Difference between cheap and expensive lens

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by Bodhi395, Aug 30, 2010.

  1. Bodhi395 macrumors 6502a

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    #1
    I'm new to photography, and am reading a lot about how people will pay thousands of dollars for a lens because its really high quality and produces superior images. What though is different between the really expensive high-end lens and a cheap one in terms of image quality?

    I understand expensive lens are probably made better and thus are more durable and will last years longer. However, in terms of just the image the lens will produce, is a high end lens any better than a cheap one?

    If the image is better, what makes it that way, the glass itself in the lens?
     
  2. robbieduncan Moderator emeritus

    robbieduncan

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    #2
    1) Speed. Expensive lenses are normally a lot faster allowing for narrower depth of field and/or shooting in lower light

    2) Higher quality optics: more accurately formed elements in the lens made from more expensive (higher purity) glass or even fluorite glass (or similar) ultra-low dispersion elements. This results in lower amounts of distortion, chromatic aberrations, greater flare resistance and normally better colour and contrast in the image.

    So yes, more expensive lenses can take better pictures (although this is not guaranteed: the photographer must use them correctly) and can take images that cheaper lenses simply can't by running at wider apertures than cheaper lenses are capable of.
     
  3. designguy79 macrumors 6502

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    #3
    For more information on why it is called "fast", see this article:

    http://www.digicamhelp.com/accessories/lenses/lens-speed/

    [​IMG]

    Keep in mind that for a larger maximum aperture (i.e., a smaller f-number like f/2.8) means that each of the glass elements of the lens have to be manufactured that much larger. (and getting one without flaws is not easy)

    For even more information, see this page:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F-number
     
  4. Ruahrc macrumors 65816

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    #4
    You will typically see increased usage of specialty glass elements (ED glass, fluorite, etc). Also you might see increased numbers of lens elements and/or element groups, as well as increased use of harder-to-manufacture elements such as aspherical elements. Not sure if modern lenses are using ground asphericals (as opposed to casted and polished ones) but that makes them more expensive to produce but potentially higher quality. Also you see increased use of advanced coatings (although on virtually every modern lens, nearly all optical surfaces are coated with something).

    Not really sure if the actual grades of optical glass used in regular (non-ED) elements are better than what you find in the lower end lenses, but I can see where they may be ground to within tighter tolerances than others.

    I think the higher end lenses are usually built to tighter tolerances in general, and undergo more extensive QA testing before leaving the factory. Things like making sure all the lens elements are properly centered on a common optical axis will ensure consistent results across the frame. Lens design also plays into this as the better lenses are designed to more rigidly hold those elements in place (i.e. on a cheaper lens like an 18-200, the extending part of the barrel can be wobbled around whereas on a better built lens any extension is made more rigid)
     
  5. Designer Dale macrumors 68040

    Designer Dale

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    #5
    It's like the difference between crystal and plastic glasses like I have in my pantry. Quality lenses are made from quality materials under very precise manufacturing processes. They are then subjected to rigorous testing to make sure there is as little distortion to the image as possible.

    In terms of the image, this produces improved clarity, reduced chromatic distortion (colors) and images with as little distortion at the edges of the frame as possible.

    On a practical basis, lenses like the Canon L series are built to last and are weather sealed, as are the best cameras.

    Dig through all the pages of this review of the Canon 70-200 f4 L to see all the measures of a good lens.

    Dale
     
  6. HBOC macrumors 68020

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    #6
    in short, yes, the optics in the lens is what makes it produce better images.

    As stated, the faster the lens (maximum aperture), generally the more expensive. There are exceptions to this, however. Many (every) camera company produces a 50mm 1.8 prime lens (fixed focal length..ie; do not zoom) that cost under $100 or so. They are relatively "fast" lenses, but build quality is not their strong point. If you manual focus, they are also not the best bet, but are pretty sharp.

    Even older manual focus ("alternative") lenses are still expensive. This is due to the popularity of using adapters to enable the use of them on a camera body they weren't intended for. 5-6 years ago, you could get a Contax c/y 28-85 (or whatnot) for somewhere in the $300 range, but with the popularity of DSLRs and many companies that manufacture c/y>EOS adapters, some easily cost more than the Canon ones in the same focal range ($1100+). That is not including the cost of the adapter, and you lose autofocus, if you care about such things.
     
