Affordable Versus Expensive Lens: Is There a Noticeable Difference?

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t go through some amount of indecision when it comes to picking out a new lens to get. One major factor in decision making is the cost of the lens. Some are affordable, others are better but less affordable, and others are out right expensive. In the end, is there a noticeable difference?

In this video, Matt Day presents two 35mm f/2.5 lenses: a Voigtlander Skopar and a Leica Summarit (the newer, f2.4 version can be found here). The difference in cost between the two was $1,000 (Voigtlander: $300 vs. Leica: $1,300), which is as much or more than many people expect to pay for a new manual focus lens. The video runs through example photographs with both lenses followed by direct side-by-side comparisons of the two lenses using a Leica M6.  

I know, I know, what is and is not “expensive” is all relative. While $1,000 may not sound like much to someone who makes their living on their photography; however, for those of us who pursue photography as an extracurricular activity, $1,000 could be considered a pretty serious investment. I’ve been looking for a good 35mm lens for my F100 for months and still remain undecided. For the longest time, I wanted the Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.2 when my Sony a7 saw the majority of my photographic action, but now, I’m deciding between a Sigma, Tamron’s new f/1.4, or one of Nikon’s 35mms. 

Have you ever found yourself indecisive about which lens to get? Have you ever done any side-by-side comparisons of a lens? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. 

James Madison's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician based out of Columbus, OH. He fell back in love with film years ago while living in Charleston, SC and hasn't looked back since. In early 2019 he started a website about film photography.

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Bad product choices for the argument. Would have been more realistic to use real-world gear pros use every day.

The answer to the title question is that it really depends on specific products. Some high end lenses will be incomparable, yet some cheaper lenses have blown the doors off more expensive ones. It really comes down to a lens-by-lens/focal length-by-focal length comparison.

I'd also add the quality of the copy of lens. Some lower end lenses will have noticeable differences in the same lens line. I believe Lens Rentals did a test of a pretty good lens (Canon?) and the different copies showed variations in quality with the test equipment, but you would likely not notice those differences in most photos.

Although copy to copy variance is higher on cheaper lenses, there's a significant amount of it even on higher end ones, so "the song remains the same", for the most part.

I know that the Rokinon lenses have copy variation that seems like there's a complete absence of quality control in their production. I've read that Sigma's 35mm f/1.4 also can suffer from copy variation. Are you aware of more high end lenses with an issue of copy variation?

The first iteration of the Canon 400mm f4 DO is widely known to suffer from significant copy-to-copy variation and inconsistencies. Canon seems to have addressed these issues with the newer version of the lens that they released a few years ago.

I didn't know that. I thought that telephoto lenses didn't suffer nearly as much as wide angle lenses. In any case, my ver I 400 f4 DO is phenomenal. Very happy with the results and would love to upgrade to ver II, but the cost doesn't seem to justify the minor improvements in contrast that I can add in post.

I'm not sure how they could be "bad product choices" for an illustrative example. While I would agree an exhaustive technical comparison of a broad range of lenses would be most ideal, that would be such a massive undertaking that I don't see it happening any time soon.

I think Matt did a good job in his comparison of two lenses that serve the same purpose. Perhaps my choice of title was too broad.

At the very least, more expensive lenses generally offer better vignetting and chromatic aberration. They usually have better coatings. Sharpness and barrel distortion isn't always true. Sharpness more so than not but there have been cheaper lenses that have been sharper. Like the Sony 85mm f/1.8 vs 1.4. I'm sure there are more examples.

Sometimes this is hard to track. I've noticed large variances between copies sometimes. I just recieved my Sigma 24-70 and thank god it was a good copy. Although I feel there are sharper copies of the 16-35G than the one I got. It's still great lens though.

The two sharpest lenses I've ever owned was the Canon 40mm STM stopped down a little and the Sigma 18-35mm for Canon. The Tokina 11-16 was a close third, in "center". The rest of my Canon lenses were meh but they were mostly second hand USM lenses. Never bought an L series lens as I wasn't on full frame at the time.

I don't own a single zoom lens nor anything Canon but I've been interested in the Sigma 24-70 for a while. What are you saying with "thank god it was a good copy?"

I won't speak for Jerome, however, I'm pretty sure he's talking about the hit and miss of Sigma's focusing ability. I had the 50 f1.4 and have the 100-400. Both needed a lot of micro adjustments to get the focus correct. In some cases, purchasers have returned their Sigma lenses because they just couldn't get the focus correct. But, when they are good (Art/Sport), they are very good.

