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I’ve heard people say “a good lens will last a lifetime” many times. Is this actually true of modern lenses? More specifically, will a good lens be usable for a lifetime?

With an inexpensive adapter, I can mount up any M42 (Pentax) screw-mount manual focus lens to my Canon EF mount body. The same is not true of older AF lenses. The Canon FD mount lasted less then twenty years, and is incompatible with modern Canon bodies; this also seems to be the case with the earlier FL and R mounts. While the EF mount has lasted longer than the FD lenses, I have a 15-year-old Sigma lens which does not work correctly on modern Canon bodies due to electronic incompatibilities.

Additionally, there’s the issue of Canon’s EF-S (APS-C only) lenses, which are incompatible with their full-frame DSLRs. If one wants to upgrade to a full-frame body in the future, any money spent on EF-S lenses is wasted.

The situation seems to be better with Nikon’s gear. It’s my understanding that current Nikon bodies are largely backwards-compatible with lenses dating back to the ’60s.

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At first glance, this comes across as a thinly veiled "Nikon is better than Canon" type post, you might want to consider rewording to be brand neutral and focus on your question, before the wider community votes to close as subjective/argumentative. –  Rowland Shaw Dec 22 '10 at 8:55
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To me it's just a statement of fact, the situation is better with Nikon gear, and that's relevant to the question. I don't think ieure has a hidden agenda! –  Matt Grum Dec 22 '10 at 9:32
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If we are discussing modern lenses, maybe the question is "how likely is it that a camera manufacturer will change lens electrical/mechanical connections in the future in such a way that older lenses will no longer be 100% functional?" I'd say very low but not zero probability. –  David Rouse Dec 22 '10 at 14:06
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FWIW, Pentax cameras are "largely backwards-compatible with lenses dating back to the ’60s" too, with fewer caveats than with Nikon — although depending on one's use, the big "hafta use stop-down metering" caveat is pretty significant. –  mattdm Dec 22 '10 at 15:13
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My intent certainly wasn't Nikon-beats-Canon. I own and shoot with Canon gear, so I know the situation better. But I'm looking at investing in some expensive glass, and future compatibility is a big concern to me, and one of the factors that makes me consider going Nikon. –  ieure Dec 23 '10 at 19:40

7 Answers 7

up vote 15 down vote accepted

In talking with a number of working pros, the general attitude tends to be that you buy lenses to keep and you buy bodies to upgrade. My personal planning mirrors this; I've tried to invest in higher quality lenses that i expect to own for a while (10-15 years) while given how body technology is changing, upgrading a body every 2-3 years doesn't surprise me. When I started, I bought the Canon 100-400, an inexpensive wide angle, and a Rebel XT body. I've upgraded the body 3 times (now I have a 30D and a 7D, and I'm starting to think about upgrading the 30d), and I've upgraded the inexpensive lens to a better but not high end lens, and honestly, I'm also planning to upgrade my wide angle lenses to "keeper" lenses over the next couple of years as I can.

So while "last a lifetime" might not be strictly true (but a co-worker of mine collects old camera gear, and we were working on an 8x19 lens made around the turn of the century a week or so ago; it still works...) it is true that if you buy more expensive lenses and less expensive bodies, it'll be a better long-term investment and you won't upgrade your lenses nearly as often as the bodies, adn they'll tend to last a lot longer with some care and maintenance. My upgrade model is 3-4 years for bodies and 10-15 years for quality lenses (such as IS style). Some regular maintenance doesn't hurt; many pro photographers I know send their lenses in once a year for pro cleaning and calibration...

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I take it you mean the turn of the 'other' century? :) –  Benjol Dec 22 '10 at 7:46

I think this question boils down to a balance between backwards compatibility and technological progress. You can strive to maintain the ultimate in backwards compatibility, and never change a lens mount. Some camera manufacturers have succeeded in that, such as Nikon and Pentax, to a large degree. However, what is the long term cost of progress there?

