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Why Are Wide-Angle Lenses So Expensive?

When creating a lens, camera manufacturers want to make sure they can produce them while keeping the image quality as optimal as possible.

Image quality can be measured through the following:

  • Sharpness across the whole image area
  • Smallest amounts of distortions
  • Smallest amounts of vignetting
  • Smallest amounts of chromatic aberration

To do this, the lenses have to be built in a complex fashion to correct for any undesirable effects in the list above.

💡 To sum it up in simple terms, the wider the angle of the lens, the more complex the build of the lens has to be to correct for any undesirable effects like distortions, lack of sharpness, vignetting, and aberrations. This then means that the lenses are more expensive than standard lenses. 

This becomes even more of an issue for rectilinear lenses.

Rectilinear vs Non-Rectilinear Lenses

Rectilinear lenses are lenses that can render straight lines in the real world correctly like walls and doors. So these are lenses where barrel distortion and pincushion distortion are kept to a minimum. 

This is opposed to non-rectilinear lenses where the opposite is true and you may see warped features in the image. In these kinds of lenses, straight lines in the real world don’t always render as straight lines in the image. 

See the image below for a visualization of a non-rectilinear lens being used vs a rectilinear lens being used.

Non-Rectilinear vs Rectilinear Lens

Overall the increase in complexity can lead to more parts being used and more specially designed parts for corrections.

The Design Of Wide Angle Lenses

Wide-angle lenses tend to be less than 35mm in full frame equivalent and the flange length on most DSLRs is around 45mm. 

The focal length on a lens is basically the distance between the sensor and the lens when the image is in focus.

Keeping this in mind, the design of a lens becomes harder when the focal length is shorter than the flange length (as is the case with wide-angle lenses). 

So in general, when a lens becomes shorter than 45mm, the complexity of this lens increases and so does the cost.

This is because you need an additional group of parts as part of ‘retro focal design’.

Retro focal design is when you add a reverse telephoto lens group at the back of the lens to correct for the wide-angle lens so that you can achieve a point of focus on the sensor.

Adding this telephoto group of elements in the lens dramatically increases the cost of the lens because it requires more precision engineering and more cost of materials. 

It’s important to note that this is expensive glass that has to be optically perfect so each additional element is a costly addition.

Aspherical Elements For Correction 

Since a wide-angle lens lets light in from such a range of angles, this means there are more rays of light that need to be adjusted and corrected for. If not, you end up with chromatic aberrations. 

So we need a way to correct this…

Aspherical elements are a way that lens manufacturers can correct chromatic aberrations, but aspherical elements are a lot more expensive to create compared to spherical elements. 

This is because the manufacturing process is different. 

Comparing Lens Designs 

The easiest way to visualize this is to show you different lenses and how many elements they have within them.

Elements are basically different pieces of glass that are used to bend the light in specific ways. The more elements you have, the more complex and costly the lens tends to become.

In the specifications of all lenses, the manufacturers will tell you the number of elements and the groups of elements within them. We’ve put together a small list below with some example lenses:

As you can see from the examples above, the 2 wide-angle lenses have much more elements within them compared to the 50mm and the 100mm lenses. 

Demand 

Another reason that wide-angle lenses are more expensive is the general lack of demand and economies of scale. 

While lenses like the 50mm ‘nifty fifty’ are sold in large quantities, wide-angle and ultra-wide angle lenses are a bit more niche as they are not for ‘general purpose’ photography so they have less demand. 

Since they have less demand, you can’t scale up production to save money on a per-unit basis and each lens will take longer to sell because of the lower demand. 

Both of these things lead to higher costs of production and costs of holding inventory (warehousing).

Adding these factors together is another reason why wide-angle lenses are more expensive in general.

Are Wide-Angle Lenses Harder To Make?

As mentioned earlier, wide-angle lenses have more complex designs with a higher number of elements and because of this, they tend to be harder to make. 

Even though they are harder and more expensive to make, there are ways to find wide-angle lenses for cheaper.

How To Get Wide Angle Lenses For Cheaper

Since decent wide-angle lenses are expensive, you can do some things to save a bit of money. 

Go For Manual Focus only

By going for manual focus only, you can find some stripped-down lenses that still have good optics but just don’t have the convenience of being able to use autofocus. 

Luckily if you were forced into using manual focus on a lens then a wide-angle lens would be the easiest to do this on. 

This is because wide-angle lenses have such a wide field of view that you don’t have to be as precise with focus compared to something like a telephoto. 

With wide-angle lenses, you tend to be photographing larger scenes where you want more in focus anyways so you end up using larger depths of field. 

One example of such a lens is the Samyang/Rokinon 14mm f/2.8. 

Go For Primes Instead Of Zooms

Remember how complex lenses lead to costly lenses? 

Well, by going for a prime lens with a fixed focal length you are reducing the complexity of the lens because the lens does not need to correct for different focal lengths. 

So by going for a prime lens, you tend to save a fair amount of money. 

Of course, you will also lose some versatility because you can’t change your focal length without changing lenses, but if you really need a certain wide-angle focal length then this could be worth it for you. 

Compare the following lenses for example.

If you are fine with the 14mm focal length then you will not only get a much higher maximum aperture at f/2.8 but you will easily save hundreds of dollars.

Try Second Hand

Lenses are expensive in general, especially if they are new. 

So by going second hand you will make a saving. Of course, you do need to be more careful because you don’t get the security of warranties and you don’t know how the previous owner used the lenses. 

However, lenses are very durable and people can keep them for decades and still keep them in use – so the saving could definitely be worth it if you pick wisely.

You can find used lenses at the following places:

Rent Instead Of Buy

Just like how you can rent a home or a car, you can also rent a camera lens. 

This can be an efficient way of trying out expensive lenses when you don’t have the budget to buy them completely. It’s also great if you just need it for certain jobs or shoots. 

You can rent lenses from the following places:

Summary

So wide angle lenses are more expensive than standard lenses and this is mainly because the complexity of the lens design adds costs to the manufacturing process.

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