Cheap Versus Expensive Prime Lens: Can You Tell the Difference?

The price range of camera lenses goes from very affordable to so expensive that you cant fathom a need to buy it in any business-like sense. In this video, I compare a budget lens to a reasonably expensive prime lens.

The difference between a cheap zoom lens and an expensive zoom lens is massive. Yet, an expensive zoom to a cheap prime usually lands in the prime's favor. With this in mind, how much more lens do you get when you spend nearly four times more on some Carl Zeiss optics over the entry level Canon prime lenses?

The main take-home message in this video is that when you start spending big chunks of change, you see extremely diminishing returns. Can you spot the difference in a side-by-side comparison?

Rather than going for an incredibly technical test, which really only helps you understand how well a lens shoots a test sheet. I shot the same image at three apertures that I would regularly use in my commercial work for food clients. 

I am not particularly fond of extreme sharpness, having been a portrait photographer and then moving into food photography. It isn't really a sought-after characteristic of lenses in my line of work, but there are other factors that I consider here: color rendition and highlight control, as well as the build quality of the lenses. 

Can you spot the difference between a cheap and expensive prime lens? 

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20 Comments

I'll tell you once you tell me the answer.

Scott Choucino's picture

Haha, pretty sure I can’t tell in the above pic without going back and checking

Spy Black's picture

Sometimes slower primes are better corrected than faster, more expensive ones. For example, the 85mm f/1.8 Tamron blows the doors off the 85mm f/1.4 Nikkor.

Spy Black's picture

I have my own investment in Nikkors, but it's obvious the Tamron is sharper and better corrected than the Nikkor.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah the Zeiss and canon 50/60 macros that start at 2.8 are very sharp

Tony Clark's picture

Perhaps a better comparison would be with the 100L/IS but the 100 USM did perform well when stopped down. As you know, the differences can easily be adjusted in C1 and then forgotten. Also shooting a color card, setting the white balance and opening up the shadow of the Zeiss would be my process. I did think the shadows were a little dense on the Zeiss and I preferred the colors of the 100 USM but that may just be me.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah, my mate owns the 100L but he wasn’t around on my filming day so I had to crack on with what I had.

Marginal gains when it comes to expensive lenses! Haha

Rod Kestel's picture

It'd be more balanced if you made your comments without already knowing which was which. I guessed the Canon is the left image.

The real point is paying a shirt load of money more when you can barely pick the difference. Unless you want to make a big impression...I've got a big lens, Ladies,

A bit off topic, but yesterday shooting at an event where there TV camera guys. When modern kit is so good and far lighter why would you carry a thing as big as a beer keg? Unless it was full of beer.

The tripod alone was big enough to launch a rocket. Can someone explain, ta.

The TV station or production company owns the camera and other gear. All paid for, it works with all the mics and uplinky things and they don;t see a need to replace it yet. Many TV stations give some small camera to their reporters for time when the crew is elsewhere. Also helps them elbow the smaller cameras out of the way :)

Scott Choucino's picture

The joys of being a one man band haha. Maybe I’ll grt a load of pros in and see if they can tell.

Generally an ENG camera will have a working life of up to 10 years. Gear bought when a station went HD is probably still in use. The versatility of an ENG camera is key. Most can record external sources as well as be a camera. They can up convert SD to HD, some down convert in case you need to feed in places where HD infrastructure doesn't exist. Four independent audio channels too. Smaller sensors are a benefit in this case. The lens is equivalent to around 24mm-600mm f1.8. It's news. Doesn't have to be art all the time.

Rod Kestel's picture

Thanks for that. Some terms I don't recognise. This might be a good topic for a FStoppers article.

Different cameras for different jobs... here

David Pavlich's picture

Yep! I had a Sigma 50 Art and the 50mm Canon f1.4. The chromatic aberration exhibited by the Canon lens is painfully obvious compared to the Sigma. So yes, I can tell the difference.

Scott Choucino's picture

That Canon lens was never good to me. I kept burning out the af motor. Loving the sigma though.

Manfred Mueller's picture

Let me think about this for a microsecond or two.

1. I buy a "fast lens" to shoot it wide open when I need it and I don't worry about absolute sharpness. Depth of field considerations and being able to shoot at a lower ISO, especially in low light situations, are far more important to me.

2. Accutance (a.k.a. sharpening) is usually far more important than lens sharpness in an image. Pretty well any modern lens can be viewed as being "sharp enough". I spent a month touring South America this year and only had a Nikkor 28 - 300mm lens along. No one has come to me complaining about me using a low end lens for the images I have shown and printed.

Absolute lens sharpness is a modern disease brought about by lens reviewers how have found something easy to measure, rather than something that is ultimately important in most image making. Look at the large market for lenses from the 1950s through the 1970s; people are buying them for their optical quirks and the look they get in their images, rather than absolute sharpens.

3. Who cares when most of the image people produce are downsampled to around MP. Most of the subtlety and resolution are lost when viewing on a standard 2 MP display. Show me a large print and do some pixel peeping and you may see some differences. Stand at a normal viewing distance (2 x the image diagonal) any you won't.

I have the Zeiss 50mm ZE as well as the 21mm and 100 mm. I bought them after I first tried a 28 mm Contax-Zeiss. There is a certain thing that I love about the way these lenses take pictures. It's the increase in the saturation, as well as the bokeh. It's also in the way they feel in the hand. I've tried the Canon 100 mm, but there's something missing. I recently bought A-7iii because I could then use the Batis lenses with autofocus and Ibis. They are incredibly sharp lenses, but I still mainly use the 50 mm Zeiss with an adapter. The resale value is not as good as Canon...

Another video for stills. No thanks

Jeff Colburn's picture

For several years I shot with a Canon 55-250mm f/4 kit lens, then a couple of years ago I upgraded to a Canon 70-200mm f/4 L EF IS (USM). There really wasn't that much difference. The L lens had a better build and was more waterproof. But the only big difference was that it had no chromatic aberration while the kit lens had a lot.

The upgrade was worth it to me to save time processing images to remove chromatic aberration, but it may not be for you.

About 95% of the photos I have in a gallery were shot with the kit lens, and they look great.

Have Fun,
Jeff