At first glance for photographers just starting to acquire gear, the price differences between very similar lenses seem crazy. Why is one 50mm lens only $100, while another can be $1500 or more? Why is one zoom lens with a small range so much more expensive than one with a huge range? You can certainly feel the quality difference in your hand, but in this post I’ll talk about why some photography lenses are better than others—and why that may affect how much you should expect to pay for them.
Photo via Shutterstock/Korionov
Why are camera lenses so expensive?
Quality of materials
There are many things that go into the quality of the materials and many different benefits from using quality materials and quality workmanship. Using high-quality glass, lightweight and sturdy metals, lens coatings, carefully calibrated elements and consistently assembled parts all lead to a more expensive process and a better quality lens. These things affect the color you get out of the lens, the sharpness from one edge to the other, barrel distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting.
The best lenses tend to use more elements and more pieces of glass, which give us a cleaner, clearer, more colorful and more accurate image. High-quality lenses are also under a higher quality control standard, which means that they are crafted with more precision and typically under the supervision of a human being instead of pumped out by a machine and immediately put into a box.
Prime vs. zoom
Traditionally, prime lenses have been of a higher quality than zoom lenses. This may not be the case anymore with advances in lens technology. However, prime lenses have less moving parts and fewer elements to calibrate perfectly, so you can theoretically get a higher quality image at a lower cost than a really nice zoom lens.
Once of the biggest differences you will see between lenses has to do with the aperture. Higher quality lenses are faster, meaning they have larger apertures. This requires more glass and more precision in manufacturing. This is why a 70 – 200mm f/2.8 will cost so much more than a 70-200mm f/4. Also constant aperture affects the price. A 70 – 200mm that has a variable aperture between f/4 and f/5.6 (depending on the focal length) is going to cost less than one that stay open at f/4 or f/2.8.
The quality of the autofocus motor also makes a difference in the quality of your lens. The quicker and quieter the autofocus works, the easier it will be for you to get images as they happen, without missing the moment.
More expensive lenses also tend to have some sort of weatherproofing, so that if you are taking them into hard conditions, they will still perform for you. This usually entails seals between zooming or focusing rings to keep water, humidity, dirt or sand out of the internal elements.
Stabilizing technology can also add to the cost and the performance capabilities of your lens. Adding stabilization can add several hundred dollars onto the cost, but it can also allow your lens to work in lower light and slower shutter speeds.
The physical size of the lens doesn’t always make a difference in quality, but does make a difference in the cost. The size of the lens necessary is related to the size of the sensor. For example, cropped sensor cameras (APS-C) can use smaller lenses than full frame sensors with similar quality. And full frame can use smaller lenses than medium format with similar quality. As you use bigger sensors, you will need to use lenses with more glass—which cost more.
Research and development
Not all of the cost for that amazing lens is in the materials and workmanship. Some of it is in research and development to come up with the technology to create the final product. With fewer very expensive lenses being sold than cheap lenses, the research and development costs are spread between fewer consumers. This means that part of your cost is paying for the engineers and scientists to figure out how to make image quality better through optics.