Camera lenses – we love them, but our wallets sure don’t. So why exactly are camera lenses so expensive anyway? As with most things in life, the answer is a little more complicated than you might expect. That’s where we come in.
On this page, we’ll wax lyrical on all things camera lenses. We’ll try to get to the bottom of why these accessories can cost upwards of $2000. Be sure to check out the rest of the Photography Focus site; it’s full of our photography tips, tricks, and recommendations.
For now, though, let’s talk lenses!
That Depends, What Kind of Lens?
At least in terms of cost, there are three broad categories of camera lenses you’re likely to encounter. Before exploring why lenses cost so much, it’s worth discussing the different kinds of lenses that exist out there in the wild.
Your average consumer is likely to buy this kind of lens. There are plenty of more specific categories (macro, telephoto, prime, zoom, etc) within this one, but in terms of price, they’re fairly consistent.
A ‘standard,’ consumer-grade lens can cost anywhere from $300-$800. The quality and performance of these accessories can vary wildly and ‘more expensive’ doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘better.’ It all comes down to your specific needs as a photographer.
In this category, things like performance, durability, and unique features all step up a notch. Consumers who are passionate about their photography tend to buy lenses from this category. Expect impressive optical performance, killer features, and an eye-watering price tag.
An enthusiast-grade lens can cost anywhere between $1000 and $2000. It’s worth keeping in mind that if you’re new to the hobby, this kind of investment probably won’t be worth it to you. These lenses typically require at least a little experience for their features and performance to even be useful.
If you’re a novice, it’s probably best to start with a decent kit lens and upgrade from there later on.
This is where prices can get pretty crazy. Videographers and cinematographers have demands that far surpass those of your typical consumer. These accessories deliver phenomenal frame rates, resolutions, and bleeding-edge features.
Your average photographer would be wasting their money on a lens like this. The power and features they offer are designed for Hollywood film sets and the like. These products typically start at around $2000 but can easily reach near to the $10,000 mark.
Sony’s line of ‘cinema’ lenses is one example of this grade of professional lens. Expensive stuff!
Why are Camera Lenses so Expensive? An Overview
Let’s get into it. In this section, we’ll explore some of the main reasons that these camera accessories can be so darn expensive. You’ll leave with a better understanding of lens mechanics and the industry.
Hopefully, this can help you save a few pennies along the way!
Super Tight Tolerances
One of the main reasons that camera lenses cost so much is that they’re built to super tight manufacturing tolerances. When you buy a high-quality, premium lens, you expect it to deliver consistent results every time.
While our understanding of optical technology has come leaps and bounds over the past two decades, the quality thresholds involved here can be pretty brutal. Maintaining these high standards takes a great deal of time, effort, and staffpower to get right.
The end result is a higher price tag. In most cases, this is fairly unavoidable.
They’re Expensive to Make
If you want to build a lens that competes with other brands in 2021, it’s going to cost a lot of money to get things right. Not only will you have to source a number of rare, unique materials for your product, you’ll also have to put them through several complex processes.
There’s glass to shape and angle perfectly; there are microcontrollers and image processors to optimize; there are testing procedures to run; and this is just the tip of the iceberg. The bottom line is that lenses cost a lot of money to manufacture.
This means they cost even more to buy as a consumer.
The world of camera lenses is a relatively competitive one. The likes of Sony, Fujifilm, Canon, and others are constantly racing to find new ways to take a great photo – new features to sell to their customers.
For consumers, this is generally quite a good thing. One drawback here, however, is that it can significantly increase the bottom line for those picking up the latest and greatest lenses. Unique features are scarce by definition; this pushes prices higher than you might like them to be.
Most lens manufacturers pump a ton of money into research and development every year. When you buy their lenses, you’re subsidizing these costs.
Depending on where you are in the world, market share may also be a big factor. There are certain areas of photography where just one or two names completely dominate the space. Once a company has cornered the market, they can set prices as they see fit.
If you’re in a part of the world where the only micro four thirds brand around is Olympus, you’ll probably be paying a premium for the privilege. Names like Canon are also far more recognizable to your average Joe.
This normally means they can get away with charging more.
Unique/ Proprietary Features
You may have noticed that most camera bodies use their own proprietary mounting system. This is no mistake. Locking consumers into the ‘ecosystem’ of a brand’s products is a tried and true method for squeezing more money out of customers.
While lens adapters and ‘hacks’ certainly exist, most entry-level consumers won’t want to bother with them. Throw in proprietary features to the mix and you’re looking at another excuse for brands to increase prices.
As mentioned earlier, inventing and patenting new features usually calls for a beefy research and development budget. These costs are often passed on to the paying customer.
The ‘Professional Bias’
If you’re not crazy about photography and just want something that takes a half-decent photo, chances are you won’t be willing to fork out hundreds of dollars on a lens upgrade that you don’t care to wrap your head around.
This is another potential reason for the perceived ‘expensiveness’ of most camera lenses. The market tends to move where the money is. In the case of camera lenses, this typically means towards the more pro-level options.
Professional photographers are far more likely to invest in a new lens. This means manufacturers are more willing to cater to this demographic of consumer. The result is a market with some budget options and a whole plethora of crazy-expensive pro gear.
Expensive Camera Lenses FAQ
There are plenty of common questions that we see about expensive lenses all the time. We address some of them here.
Are Expensive Camera Lenses Worth it?
This is a very difficult question to answer universally. It might be worth asking yourself what kind of photographer you are and what you’re looking for. For the right person, an expensive lens can mean the difference between a paycheck and being unemployed.
For a beginner, an $1500+ investment might just end up being a waste of money.
In a Nutshell, Why Are Lenses so Expensive?
There are myriad factors that make lenses more expensive. We explore them in far more detail above. However, the long and short of it is that:
- Lenses are very expensive to manufacture
- Most big brands put a lot of money into their research and development budgets
- These substantial costs are reflected in the final costs swallowed by consumers
The market also tends to cater more to professionals who are far more willing to open their wallets if the feature set suits them.
Are More Expensive Lenses Better?
For the right photographer, absolutely. If you don’t know specifically what you’re looking for, however, you might be better off spending your money elsewhere. If you’ve got a decent kit lens with your camera, it’s definitely worth getting to grips with it first before splashing out on something new.
Once you know specifically how you’d like to upgrade, it’s time to start looking at more expensive options.
Why are Camera Lenses so Expensive – The Bottom Line
Some of the more premium lenses out there can deliver some truly astonishing results. If you’ve got the money to spend, you’ll be able to take photos that make lifelong impressions on those who view them.
The key points to remember are that these accessories cost a whole lot of money to make. A pro-biased market and whopping research and development budgets are the main culprits that push prices higher than they ought to be.
Our advice is to do as much research as you can before buying. Check out our in-depth lens reviews and guides to find the best possible deal for your circumstances.