Canon made a very explicit decision back in the late 80's when they created the EF mount. Their existing mount did not provide the capabilities that they needed to support extremely fast AF, so they made the decision to ditch FD and create EF. Despite ruffling feathers, from a business and progress standpoint, it was the best decision they could have made. The EF mount allowed them to create very wide aperture, VERY fast AF lenses that otherwise were not possible with the FD mount, and that rocketed them to the top of the list for huge numbers of photographers. The benefits of the EF mount and fast AF with very wide lenses was enough to eventually cause droves of photographers to leave their previous brand [look in the 1990's section] (which was largely Nikon at the time, I believe) and move to Canon. That little fact is not as obvious today, since we have had EF for around 26 years now, and Nikon caught up to Canon's AF many, many years ago.

Sometimes the question is not as simple as simply maintaining backwards compatibility or "timelessness" (as the FD mount was once called.) Sometimes the benefits of progress far outweigh the benefits of longevity, and a change needs to be made. It should be noted that not every single Nikon lens works perfectly with moderns Nikon DSLR's. Older, purely manual F mount lenses should work great, however older electronic F-mount lenses have been noted to have problems with modern DSLR electronics. Canon has had similar problems with some of their very old EF lenses from the late 80's when used on modern DSLR's. Such cases are rare, but they do happen...and its just the basic cost of progress.

All of that said, the EF mount did not entirely make the FD mount moot and useless on modern Canon DSLR's. Adapter rings exist that allow you to use FD lenses on EF bodies. Some of them include a correcting lens (like a teleconverter) that preserves infinity focus, while others act like a very small extension tube, possibly eliminating infinity focus but allowing close or macro focus distances. Using an adapter, a very wide range of FD lenses can be used on modern EF camera bodies. The story does not stop there, either. Adapters exist for the EF mount that can adapt a variety of other brands of lenses as well, including the Nikon F mount, M42 lenses, and others. I believe that makes the EF mount one of the most versatile mounts available, and opens an incredibly large world of lens possibilities to Canon users that may not be as readily available for other brands or lens mounts.

As a Canon user myself, I have always enjoyed knowing that I could pick up a small adapter and use the manual focus FD lenses, such as the FD 500mm f/4.5 lens which seems to be a superb birding lens. I also like knowing that I can get a Nikon F mount adapter and use their excellent 14-24mm ultra-wide angle zoom lens. I have also recently discovered the M42 mount, and the extremely wide range of manual lenses available for that mount, which can also be adapted to Canon's EF mount.


I have to update this a bit. Before Canon's recent rounds of lens upgrades, I though optics were optics, and that they were already excellent. Canon's latest optical technology has proven me wrong, though. Particularly with their "Great White" telephoto and supertelephoto lenses (200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4), the new line of Mark II lenses, as well as all of the recently released L-series zooms and primes, are MARKED improvements over the previous generations.

All of Canon's new lenses are faster (electronically/functionally, not aperture-wise), with better AF logic and significantly improved IS, lighter with more advanced materials like titanium and magnesium alloy barrels (some lenses have lost nearly four pounds of weight!), with significant feature upgrades (often for video, but those features can be useful for stills work as well, such as focus recall), and have SIGNIFICANT IQ improvements. Image quality from an MTF standpoint has improved considerably in the latest lenses, from the 0.8 to 0.9 range on most lenses, or ~0.9 - 0.95 on the previous generation of Great Whites, to nearly 1.0 at the center, and ~0.98-0.99 at the edge/corner (wide angles, like the 24-70, still suffer a bit more at the corner, however they are still improved over the previous generation). The use of fluorite elements reduces the number of lens elements necessary for any design, on top of greatly reducing CA, which improves aberrations across the board at wide open apertures. The use of nanocoatings on the most critical lens elements reduces flare to near zero, and increases transmission (nanocoatings, unlike multicoatings, avoid reflection almost entirely, rather than canceling reflections out...which still reduces transmission.) Image Stabilization has officially been doubled, from two stops to four stops. In practice, achieving at least five stops of improved hand-holdability, if not more, is easy. The introduction of Mode 3 IS with better, near-instant activation actuation supports the use of IS when the lens is mounted on a tripod, something that was usually not possible before (with the exception of the EF 800mm f/5.6 L, from which the new 4-stop IS system now used in all Canon telephoto lenses comes from.)

Simply put, Canon's newest generation of lenses offer nearly unparalleled IQ (maybe unparalleled in the DSLR world), with significant weight savings and considerable functional and performance improvements. They effectively invalidate the previous generation of many of Canon's lenses. Perhaps more so with the several thousand dollar "Great Whites", but also in the case of many staple lenses for other types of photographers, such as the 24-70 f/2.8 L.

