Sometimes I am asked why certain lenses are more expensive than others. This question is asked by both advanced and beginner photographers in different situations. Beginning photographers want to know why professional-level lenses cost more than consumer lenses. However, experienced photographers are curious about the reasons that niche/exotic lenses made by companies such as Zeiss and Leica are more expensive than modern professional lenses. These are all valid and interesting questions. I thought it would be a good idea to write a few articles to try to answer them. This article will answer the first question of beginners about professional lenses.
1) Lens Categories
It is essential to categorize lenses into different groups in order to understand the differences. This is a subjective categorization that I developed to group lenses in our database.
- Consumer All affordable variable aperture lenses with an f/3.5 or slower aperture, and some inexpensive f/1.8 primes lenses. (See prime vs. zoom lenses). To stay affordable, you can get a mount made of plastic. Crop-sensor cameras are often designed with these lenses in mind. The price range for consumer lenses is usually below $500. However, superzooms and higher quality consumer lenses can cost more. Example: Nikon 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6G VR DX VR, Canon 50mm F/1.8 II
- Enthusiast is a bridge between professional and consumer lenses. It offers a medium price range and a slower constant maximum aperture. Higher quality than consumer lenses. More advanced optical formula and often coated elements. The price range for most lenses is between $500 and $1500. However, some lenses can be more expensive. To indicate professional quality, higher-end models will include a gold ring (Nikon), or a red band (Canon). Example: Nikon 24-120mm VR, Canon 70-200mm IS USM
- Professional High-end constant aperture full-frame lenses between f/1.4 & f/2.8 with excellent optics, metal barrel/mount, advanced optical design with top-coating technologies, fast autofocus motor, and weather resistance. Prices start at $1500, but prices can vary depending on age. Example: Nikon 70-200mm VR II, Canon 24-70mm F/2.8L II
- Exotic/Special Purpose – high-end, manual-focus lenses that are hand-crafted for specific mounts and formats. Examples: Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH, Zeiss APO Sonnar T* 135mm f/2
The primary difference between these categories is not their price. The main difference between the above categories is not their price. While some lenses may be sold at a lower price due to their age, it doesn’t mean they are in a different category. The Nikon 80-200mm F/2.8 lens, for example, can be purchased brand-new for less than $1000. This is half the cost of the Nikon 70-200mm F/2.8G VR II lens. Despite its lower price, the 80-200mm lens is still considered a professional lens. This simplifies things as manufacturers often combine professional and enthusiast lenses into one category. However, how can one distinguish between professional lenses such as 70-200mm F/4 and 70 200mm F/2.8 if they are both considered professional? I decided to create a separate category for enthusiast-level lenses, rather than splitting the “professional” category into different sub-categories. To simplify things, I will also combine professional and enthusiast lenses in one category.
2) Cost of Professional Lenses vs. Consumer Lenses
We are not going to discuss the different lens categories in depth – I want you to understand the price differences among these groups. Why is the Nikon 35mm F/1.4G more expensive than the Nikon 35mm F/1.8G DX? It is difficult for beginners to grasp the reason there is such a huge difference. Is this a sign that the lens is 8x better? This is a summary of the reasons professional lenses are more expensive:
- Production costs and quality of components are two of the major reasons professional lenses cost so much. The manufacturer sets high quality standards and has high production costs. Most consumer-grade lenses are produced in large batches and automated with little human intervention. Each glass/fluorite lens element is manufactured to a high standard. However, it’s acceptable to use low-grade acrylic elements and glass with naturally formed bubbles in consumer-grade lenses. Professional lenses use glass elements that have been rigorously tested and inspected. Only the best quality optics make it into professional-grade lenses. Professional lenses with high-end glass elements are made by skilled engineers who shape and hand-press the components. Computerized and visual inspections are also performed to identify any problems. There are many differences between the physical assembly of lenses and components within them. The majority of consumer-grade lenses are assembled using machines. They are made from lower-quality, cheaper-end parts such as plastic or aluminum. Professional lenses are hand-assembled, and only the finest components (mostly brass/metal), end up in the lenses. Professional lenses have higher production costs than regular lenses. Professional lenses also require more R&D to create the best performing products in the industry.
- Quality Criteria – Professional lenses have different Quality Assurance (QA), thresholds, and production costs. If a consumer lens variance falls between the numbers 1-10, professional lenses will have a tighter variance of 1 to 3. These threshold differences are established throughout the manufacturing process, from optical glass variances to final inspections and assembly.
