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by Aditya

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Something that confuses me is why there is some lenses that cost so much. For example the only difference that I see between the two lenses is the aperture: f/2.8 vs f/4.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM Telephoto Zoom Lens $2250.00

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM Telephoto Zoom Lens $639.99

...and of course the price: almost 4 times more expensive!

I understand that a greater aperture offers more versatility but I just can't understand the huge price difference. I'm sure I am missing something fundamental here and I would appreciate if someone could clarify what "important things" I should consider when saving for a $1000+ lens.

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It's not like I think that this was a bad question or should be closed, but unless the lens manufacturers publish their R&D and production costs as well as the margins per lens, there is no way to provide other than speculative answer. –  Karel Aug 18 '10 at 14:02
    
See also photo.stackexchange.com/questions/6256/… –  mattdm Mar 29 '11 at 23:05

7 Answers 7

Actually it's more than just the aperature.

The First lens on your list also has built in Image Stabilization, which will allow you to hand-hold your lens at near 2-3 stops 4 STOPS!! lower than what is possible without IS. One handy rule for shutter speed is that is should be 1/(Focal length), so at the maximum reach, 200mm, you would need a shutter speed faster than 1/200s. With Image Stabilization you can hand hold around 1/25s (3 stops) or even 1/10s ( 4 stops) if you have steady hands!

So that is one reason for a big bump in price, even when compared to the Canon EF 70-200 EF f2.8 Non IS.

Since the lens opening is larger, the optical elements have to be designed differently to account for the larger amount of light. It's not as simple as making a larger max opening. It's a whole change in optical characteristics, which includes higher precision glass, number of elements, which translates into higher production costs. And again, when you tack on built in Image Stabilization, you have a much more complicated system, which costs more to design, and to build properly, which is reflected in the high sticker price (for a fun time, I recommend looking around for the Canon EF 400 F2.8 IS...).

And just so we're clear, the difference between F2.8 and F4 is non-trivial. That is 1 full stop of light, which if everything else is equal, you can shoot your camera with 1/2 the shutter speed as you could with a maximum lens at F4. In doors this can be the difference between getting the shot, and not. Not to mention the depth of field and background blur that occurs at F2.8. Also many Canon DSLR's have high precision AF points when combined with F2.8 lenses, plus F2.8 produces a brighter view finder.

Finally, the Canon 70-200 F2.8 IS II is a new lens, which is hard to come by, which means you will pay list price for it. Just wait it out, and you'll probably be able to pick it up near what the 70-200 F2.8 IS Mark I went for, about $1600 street.

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4 stops is the marketing number but actually achieving that in practice is rare, at least on the Nikon side. –  Reid Aug 18 '10 at 4:32
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Additionally, more expensive lenses are usually made in smaller batches, which means that per-piece manufacturing costs are higher. This might not have a big effect on relatively common 70-200 f/2.8 zooms, but definitely affects price of tilt-shift lenses and other special glass. –  che Aug 18 '10 at 5:36
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@Reid: The 4 stops is from actual testing (see the link I posted), specific to the 70-200 Mark II. Other IS canon lenses are 2 stops typical, 3 with steady hands. –  Alan Aug 18 '10 at 5:45
    
background blur –  Dennis Williamson Aug 18 '10 at 6:13
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How is his information any more or less credible that your "it's just a marketing number." Do you have the lens? Do you have a link that says testing only shows 3 stops? Until you do, I'm inclined to take his word for it. –  Alan Aug 18 '10 at 22:55

It's what the market will bear. Few non-pros see the need for the 2.8 aperture lens with IS, especially since it's as long as my forearm and weighs just as much. Well, almost. I'm pretty big. It's not exactly ideal for wandering around Europe while staying at hostels, taking on a cruise ship, hauling to a kid's soccer game, etc, except for the true fan.

For people who have the need and who understand the benefit, the lens is often also a professional expense. Just as a software programmer might be given a $10k machine in order to do his/her job, a professional photographer might be given the lens by an employer so that the employer gets the photos that they need (even if self employed, and either way, the lens is a definite tax writeoff, at least in the US). It's also why medium format digital backs can cost $25k+ just for the back, before you even get to lenses; the people using them are pros or affluent amateurs who will see a return on investment.