Lens longevity is really a dependent thing. So long as a lens lineup doesn't receive a significant upgrade, older lenses will certainly last. In the face of a significant upgrade, such as Canon is currently performing to the bulk of their L-series lens lineup, old lenses quickly lose their luster in the face of all the benefits of upgrading. It has been nearly 15 years since Canon last updated their lens lineup significantly. With the considerable improvements in IQ and functionality, we can probably hope for at least another 15 years. However, I am not longer certain that any lens, even a $13,000 lens, will literally last a "lifetime" anymore. That would be on the order of fourty years. It is still intriguing to know I could pick up an 800mm FD lens and use it on my Canon body...but it is far less compelling now that I've used a new generation of lenses that blows my mind every time I see one of the photographs I've taken with it.

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In the vintage lens world with Canon, FD is sadly not part of the lineup of compatible lenses (we define that as lensless adapter). Nikon, M42, Pentax K, Ol OM, and C/Y mounts are. –  Michael Nielsen Apr 24 '13 at 5:56
    
I think I mentioned that you have to use a lensed adapter to get FD working.... –  jrista Apr 24 '13 at 19:16
    
thats a given. what I am ssaying is that in the vintage fan world, compatibility is given by the type of adaptor: lensless = compatible. Lens required to focus to infinity = not compatible. That makes FD not compatible with EF. But those other mounts I mentioned are compatible. Other not compatible lenses are M39, Sony and Minolta. –  Michael Nielsen Apr 24 '13 at 19:35
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@MichaelNielsen: Compatibility is really, I guess "natively", determined by registration distance. If a lens is designed for a mount with a larger registration distance than the EF mount, it is natively compatible, with a glassless adapter. The whole point about EF is that it has one of the shortest registration distances of any DSLR, which is why it is natively compatible with so many lenses. Overall compatibility is also benefitted by a variety of adapters. My point there was that the EF mount has adapters for EVERYTHING. Not every mount has that range of compatibility, glassless or else. –  jrista Apr 24 '13 at 19:39
    
Goto Comment #1. –  Michael Nielsen Apr 24 '13 at 19:41

Canon certainly pissed a lot of people off when they changed their mount going to autofocus, but they had what to them was a good technical reason for doing so: to make stupid-fast retrofocus lenses possible. Nikon already had a relatively large-diameter mount and so could opt to put compatibility first without sacrificing too much speed, but Canon was making their name with ridiculously fast lenses (the 50mm f/1.0 and 85mm f/1.2, for example) and expected that fast glass was going to be their competitive edge over Nikon. Their old mount would not allow truly fast wide-angle lenses without mirror lock-up and an auxiliary viewfinder. EF-S lenses are sold with a caveat (and, for the most part, aren't worth the paper they're made from anyway), so that's a bit of a red herring. As for electronics and third-party lenses, well, you can't blame Canon for keeping their cards close to their vest, can you?

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Don't tar all EF-s lenses with the same brush just because of one or two bad zooms, the low end EF lenses they shipped with film SLRs were worse! The 10-22, 17-55 f/2.8, 60 f/2.8 are all L quality optics –  Matt Grum Dec 22 '10 at 9:35
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Couldn't agree more with Matt. There are some very high quality EF-S lenses, and as long as you know what you are buying, the purchase of a quality EF-S lens can last as long as you use APS-C bodies. I don't see cropped sensors going away any time soon, as they make up the vast bulk of the DSLR world. The longevity of EF-S can be superb if you primarily (or only) use APS-C bodies. –  jrista Dec 22 '10 at 18:53

Ignoring issues of mechanical wear on lenses (which is difficult to quantify) and focussing on changes of format etc. the real problem is with changes to the registration distance, the distance from the film/sensor to the lens mount.

When Canon moved from the FD to EF mount the registration distance increased and this made the FD lenses incompatible, when mounted on an EF camera they couldn't focus to infinity (or further than a few feet in most cases).

Making the registration distance shorter is not a problem as old lenses can be mounted at the correct distance using spacers.

