Do expensive lenses create better photographs? If yes, then why is the photographer considered the most important factor in a great photograph and not the lens? If they don’t, then why are these lenses so expensive? This tricky question was recently asked to me by a budding photographer.
Let me be very clear when I say that good photographs are always created by people behind the camera. Photographers create photographs. Cameras and lenses are just some tools. Like all other tools, there are good tools and there are average tools but at the end it is the person who uses these tools can use them to their best.
Put your mind at ease
Even the kit lenses from today or most of the consumer grade lenses are far better than the top of the line lenses from few decades past. The best of the best lenses that people had access to then are now comparable to some of the inexpensive common consumer lenses of today. Science and technology has advanced significantly over the past few decades.
Why do I buy expensive lenses?
Again, I do not buy expensive lenses. I just buy good lenses which unfortunately happen to be expensive. Today, I sat back, before writing this article to understand the reasons why I have purchased some of the lenses which were expensive
- These have the very best in optical quality and if my photos are not up to the mark, I am the one to blame. I can’t fool myself by passing the blame to the lenses.
- I can use the wide-open apertures provided by these fast lenses and use low ISOs keeping the noise low. This is important for photos which are to be printed on a large size but viewed from close distances like in my home.
- A very big reason is the emotional and psychological feeling of happiness that I get from knowing the fact that I have an extremely fine piece of optics mounted on my camera.
What about old but expensive lenses?
Some of them are real gems. These have a solid construction with really fine workmanship. These are not just lenses but pieces of heirlooms or jewellery and so most photographers treat them in the same manner. Some of these old but expensive lenses are rare and that itself drives the cost up.
So what makes the expensive lenses, expensive?
When the lens is expected to be not very popular, the manufacturers have to mark up their price to make decent profits. Same goes with lenses that have some quirky feature or innovation.
Then there is the real substance that makes them expensive. Optical elements that are manufactured on an individual basis, free of any defects and then polished and coated to perfection. The glass elements are crafted and examined in minute detail by very experienced people and also on computers. The materials used are of the highest quality. Most of them contribute to the excellent image quality, some of them contribute to the handling of the lens and very few also contribute to the overall looks of the lens. Yes, looks too are important! The manufactures make sure that these wonderful lenses have the highest of quality with excellent sharpness, microcontrast, fast aperture, color and minimum distortions. (This is where all those test charts showing light fall off at corners, distortions and MTF charts step in)
There are companies that have placed themselves as premier brands. These can not afford to sell their lenses for low since that would erode their market. These brands sell for their name. The name itself costs! No doubt the quality is excellent but it is not so good as is expected by their pricing.
Building lenses that allow more light requires large and precisely made optical elements. This pushes up the cost. Building a 500mm fast lens actually is expensive apart from the low expected sales.
Optical designs that are simple to make and have been perfected over the years are inexpensive (think of the 50mm normal lenses). Whereas designs that have been perfected recently with research and development, are expensive (think of the ultrawide angle lenses for APS-C sensor cameras or new zooms with fast non-changing apertures).
(Golden Gate at Kyiv – Captured with an inexpensive compact camera with uncoated lens. The lens flare helped fight the extremes of contrast and added a glow to the overall image)
Based on the quality, companies now have named the lenses as consumers, prosumers, enthusiasts, advanced users, professional grade, specially crafted etc. No matter what the classification, there are lenses available now that range from good to excellent.Another small point – a lens that costs three times a similar lens will definitely not have three times the quality improvement. As the cost increases, the rule of diminishing returns come over. A three times the cost lens may at most have around 10% improvement at the most.
Great optics is expensive but for good photographs, expensive lenses are not required. I am repeating it again – good photographs are always created by people behind the camera and not by the camera or lens on their own.