Take a look at the price of the Nikon f/2.0 200mm prime: $3.9k at B&H. That's one stop faster than the 70-200mm lens you quoted and doesn't zoom. But if you're a pro sports shooter in a gym with no lights, or a fashion shooter who knows that they need that length, then you get the lens to get paid. Otherwise, it's a very expensive, very specialized bit of kit that fills a niche most non-pros don't need filled.

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Apparently, there are some people who don't believe in market forces, because my answer got a downvote. Or am I just guessing? Why not leave a comment as to why I'm wrong? –  mmr Aug 18 '10 at 2:02
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But this is a business. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the reality. And in business, things cost what they do because it's what the market will bear. That's the final answer. All the rest of it is explanation or justification that a marketing team uses to get you to buy something; that's what marketing teams do. –  mmr Aug 18 '10 at 4:02
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It is common courtesy to explain why you downvoted if it's not apparent why the answer is wrong. This helps the Answer Author understand whatsup, as well as informs the community. –  Alan Aug 18 '10 at 4:02
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@mmr: "What the market will bare" aka "Supply and Demand" indicates what the optimal price of goods should be, but does not answer the OP's question: Why Lens X is more expensive than Lens Y,if the difference is something miniscule. Furthermore, the price of a good reflects more than market forces. It has the R&D costs, profit, marketing, etc built into it. For example is market forces were to dictate the price of the Wii when it first came out, Nintendo should have sold it near $599+ as that is what the market value for a Wii was, instead of the $249.99 MSRP. –  Alan Aug 18 '10 at 4:18
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I think it's an astute observation. Rational pricing has zilch to do with the cost of production and everything to do with what the market will bear. +1 –  Reid Aug 18 '10 at 4:33

More expensive technology.

The more expensive model includes IS, which is a fairly complicated system.

Also, compare the lens construction:

  • EF 70-200mm f/4L USM - 16 elements in 13 groups
  • EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM - 23 elements in 19 groups (1 Fluorite and 5 UD elements)

Notice the difference here... 7 more elements. That makes for a much more labor intensive process, both in the engineering and production. Besides that, the Fluorite and UD elements are much higher quality than standard glass.

On top of the increased cost of production, the higher the quality of a lens, the more focused it will be on professionals. This also increases the cost, because a pro is more willing to invest in the tools they use to make money.

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There are a few aspects.

  • A smaller minimum F-stop will require a larger outer lens. The amount of glass in the lens, and the corresponding amount of shaping needed, will vary to the square of the diameter. An F/2.8 lens will require a lens twice as large in area as an F/4 lens, and it isn't unreasonable to expect it to cost at least twice as much.
  • The need to optimize sharpness, chromatic aberrations, and distortion will require complex lens designs and/or exotic glass formulations which cost more than lesser lenses.
  • Economies of scale mean that lenses which appeal to the mass market will just cost less to manufacture than more limited lenses. Kind of a catch-22: expensive lenses will sell less, so they will cost even more to manufacture, plus the cost of design and company overhead must be amortized over fewer units.

It is true that pricing will be determined by what the market will bear, but usually competition ensures that the budget for lens manufacture will be some reasonable fraction of the final lens price.

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"budget for manufacture" and for design. You are paying for the expertise of the whole lens manufacturer. –  Jared Updike Sep 3 '10 at 23:02

Lens could be:

  1. Cheap
  2. Lightweight
  3. Have good optical quality

Any lens produced can have two of three characteristics. No more. :)

To be serious: price depends on optical quality of the lens, it's weight and endurance to the environment influence.

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Technically I think all have been said, so I point you this movie. In the past I also didn't understand why lens are so expensive. So, adding the man labor work, quality of optical and technology added, the final price is just right.

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One point that hasn't been pointed out is simple material costs. One stop faster means the area of the objective lens doubles -- that much is pretty obvious. What may not be quite as obvious is that (except with something like a Fresnel lens) when you increase the diameter, that also translates to a thicker lens. Even at its most basic, the cost of materials should be roughly proportional to the cube of the diameter.

In reality, it's usually even a bit worse than that. First, as the size increases, there's a greater chance of a defect in a given optical blank that will render it unusable. Second, when you're dealing with an element that's really big and heavy, mounting it so that it'll stay aligned becomes more difficult.

Then, of course, you get the other points that have already been mentioned, with the optical design typically being more complex, involving more elements, more exotic materials, etc.

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