  7. Doylem macrumors 68040

    Doylem

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    #7
    Getting stressed about gear can, IMO, become a real obstacle to taking good pix. I use a Nikon 18-70mm kit lens (on a Nikon D200) for 95% of my shots. To hear some people talk, kit lenses are little more than toys. But I'm happy with mine...
     
  8. flosseR macrumors 6502a

    flosseR

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    #8
    That lens for DX was what the 24-85 AF-s f3.5-4.5 was for FX. Stunning and WAY out of the normal "kit lens" range. Both of these are stellar performers that rivaled, and still do, much more expensive pro lenses. Both of them were quite cheap in comparison and produced really good photos.
     
  9. Ruahrc macrumors 65816

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    #9
    This sounds great and all, but is it really materials and manufacturing that are determining those qualities you list? Being more specific I think it's more down to optical design for things such as distortion and CA- not materials usage and tolerances. Cheaper lenses usually use fewer elements which means its hard to minimize the distortions or aberrations.

    +1. I lust after fancy gear just as much as the next guy, but when I look on my walls and see what I have liked enough to print out and hang- most of it has come from my 18-200 and you'll be hard pressed to see where any benefit would have come out of using a fancier lens. This is especially true at higher apertures (say ~f/8) where differences between the kit lens and a pro lens are practically immesurable. When you buy expensive lenses you are really mostly paying for performance at the extremes (focal length and aperture).
     
  10. Edge100 macrumors 68000

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    #10
    Sharpness (particularly at large ƒ-stops), contrast, and saturation.

    Kit lenses are not junk (though f/5.6 is often just about useless for many low light applications), but better lenses are, well, better.

    Consider the lens that I would call Canon's best in terms of IQ: the 85 ƒ/1.2L. The lens is sharp at ƒ/1.2, produces absolutely stunning background blur, and incredible colours. Now, it's not a "perfect" lens by any means (it's big, heavy, and focus-by-wire is slllooowww), but there's a reason it costs $2000; that red ring is not just a marketing ploy.
     
  11. Doylem macrumors 68040

    Doylem

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    #11
    Hard to disagree with that... ;)
     
  12. Full of Win macrumors 68030

    Full of Win

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    #12
    Here a great site that you can compare two lenses to see what a difference the price makes. For example, this is the difference between a $2300 lens (70-200 f/2.8 mk II IS) and a $500 lens (Canon 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS). Even though the 70-200 is almost two stops more open, it still make the superior image.

    To see the difference, mouse over the image at this link.

    http://www.the-digital-picture.com/...meraComp=453&SampleComp=0&FLIComp=3&APIComp=0


    [opinion]The basic reason is, to get past a certain point, you need a no-holds-bar approach.This takes money, in R&D, production methods and QC after manufacture. These are money suckers, and the lens makers can only pass along the cost to the users.[/opinion]
     
  13. carlgo macrumors 68000

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    #13
    Images printed on paper and shot at around f8 are all going to look the same. Like everyone said, it is at the extremes that the expensive lens will shine.

    And most of us appreciate the precision of a quality lens, even if they are heavier to carry around.

    I have found that old-fashioned slide shows show off lenses better than monitors or prints. Leicas really shined, but on paper or a monitor....harder to tell I think.
     
  14. pprior macrumors 65816

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    #14
    Expensive glass in general has:

    1) better quality glass itself (coatings, quality of the grind, higher tolerances, etc). This gives better sharpness, and less chromatic aberration, better contrast)
    2) More light gathering ability, requiring generally larger elements which are more expensive to make. This allows shooting under lower light conditions with higher shutter speeds, as well as helping the camera to focus faster or more accurately in many modern bodies.
    3) Shallower DOF - related to #2 - a wider aperture allows more blowing out of the background. What differentiates a snapshot from a portrait in many circumstances is choice of aperture.
    4) Faster focus speeds / technology: this can be night and day difference in sports photography or low light photography
    5) More durability, weather sealing. Self explanatory
    6) Constant aperture (for zooms). It's extremely annoying to shoot in aperture priority mode (or manual) and having the minimum aperture shifting based on your focal length. Plus most zooms are used at the long end the majority of the time, so the cheaper glass ends up quite a bit slower than you think when you're shooting F5.6 instead of F2.8 on a higher quality zoom.
    7) better bokeh. Related somewhat to #3, and not as consistently in place with higher lenses, but most of the best bokeh comes from expensive glass.

