II lens. The 80-200mm is still a professional lens though, despite its lower price. Manufacturers typically combine enthusiast and professional lenses into one category, which simplifies things. But in that case how would one differentiate between lenses like 70-200mm f/4 and 70-200mm f/2.8, if both are considered professional? Instead of breaking up the “professional” category into other sub-categories, I thought it would be easier to just introduce a separate one for “enthusiast” level lenses. For the below explanation though, I will combine enthusiast and professional lenses into one category as well, for simplicity sake.
2) Cost of Consumer vs Professional Lenses
But we are not here to talk about different lens categories in detail – I want to explain the price differences between these groups. Why does the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G cost over 8 times more than the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX? For many beginners, it is hard to understand why there is such huge difference. Does it mean that the lens is 8 times better? Here is a long summary of why professional lenses cost so much more:
- Production Costs and Quality of Components – one of the main reasons for the high cost of professional lenses, is production costs and high quality standards set by the manufacturer. Consumer-grade lenses are manufactured in batches in a mostly automated fashion with very little human involvement. While each individual glass/fluorite lens element goes through a very high quality manufacturing process, it is acceptable to use lower-grade acrylic elements or glass with naturally-formed bubbles in consumer lenses. In comparison, glass elements used in professional lenses go through rigorous testing and inspection, with only the highest grade optics making their way into pro-grade lenses. Glass elements used in high-end professional lenses are hand-pressed, shaped and handled by experienced engineers, who run both visual and computerized inspections to detect any potential problems. There are also big differences in physical assembly of lenses and other components used within lenses. Consumer-grade lenses are mostly assembled by machines and are composed of cheaper/lower-end, plastic and aluminum parts. Professional lenses, on the other hand, are hand-assembled and only the best components (mostly brass/metal) end up inside lenses. Hence, the production costs of professional lenses are always much higher in comparison. In addition, professional lenses require a lot more R&D to design top performers in the industry, which also adds to the cost.
- Quality Thresholds – 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. Check out the following video that shows how Nikon produces lenses:
And here is a detailed video from Canon that shows the manufacturing process of making the professional Canon 500mm f/4L IS USM lens:
Pay attention to how complex and detailed the manufacturing process is. Unfortunately, there are no videos that show how consumer lenses are made. Probably because you would certainly be much less impressed…
- Optical Design – professional lenses are designed with complex optical formulas that require 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 in 6 groups. While the difference is the physical number of elements is not that big, there is a huge difference in the size of each individual lens element, as evidenced by their lens construction diagrams:
- Lens Elements and Coating – in addition to the differences in optical design, there are also big differences in the type of lens elements used within lenses. Aspherical, Extra-low dispersion and Fluorite lens elements cost a lot more to make than regular ones, so you will see many more of those types of elements used in professional lenses. In addition, professional lenses are often made with special coating such as Nikon’s Super Integrated Coating (SIC) and Nano Crystal Coat, which dramatically decrease internal reflections, improve sharpness, contrast, colors and reduce ghosting and flare.
- Image Quality (Sharpness and Contrast) – thanks to complex optical designs, professional lenses are optimized to provide very high image quality, with sharp center to corner resolution. Special attention is given to reduce various optical problems and aberrations such as distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting.
- Image Quality (Colors) – professional lenses also yield superb colors, again, thanks to advanced optical designs and coatings.
- Format – note the size differences between the above diagrams. Consumer lenses are often made for smaller, APS-C size sensor cameras. Because the smaller sensors only use the center area of the frame and chop off the corners, only the center portion of lenses is effectively used. To reduce the cost and size of consumer lenses, manufacturers made lenses with smaller image circles (the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX lens shown in the above diagram is such lens), because the corners are wasted anyway.
- Maximum / Constant Aperture – most consumer lenses are slow, variable aperture lenses. They do not perform well in low-light situations, because they let in a lot less light than professional lenses. Their slow aperture easily confuses autofocus systems, causing focus errors in challenging light. In contrast, 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 70-200mm f/2.8G stays at f/2.8 no matter what focal length you choose. That’s a big, two stop difference at 200mm!
- Bokeh – slow, variable aperture lenses are also quite bad at rendering beautiful out of focus highlights, known as “bokeh“. In addition, slow aperture translates to larger depth of field, which means that consumer lenses are limited in their subject isolation capabilities. In contrast, professional lenses are designed specifically to render backgrounds in a smooth, “creamy” way that is aesthetically pleasing to look at, and their large maximum aperture allows for much more effective subject isolation.
- Autofocus Speed – consumer-grade lenses often come with slow autofocus motors that are often inadequate for fast action, such as wildlife and sports photography. Professional lenses, on the other hand, typically come with very fast autofocus motors that snap subjects into focus immediately. In telephoto lenses, autofocus settings can be optimized for long range shooting, which further reduces focus acquisition time.
- Fixed Lens Size – most consumer and some enthusiast lenses change in size (extend or collapse) when zooming in and / or focusing. Because of this, it is not only inconvenient to use filters with such lenses (with rotating front elements), but they are also prone to potentially malfunction or break in the future. Some optical elements can shift overtime, which can significantly affect sharpness, contrast and overall image quality.
- Construction – consumer lenses are not designed to handle occasional bumps, drops and other type of abuse. Drop one and you might as well buy a new lens, as it might cost more to try to repair it. Plastic parts break easily or dislocate when hit with enough force. Professional lenses, on the other hand, are built to withstand a lot of abuse. Both inner components and the outer barrel are typically made of metal, which adds a lot of weight (below), but also protects these lenses.
- Weather Sealing – another big difference is in weather sealing. Fixed-length professional lenses with tough construction are mostly sealed against dust and moisture, so they continue to perform in extreme temperatures, humidity and even rain. Consumer lenses do not have the same level of protection and they are much more prone to accumulating dust, moisture and fungus overtime.
- Weight – while all that metal used on lenses can significantly increase their weight, it is not always a bad thing. Heavier lenses typically balance better on heavier pro-level DSLRs. However, if used on entry-level plastic DSLRs, it can make the setup too front-heavy and tough to handle. Heavy lenses can also potentially put too much stress on the lens mount, if handled incorrectly.
I hope this clarifies why professional lenses are so much more expensive than consumer lenses. Part 2 addresses what makes Exotic lenses so special.