Plastic Lenses Are Awesome so Stop Being Sniffy About Them

Plastic Lenses Are Awesome so Stop Being Sniffy About Them

Cheap, soft, and lightweight, with woefully slow autofocus and shoddy build quality; however terrible they might be, plastic lenses are great value. Quite why people get so agitated about this topic is a bit of a mystery because cheap glass can be amazing. Here’s why.

A few weeks ago, Fstoppers writer Oliver Kmia put together a list of his favorite budget lenses for Canon and Nikon. While thousands of people found this article incredibly useful, a few hardened pixel-peepers couldn’t stop themselves from angrily declaring that recommending plastic lenses is unacceptable. This sniffy attitude overlooks the fact that many people don’t need the features that top-end lenses offer, and nor can they consider the expense. Given this combination, budget lenses are the obvious choice, completely justifiable, and more than up to the job.

Cheap glass is a good option as long as you understand what the results are going to be, and why your nifty fifty might be literally five times lighter and thirty times cheaper than one of the best on the market. Will your photos be thirty times worse with the budget option? Of course not.

So let’s consider what you’re missing out on when you spend $42.60 on a 50mm lens compared to $1,269. The more expensive option offers you a few extra stops of aperture, creating gorgeous bokeh thanks to its razor-thin depth of field, and more flexibility when shooting in low light levels. Alongside that, the lens coatings mean it will cope infinitely better when you point it at a very bright light source, such as directly into the sun. Autofocus will be dramatically quicker, accurate and more consistent, especially in low contrast situations (those back-lit portraits again). Images will be noticeably sharper, especially in the corners, and with less vignetting. It's more likely to withstand challenging weather conditions and can take a few bumps before needing a repair.

One of the best lenses ever created: the Canon 40mm pancake. Why would you ever leave it at home?

Would I love to own Canon’s 50mm f/1.2? Absolutely. Can I afford it? Not at the moment. Photography is only one part of what I do professionally, and the work I do with the 50mm is in turn only a small part of that, so I’m much better off renting a lens in the event that I need it (especially if I can pass that cost onto the client). For my day-to-day shooting — overwhelmingly for screen rather than print — I use a dramatically cheaper piece of plastic, and for good reason.

Most of this everyday work takes place in a forest that is full of sand, and I’m typically shooting in between climbing rocks, which means that my hands are covered in magnesium carbonate — i.e., chalk. As camera equipment seems to hate fine particles of dust, my expensive lenses tend to stay at home.

In a forest full of sand and hands covered in chalk, what's better? A meaty zoom worth almost $2,000, or a prime that's worth a couple of tanks of gas?

The weight-saving is dramatic. I spend a huge amount of time on the road and if I’m not shooting for print, there’s little need for me to haul expensive glass around. One recent job took me on a budget flight from Paris to Belgrade via Vienna, without the option of any checked luggage. Three days of photographing for Skochypstiks, an urban clothing brand, for social media meant that I was more than happy to use Canon’s 50mm f/1.8. The results are of course not as sharp as if I had used Canon’s f/1.2, but sharpness was not the objective here; being fast and light was much more important — as was affordability — and the client is delighted with the results.

Not all cheap lenses are a good choice, so it’s worth doing your research. Going back a few years ago, I made the mistake of trying to fill a gap with a low-end zoom and ended up regretting my decision. An event was coming up and I realized that my slightly ancient Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 had seen better days. Given that this lens only comes out a few times a year, I thought I’d risk buying myself a second hand, non-Canon option. I knew that at f/2.8 it would be soft, but I didn’t realize how soft, and nor did I anticipate the awful fringing I would get when shooting in bright sunlight. Compared to my old Canon, the lens is pretty much unusable anything wider than f/3.5, so I’d have been just as well off with a good f/4 lens rather than a cheap f/2.8. You learn from your mistakes.

So perhaps here’s the lesson: have a look at Kmia’s list and spot how many zooms are there. Very few. And of those zooms, check out many have a fixed aperture, or an aperture wider than f/4.5. There's a pattern emerging.

