Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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I have read about and seen many lenses that are very expensive; upwards of 8-10 thousand (US) dollars. I ran across this lens and it was priced at an incredible 26,000 dollars. And this one at 102,000! Why do you really need a lens that costs that much? And what makes it so special that it costs that much?

Bottom Line - Is a lens of that price really worth the money vs a 4-8 thousand dollar lens for most applicable uses?

I am not even talking about the 2,000,000 USD Lens!

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For people who "need" such lenses for a very special assignment, they rent it. –  Gapton Dec 2 '11 at 8:32
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-1 for question's current phrasing which is more rant than to seek answer which can help future Photography readers. –  Global nomad Dec 2 '11 at 8:38
    
@Globalnomad - Partially, but it really comes down to this - is a 26,000 dollar lens really worth the money (if you are a full time photographer)? What makes it so special that someone should pay that much. –  Lynda Dec 2 '11 at 8:53
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I don't really think this is a rant. It's just that @Lynda does not seem to know what the manufacturing of a quality lens (e.g. reduction of aspheric distortion, coatings, etc.) involves. Some special applications require really expensive manufacturing, especially when there are only few customers (no economy of scale). –  Count Zero Dec 2 '11 at 10:30
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possible duplicate of Really? Why does a Nikkor 35mm f/1.4 cost almost $2,000? –  mattdm Dec 2 '11 at 12:26
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2 Answers 2

up vote 14 down vote accepted

This article on the super-expensive lens you mention, the Canon EF 1200mm f/5.6, has has some details that might put the price into perspective:

The new EF 1200 was then marketed by Canon in July, 1993 with an annual production volume of around 2 (that's right - "two") lenses. The EF 1200 L was available by special order with lead times running about 18 months.

Why such a long lead time? For one reason, it takes nearly a year to grow fluorite crystals large enough to be ground and polished for use in this lens. In addition, the lens is "virtually hand-made".

A very niche market, expensive materials, and hand-made. The price is starting to sound completely justified to me after all.

And also from the article, who owns copies of this lens? Sports Illustrated (for the Olympics), National Geographic, and, basically, spy agencies. The expense isn't a big deal when it fills a need.

The relatively less-expensive Sigma lens, and in-production $10k Canon and Nikon lenses, are basically the same story on a smaller scale. Hard to make, expensive materials, not much demand — and there you go.

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The link has been amended to the Leitz/Leica APO Telyt R 1600mm/5.6. Same reasons (each copy is essentially a handmade custom), but the Leica R is even "nicher" (they never made a digital version, and the reflex Leicas weren't an object of collector porn). And now we're talking about a foot of front element (and, I assume, a team of porters to help you carry it around -- it's not a telephoto, it's just really, really long). –  user2719 Dec 2 '11 at 23:11
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"The expense isn't a big deal when it fills a need." - this is the whole story. If the lens is unique and you need these specific unique features, then it is practically priceless! –  ysap Dec 3 '11 at 1:21
    
Great article, after reading yes I can see how it would fill a need. Especially with the fact that: faces were recognizable at distances up to a mile or more. WOW! That is incredible I must say. –  Lynda Dec 3 '11 at 1:40
    
@StanRogers: the first two links in the question originally pointed to the Sigma 200-500mm; the second of those was supposed to point to the Canon EF 1200, as it now does. The third link, to a top-ten list starting with the Leica APO Telyt, is unchanged. –  mattdm Dec 3 '11 at 21:18
    
@mattdm: they pointed to the same lens, but the URLs were different, which is why I remarked on them being the same lens (otherwise I would have left it alone). And the third link (now) is not the original -- even the stated price is different. –  user2719 Dec 3 '11 at 21:53
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The "$26,000 lens" is the Sigma 200-500mm/2.8 APO DG, and it usually weighs in at around $30,000 retail (depending on the retailer, country of purchase and exchange rates). There is a reason for that.

A prime 500mm/2.8 lens (a lens that isn't a zoom) would come in at around $15,000 with decent glass and corrections. The front element would need to be just over seven inches (about 18cm) across, and a lens consists of a lot more than a single element. At long focal lengths, making all of the various colours focus at the same point (eliminating lateral chromatic aberration) is a lot more critical than at shorter focal lengths, otherwise your images will look like old-fashioned red/blue 3D prints/movies without the 3D glasses. Once you start adding in extra elements to correct for all of the various flaws that are inherent to refractive optics (lenses) -- and some of those elements need to be made from outrageously expensive materials that are incredibly dificult to work with -- and add the precision mechanics it takes to keep all of those elements in the right relationship to each other as you focus, the cost of the lens really doesn't sound all that bad.

Making it zoom out to 200mm while keeping it acceptably rectilinear, APO corrected, parfocal (a "true zoom", rather than just a lens with an adjustable focal length) and constant-aperture takes a lot more glass and precision mechanics. And let's not forget that this particular lens is also a 400-1000mm/5.6 zoom: the 2x "teleconverter" that comes with this baby is not an off-the-shelf item; it is an integral part of the lens's design.

Really, $30,000 or so isn't so bad if you make your living using lenses like this one. If you ever get to see it in person and pick it up, you won't be too very surprised at the price -- it's huge and heavy. And if you don't, but need it for a particular shoot, you can always rent.

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