- Attention to the complexity and detail of the manufacturing process. Unfortunately, no videos are available that demonstrate how consumer lenses are manufactured. You would be less impressed, probably because it is unlikely that you will be.
- Professional Lenses – These lenses have complex optical formulas and require many optical elements in order to correct or reduce lens aberrations. The Nikon 35mm F/1.4G lens has 10 elements in 7 groups while the Nikon 35mm F/1.8G DX lens contains 8 elements in 6 groups. Although the difference in physical elements isn’t that significant, it is significant in the sizes of individual lens elements, as shown by their lens construction diagrams
- Lens Elements & Coating: Apart from the differences in optical design there are big differences in the types of elements that are used in lenses. Professional lenses will have more Fluorite, Extra-low dispersion, and aspherical lens elements. These elements are more expensive to make than regular lenses. Professional lenses often have special coatings such as Nano Crystal Coat and Nikon’s Super Integrated Coating. These coatings dramatically reduce internal reflections and improve sharpness, contrast and colors. They also reduce ghosting and flare.
- Image Quality (Sharpness & Contrast) Professional lenses have complex optical designs that optimize image quality. They provide sharp corner to corner resolution and excellent center-to-corner resolution. We pay special attention to reducing optical aberrations, such as distortion, color aberration, and vignetting.
- Color Quality (Colors). Professional lenses can also produce stunning colors thanks to advanced optical designs.
- Format Note the differences in the sizes between the diagrams. Many consumer lenses can be made for smaller, APS–C-sized sensor cameras. The smaller sensors use only the central area of the frame, and cut off corners to make the lenses more effective. Manufacturers made smaller image circles to reduce cost and size of consumer lens. The Nikon 35mm F/1.8G DX lens is one example.
- Maximum / Constant Aperture – most consumer lenses are slow, variable aperture lenses. Because they allow in less light than professional lenses, they are not able to perform well in low-light conditions. Because of their slow aperture, they can easily confuse autofocus systems and cause focus errors in difficult light. Professional lenses, on the other hand, are faster and have a constant aperture lens. These differences can be quite significant. The Nikon 18-200mm F/3.5-5.6G superzoom lens at 200mm, for example, is an f/5.6 lens. The Nikon 70-200mm F/2.8G lens at f/2.8G remains at f/2.8G regardless of focal length. This is a two-stop difference at 200mm.
- Bokeh Slow, variable aperture lenses can also render beautiful out-of-focus highlights very poorly, which is known as “bokeh”. Slow apertures also translate to a greater depth of field. This means that consumer lenses have limited subject isolation capabilities. Professional lenses, on the other hand, are specifically designed to render backgrounds in a smooth and “creamy” manner that is pleasing to the eye. Their large maximum aperture makes it possible to isolate more subjects.
- Autofocus Speed Consumer-grade lenses are often equipped with slow motors that are inefficient for quick action such as sports photography or wildlife photography. Professional lenses have fast autofocus motors that can snap subjects into focus instantly. Telephoto lenses have the ability to optimize autofocus settings for long-range shooting. This further reduces focus acquisition times.
- Fixed Lens Size Most consumer and enthusiast lenses shrink or expand when zooming in or focusing. It is difficult to use filters with rotating front elements (such as those used in lenses) because they can malfunction in the future. Over time, some optical elements can shift, which can have a significant impact on sharpness, contrast, and overall image quality.
- Construction Consumer lenses are not made to withstand drops, bumps or other abuse. You might want to replace it if you drop one. It might be more expensive to fix it. Plastic parts can break or become dislocated easily if they are hit with enough force. Professional lenses are made to withstand extreme abuse. Metal is used in both the inner and outer components. This not only adds weight, but also protects them.
- Weather sealing is another important difference. Professional lenses are fixed-length and have a tough construction that is protected against moisture and dust. They can perform well in extreme temperatures, humidity, and even rain. Consumer lenses don’t have the same protection, and are more likely to accumulate dust, moisture, and fungus over time.
- Weight– While all the metal used in lenses can make them heavier, this is not always a problem. Heavy DSLRs with heavier lenses will balance better. It can be too heavy and difficult to use if the lenses are used on entry-level DSLRs made of plastic. If handled incorrectly, heavy lenses can cause excessive stress to the lens mount.