Plastic lenses have their place: if you want to save on weight and cost and don’t mind sacrificing a few extra f-stops and a degree of sharpness, don’t be bullied by the arrogance of a few noisy professionals who think that gear is paramount and "real photographers" don’t shoot with affordable glass. The plastic fantastic can be an option as long as you do the research and have the right expectations.

Andy Day's picture

Andy Day is a British photographer and writer living in France. He began photographing parkour in 2003 and has been doing weird things in the city and elsewhere ever since. He's addicted to climbing and owns a fairly useless dog. He has an MA in Sociology & Photography which often makes him ponder what all of this really means.

Log in or register to post comments

I'm a bit disappointed by this article. When I read the title, I thought you were talking about proper plastic lenses, as in lens elements made of plastic instead of glass :) I love cameras with plastic lenses. Holga, Diana and the like are awesome and fun cameras! I guess it all depends on your style of photography. For me, plastic lenses are not a problem. I've shot some cool pictures with those $5 cameras.

Yeh, the article is not about plastic lenses. It's more about cheap lenses. Today's cheap lenses are quite good.

Remember your audience: these are the people who whine and moan because Nikon didn't release any "pro f1.4" lenses with the Z7.

and that the Z7 isnt a truly pro camera made specifically for their needs since it has only one card slot.

If people want to break their backs lugging metal everything around, let 'em...

I agree - sometimes you can't beat budget/plastic lenses! Also, that photo with the orange balloon is absolutely stunning!!!

Thanks Tim! That's really kind. I have three frames from that setup with the orange balloon and I still can't figure out which one I like the most. 😆

As a child, I recall eyeglasses that were incredibly heavy. My grandmother had indentations in her nose from the nose pads. That's because the lenses were glass. Now eyeglass lenses are plastic, a fraction as thick as they once were, and feather light -- with incredible optics, as otherwise no one would wear them since they are looking through them 16/7.

I would love to see this technology come to lenses, and expect it will someday, although probably not in my lifetime. The biggest problem I have with photography is all the weight I have to carry, especially when you consider multiple lenses for multiple focal lengths and speed, and all the backup gear we need to have with us for any contingency.

it has already, and for a long time i might add. lots of lenses use plastic elements inside, reserving glass for only the front and rear elements for durability. this not only allows for a lighter overall lens, but also a more compact design and faster focusing speeds due to the lighter internal mass having to be moved. an extreme example is Nikon's new 300mm f/4E PF that uses a phase fresnel element to allow the whole lens to be smaller and lighter than any other 300mm f/4 currently on the market.

Does it have 2 SD card slots?

One of my favorite things about the Nikon system is their wonderful 1.8 primes. I shoot 90% of my weddings and seniors with a 28, 50, and 85 1.8G. Wonderfully consistent results, lightweight, and moderately affordable

Sometimes some people tend to have more money than sense when it comes to lenses. One of the best portrait lenses for the Nikon FX system is the cheap 85mm 1.8. They're good enough for a number of professional glamour shooters providing content for some of the highest end fashion magazines. But don't tell anyone ...

Yes there are circumstances in which a 1.4 would be advantageous, but I imagine the majority of those who insist on them very rarely use them in a manner that a 1.8 couldn't do.

What was that cheap zoom you were so disappointed in? I feel that a lot of zoom lenses miss the mark in many ways unless you pay a premium. I'm trying to decide if a 24-70 2.8 is even worth the compromise or just stick to cheaper prime lenses.

It was a Sigma, and it's going back a couple of years. The EX DG HSM? Long before the Art series emerged.

Panasonic's 12-32 is surprisingly good and weighs next to nothing (70g). And, with lots of folks selling off copies that were bundled with their cameras, I was able to pick up a like-new one for $100.

I love the Canon 40/2.8 and 50/1.8 STM lenses. They are small and light and deliver good results.

My nifty fifty was stolen over a year ago. Bought a new one a few weeks ago, and the difference in sharpness between that and some of my Canon L zoom lenses is very obvious. Crazy good value for money.

Solid plastic for only 1 benjamin.

It is not the difference with plastic or glass... It is the difference between a photographer who shoots 100,000 frames in a year and another who shoots less than 1000 shots in year...!