    These are what comes to my mind. Personally when I bought my first L lens, I couldn't believe the difference in saturation and sharpness. It's been a downhill spiral since then :)

    As noted above, if you stop down a lens to F8 or F11 you will minimize differences between lenses quite a bit - even craptastic lenses can look pretty decent at those apertures. The problem is that most pictures (barring studio work or landscapes) just don't have the same quality look at such apertures. I bet I shoot something other than wide open maybe 10% of the time, excluding studio shots where I'm usually at F8.

    FWIW.
     
  15. scottkifnw macrumors regular

    scottkifnw

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    #15
    Lens quality

    There are many things to consider as it relates to lens quality and $

    Speed of lens ( faster lens - shoot in lower light without flash and lower ISO, and also throws background out of focus better), better focusing systems, image stabilization, perhaps lighter, more durable, weather sealed.

    The image will also have less distortion, better color/contrast, and very sharp focus.

    Really, if your goals are to take sharp excellent quality photos, a good lens is needed. Given the quality of cameras these days, it may be the most important thing to spend the money on.

    sek

     
  16. mtbdudex macrumors 68000

    mtbdudex

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    #16
    So, everyone here works in the lens building business and are experts?
    Or, lots of OJT from reading and buying $$'s.

    I say that not attacking anyone, but at times I do question the big price difference between the "basic" lens and the "pro" lens.
    Like you I've read the reviews and the Nikon/Canon press releases, and the various online review places.

    In my "day job", I've done probably 40+ supplier audits at various auto manuf facilities worldwide, seen many manuf processes. Tell you, I'm amazed at where industry has come, globally.

    Todays manuf 6-sigma and robust R&D really has enabled low/mid volume products at surprising low cost levels.
    How each manuf tiers that and establishes their pricing scheme is.....so much marketing.

    Are we all being "duped" by the big guys to constantly pay $$'s for stuff with big profit margins because they set the price points as they do? I feel some what yes.

    Just a voice out there that does believe there is a difference in pro lens vs consumer lens, but questions the big price diff.
     
  17. robbieduncan Moderator emeritus

    robbieduncan

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    #17
    Great. So where are all the low cost, consumer grade f/2.8 telephoto zooms? Or f/1.4 wide angle primes?
     
  18. El Cabong macrumors 6502a

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    #18
    Samyang may yet get around to making an decent affordable f/1.4 wide angle, manual focus only, of course.
     
  19. Edge100 macrumors 68000

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    #19
    And I'm telling you the difference is real. More expensive lenses often have better sharpness (particularly at large f-stops), contrast, and saturation, than their cheaper counterparts.

    Yes, if you stop down to f/8 or f/11, many lenses will look very similar. But it's not just performance at wide apertures that favours more expensive glass; it's the simple availability of wide apertures at all.

    What does a Nikon or Canon kit lens look like at f/1.4? Riiighht; kit lenses can't shoot at f/1.4. Is my Sigma 50 f/1.4 sharper at f/8 than at f/1.4? Of course, but at least I CAN shoot at f/1.4 when I need to (or want to; and the performance at f/1.4 is terrific, which is why I paid the premium for that lens over the Canon equivalent).

    And as for the price issue, the companies get away with charging what they can; economics applies equally to camera lenses as it does to any other product. If I shoot 35 weddings a year for an average of $4000 per wedding, then spending $2000 for a top of the line prime like the 85 f/1.2L is nothing; I will make that money back in half a day. And if it allows me to (a) get shots that I couldn't get, even with an f/2.8 zoom, and/or (b) allows me to produce the best IQ possible, then it's worth it. Whether it's worth it to YOU is another matter; but clearly someone is willing to pay the price.

    Price does not scale linearly with quality (in virtually every industry); the Canon 85 f/1.8 is probably 90% of the lens that the f/1.2L is, but costs one quarter of the price. Is the extra stop of light and superior bokeh worth paying four times as much? Depends on who's buying it.
     