I bought my 100-400 when it first hit the market. I got the focus fixed, but the OS was so so at best. But, the first update using Sigma's dock fixed the OS' slow reaction time. A couple of firmware updates later and it's a terrific lens!

I thought that was what he was referring to. I've heard it's a pretty bad problem with the 35mm too. It's that very reason that I haven't yet to pick one up.

As mentioned by David, Sigma has been hit and miss at times. Mostly from what I've heard but the 18-35 art that I had for Canon mount didn't focus right on my older 70D. In fact it was specifically the 70D and that lens combo people were having problems with. It would front and back focus with single point. You could send both your camera and lens into Sigma but there wasn't a guarantee they could fix the problem. I never did. I ended up using it mostly manually but then later adapted it when I switched to Sony. It worked great then. I have since sold all my Canon gear.

So far though I have been very happy with this Sigma lens.

Depends on which affordable lens vs. which expensive lens. BTW, get the Tamron 35mm f/1.4. :)

Ahhh... I've read the Tamron 35mm f/1.4 is amazing though I've not seen one or used one myself. How does it compare to Sigma's counterpart to you?

Resell value also hold better on more "expensive" lens, so you are sure of getting some back when upgrading.

While somewhat true, this does not really matter in real life. The difference between the buying and the selling price is about the same. The price drop of an expensive pro lens is normally quite big.

If both lenses are used, I would tend to agree with this point. If both lenses are new, both are going to take a hit on resell value but I would think a more expensive lens would retain its value better.

Have you owned/used the Nikon 50mm f/1.4? For still being quite affordable (relative to the Otus) I'm curious to hear how it compares to the 1.8. It's interesting to hear that you own one of the nicest (if not the nicest) ~50mm lens and still use the f/1.8. Thanks for sharing!

Short answer: no. Long answer: no, but it takes a long time to fully realize this truth.

Hahaha. Good summary.

Welcome to the Scam of 21st Century Photography.
Little Difference .. Big Markup

I do wonder when the benefits outweigh the cost difference. I also don't know that I do any photographic work that would benefit from the really nice lenses.

I have realized a very real difference between expensive lenses and their cheaper counterparts. Built quality is one of the most important attributes of a lens, as we are constantly pushing the limits of how much use and abuse out lenses can withstand. The cheap lenses do not hold up well under a lot of use in extreme conditions and tend to literally fall apart. Conversely, the expensive professional level lenses withstand a lot of very hard use and getting banged around and bumped into hard objects, and keep working without any drop in performance.

This difference is, in fact, so obvious to me that I am surprised that you even dared to contest it. Expensive lenses are very much better than their cheap counterparts. At least if you are measuring it by what matters, which is physical build quality. If all you're looking at are the optical qualities, then, whatever ...... that doesn't really even matter and isn't worth comparing in the first pace.

I can certainly understand where the differences in sturdiness and weather sealing and such make a big difference - particularly over time for a professional wildlife photographer such as yourself. This commentary was intended more for the general photography population such as myself. Yes, I use and abuse my gear and appreciate the durability of quality products. With that said, however, I 99% of the time or more I'm not putting a lens through its paces. Instead, I'm stopping a lens down, taking a photograph, and move on. For what I do as well as what most people do, I cannot hardly believe it matter that much.

I mean for Leica M series it is like this:

1- Leica
2- Zeiss
3- Voigtlander
4- nothing
6- 7Artisans

BUT if you shoot all of those lenses an f/8.0. they are pretty much the same ... it is 1.2 , 1.4 that makes the difference.

Hahaha. 7Artisans trails behind "nothing" in your opinion? I've never tried their stuff but that's a pretty condemning stance.

So boring. Boring comparison. Boring results. Boring photographs.

Most prime lenses are more than acceptably sharp for taking sentimental pictures of your family and coffee grinder on 35mm film. The more expensive lens is more well corrected - has a less distortion and less vignetting. Shocker.

You choose the system by the lenses you want/need and not vice versa. If you can't afford the lenses you want, it's the wrong camera system. In case of Leica I find it absolutely obscene to pay more than 1k for a manual f/2.5 lens. Sure, if you have fun with it on your old film camera, go for it but don't argue about price and making rational decisions. None of the decisions before that lead to that camera choice and this specific question was rational.

Now, if you develop a need for a new lens after you commited, sure, check what the lenses can give you. I find it to be not very useful to make compromises on the look of a lens because of the price tag. You'll regret it. I'd rather pay a premium and get the look I want than to save money and not be happy with it. But I know the prices within my system so I'm not suddenly surprised by a 10k price tag of a niche lens.

A more realistic question would have been in regards to the Viltrox 85mm f/1.8 for example. Compare it to Sony's 85mm f/1.8.