On the plus side for Canon, their registration distance is shorter than the Nikon F mount, so Nikon lenses can be mounted on Canons (albeit without AF, stop down metering) whereas the reverse is not true. So when someone tells you that you can mount old MF Nikkors from the 60s on their D90 you might point out that you can mount all the same lenses on your Canon too...

As for future compatibility I can only see registration distances reduced as manufacturers do things like get rid of the mirror and viewfinder assembly. This has already happened with micro 4/3rds cameras from Olympus and Panasonic. The short registration distance makes these cameras very good for adapting lenses from other formats.

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I think it would also be based on the construction of the lens too. A metal body lens with high quality and durable optics will likely last as long as it is not worn or damaged and it is compatible with a camera. If the AF motor dies, then it can usually still be manually focused.

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No

Even a quick Google search will kill off this rumor. Will it last, and will it work? Maybe. But, will it be relevant for a future generation of cameras? Probably not. The standard Canon lens is the Canon EF-S 18-55mm lens. The 18-55 mm lens has been change numerous times,

  • I USM (discontinued)
  • I (discontinued)
  • II USM (discontinued)
  • II (discontinued)
  • IS (discontinued)
  • IS II (current)
  • III (current)
  • IS STM (current)

Regardless of the reasons, 5 of the 8 models have been discontinued. You'd be compromising some of the advantages of camera-body, if you were to use these olders lenses. And, as of now, the new the T5i introduces STM,

EF-S 18-55mm IS STM On 21 March 2013, the 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 IS STM was announced alongside the Canon 700D/Rebel T5i and 100D/Rebel SL1. It has a different optical formula from that of any previous Canon 18–55mm lens, and includes Canon's STM (stepping motor) technology, claimed by the company to offer quieter continuous autofocus while shooting video when attached to bodies that have Canon's hybrid autofocus sensor technology. The STM is also the first 18–55mm version with an internal focusing design.[4] It will be offered as a kit lens on both the 700D[4] and 100D.[5]

source: wikipedia.

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So, what if we read "good lenses" to mean "moderate to higher-tier lenses, excluding budget and kit lenses?" –  mattdm Apr 23 '13 at 19:27
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Also, does the introduction of a new lens mean that the lens is obsolete? Particularly, you note that the STM lens is designed for video; does that make the older lenses not really last for still photography? –  mattdm Apr 23 '13 at 19:29
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They are indeed still telephoto lenses. And they are indeed the same focal lengths with the same apertures. But the improvements in the new versions are incredibly compelling. I was waiting for the new lenses to be released so I could pick up one of the old ones cheap. I'm saving for a 600mm f/4 L IS II now. I couldn't go back to the old one...its huge, EXCESSIVELY HEAVY (12lb...new one is 8.4lb!!), and while the IQ is great, it just doesn't cut it anymore. Wagon wheel to Rubber wheel? Maybe not...wooden wheel to wheel with steel reinforcements, a rubber lining, and perfectly round? At least! –  jrista Apr 24 '13 at 4:42
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I think every lens seems to get a substantial upgrade over the timeline of a decade. I'm extremely new to photography, but it seems the precipitous drop in full-frame DSLR technology should lead one to predict that at the very latest, in one decade all APS-C's will be out of date, and replaced by APS-H or full frame. And, that still negates 3D, which may very well be the standard with some small-aperture niche that's as clear as APS-C is today. After all, I see the 3D TVs have exploded and now it's hard to find a TV over $1,000 that doesn't have 3D. –  Evan Carroll Apr 24 '13 at 5:01
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It just seems as if the question should be simply answered, No Technology has changed and will continue to change, and a lens is a product of science -- optics -- and a specific transient fad in camera technology. –  Evan Carroll Apr 24 '13 at 5:04

I don't have much in the way of numbers to back this up, but I think a good quality AF lens should at least last 20-30 years, more with regular maintenance. I've been using some lenses released in 2000 and handled quite roughly (newspaper staff) but still perform well. I haven't seen any Mean Time Between Failure numbers for auto focus motors, but if a hard drive motor can last for 10+ years running nearly all the time then an auto focus motor ought to last much longer than that (understanding that the AF motor is pulling a heavier load and probably doesn't have as good a seal against the outside).

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Most hard drives fail (if they fail) at startup, so continuous usage isn't normally a problem. –  James Youngman Mar 18 '12 at 0:24

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