  20. Bodhi395 thread starter macrumors 6502a

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    #20
    So being new to photography, I'm a bit unsure what situations the high end lenses would make a difference. You said that at f/8 or f/11 that most lenses look about the same, but if you go further down the high end shines, especially since they can go down further. So what would the typical situations be where you'd use an f/1.4? And what situations would you use the f/8 and above?
     
  21. Edge100 macrumors 68000

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    #21
    Good questions.

    I'd use ƒ/1.4 for one of two situations.

    First, if available light is very low; f/1.4 is 2 stops faster than f/2.8, which is where even the best zoom lenses top out. This means the difference between an action-stopping shutter speed of 1/250s and a motion-blurring 1/60s. Alternatively, it means the difference between a (relatively) noisy ISO3200 and a clean ISO800.

    Second, I'd use f/1.4 if I need a very shallow depth of field. For standard portraits, I wouldn't use f/1.4 (I need the whole face in focus, and thus would stick to f/4 to f/5.6 for most shots), but for a lot of candid portraiture and special effects, f/1.4 is very nice to have.

    Also keep in mind that most lenses perform best when stopped down by at least one or two stops. So, that means that even if I am shooting at f/2.8 with my f/1.4 prime, I'm probably getting sharper images than most f/2.8 zooms can achieve when wide-open at the same aperture (there are exceptions...the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS II is reported to be very sharp wide-open, and I can confirm that the 70-200 f/4L IS is extremely sharp at f/4).

    Put simply, there are LOTS of good reasons to buy the fastest glass you can. And "fast" generally equals "expensive"; all that glass costs money to make.

    I'd use f/8 or higher for landscapes, where I want a large depth of focus. Keep in mind that diffraction sets in at or around about f/11 to f/16 (depending on the sensor), so you may actually see LESS sharpness as you get smaller and smaller apertures, but f/11 should be fine for most DSLRs.

    Keep in mind that many kit lenses are only f/5.6 at the long end of their zoom range. Which means f/8 is only one stop down, meaning the lens may not be at it's sharpest, even at f/8 (remember, most lenses are best when stopped down between one and two stops). By contrast, that f/2.8 zoom you paid so much for is stopped down by 3 whole stops by the time you get to f/8, meaning it's in its optimal sharpness range.
     
  22. mtbdudex macrumors 68000

    mtbdudex

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    #22
    fwiw:
    here's a link to lens 101, good info for beginner
    http://photography-on-the.net/forum/showthread.php?t=249006

    Canon lens in POTN forum: There are also comparisons of almost every type "pro" L lens to its consumer similar reach lens; do a search on 30-700, or 50mm 1.4, etc, and you'll get treads where people compare their experiences and pictures taken with lens.
    http://photography-on-the.net/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=33
    I've used that as resource when buying my 15-85 lens, etc.
    Be forewarned: You can get "lost" in there....set a time limit....enjoy the hobby (for me anyway, I'm not shooting for a living or part income)
     
  23. Edge100 macrumors 68000

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    #23
    Great resources! I'd also recommend The Digital Picture for top notch equipment reviews.
     
  24. jackerin macrumors 6502a

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    #24
    While it's true that the quality of the kit lenses has improved drastically I still doubt that the high-end lenses have large profit margins. The kit lenses is made one for each camera, huge batches; small standard zooms means small pieces of glass that are not as complex to make, larger zooms with larger f-stops means larger pieces of glass, requiring more precision. Economies of scale has brought up the low end but the demand for high-end lenses has stayed the same.

    That being said, I do believe there is a clear difference between them, whether it is worth the price of admission or not is up to the buyer.

    Another thing that many forget in their hunt for fast lenses is that a kit lens will look absolutely acceptable at around f/8, and a flash unit let's you make your own light and can be bought for much less than a f/2.8 zoom...
     
  25. robbieduncan Moderator emeritus

    robbieduncan

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    #25
    If you are willing and/or able to use flash. Personally I much prefer the more natural look of available light photography (and even diffused/bounced flash leaves traces in the image). And when shooting indoor sports (or even outdoor sports when it's relatively dark) flash is not always that much use: it doesn't really have that much effect when the target is a reasonable distance away and sometimes flash is simply not acceptable.

    There is also the issue of autofocus speed and accuracy. With Canon cameras at least the cross-type autofocus points gain sensitivity (and therefore accuracy and focus speed) when f/2.8 or faster lenses are used.
     

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