Beware of Cheap Lenses: Five Common Issues

“You pays your money, you takes your chances,” as the old adage goes. It perhaps perfectly sums up the end result of buying a cheap lens. Whilst you might get conceivably get a great lens, the chances are that by paying less you are going to end up paying more in the long run, by having to upgrade because the lens you bought really doesn’t stand up to close scrutinization. There is an increasing tendency for people to be obsessed with getting the very best camera, only to put on a cheap and nasty lens and hence negating any advantages they have gained.  So what are the things to be aware of in cheap lenses.

Optics: Optics are what a lens is all about, cheaper lenses are going to use cheaper glass. This can manifest itself as lower grade optical glass, less tolerant manufacturing processes, little or no lens coatings and an increased chance of blemishes in the lens elements.

All or any of these defects will show up in your images as softness, low contrast and flare. A good lens will remain sharp from the very center to the very edges at all apertures, in cheaper lenses, the edges will often be significantly softer than the centre, particularly at widest apertures, great for that soft focus portrait look but pretty much useless for anything else.

DIY EF Lens: ~30mm ~f/2.2 fixed aperture by daveoratox, on Flickr

 

Distortion: Manufacturers also keep the cost of their budget lenses down by reducing their complexity. Camera lenses are made up of a number of different optics combined together in groups. On a cheaper the lens, there will be less groups of elements, which in practice leads not only to a greater possibility of internal flare but more importantly distortion. Distortion becomes most apparent when photographing straight lines such as in architectural images. The two main types are pin cushioning and barrel distortion. Barrel distortion manifests itself as the image appearing to bulge outwards whilst pin cushioning shows up as lines curving inwards on themselves. Both can make a picture look odd or even ugly.

Barrel Distortion by Nina Matthews Photography, on Flickr

Maximum Aperture: Cheaper lenses are always a compromise, and one area that is perhaps comprised the most is the maximum aperture. A fast lens, say 2.8 or above requires a large front element and all its associated costs. Cheaper lenses will use much smaller front elements meaning smaller maximum apertures thus an increased likelihood of image noise or camera shake. This is particularly relevant to sports and wildlife photographers where the use of a tripod may not be feasible, so the only option is to increase ISO and hence the image noise.

Variable Aperture: Cheap zooms generally have a variable aperture. This means that whilst the wider end, say 18mm might start at f4, as you zoom in, the maximum aperture decreases. On the super zooms this can be quite a significant change, some going down as far as f6.3. This again can be problematic, especially when working in low light at the limits of your camera’s capabilities.

Build Quality: Pick up a professional lens and you may be surprised at its weight. This is not only due to the increased number of optics inside, but also due to the quality of the materials making up the housing. Cheaper lenses are invariably made of plastic, which is much more susceptible to damage if dropped or mishandled. The internals screws can easily work loose or even crack the surrounding plastic if overused, jamming the focus or zoom rings. They will not be weather sealed to any great extent, meaning not only that rain and moisture can enter the inside of the lens but also, more commonly, dust or sand. This again can have the effect of at least degrading the image and at worst, jamming the lens. Another symptom of cheap build quality is lens creep. This is where the zoom creeps in or out if the lens is pointed up or down.

One downside of plastic lenses by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious, on Flickr

More than any other piece of photographic equipment, lenses should be the one thing you spend some good money on. Ironically, whilst camera technology is changing almost monthly, lens technology is reasonably static. You should see the purchase of a good quality lens as an investment for the future rather than an unnecessary expense. A good lens will almost certainly outlast several camera bodies and yet it’s quality should match the camera technology for a long time to come.

23 thoughts on “Beware of Cheap Lenses: Five Common Issues

  1. fahrertuer

    On the other hand:
    are the gains enough to offset the increased price?
    Choosing cheap, third party optics is often a necessity when you want to get started in a field of photography but can’t afford the pro stuff.
    Sure, a world in which each and every one of us could afford the latest and gratest pro body with a matching set of pro lenses would be beautiful. But it’s not the case and many of us have to make do with cheap stuff that doesn’t cut it for you. And some of those people produce beautiful photos that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for those bad, cheap optics they can afford

    And lenses as an investment. Really? Sure, they do hold up better than a camera body. Two of my lenses 20 year old Nikkors. It works. I don’t have AF with them. But everything else works. But the images coming out are seriously lacking in contrast, due to the lenses not being meant for digital sensors and internal flare from reflections off the sensor is a serious problem. So keeping that in mind, and the fact that there is still serious development in lenses (I just think of some zoom lenses that start to show better image qulity than primes from a few years ago) makes me wonder, if I should really invest into expensive glass. I wouldn’t be surprised if camera makers started focussing on lens design in the next few years to get the most out of the ever more resolving sensors, making current optics quickly obsolete.

    Oh, and one more point: “On a cheaper the lens, there will be less groups of elements, which in practice leads not only to a greater possibility of internal flare…” Humm? I thought they used lenses with just a few elements before the large scale application of lens coatings because those lenses were LESS prone to flare

    1. Bud Rozell

      If you’re starting out, or on a budget like I am, then get a good body (sensor), a good lens, a good flash, a decent tripod, and some decent imaging software. Couple those with a GOOD EYE and you can compete with anybody. Put as much as you can into the basics and then save money on the other stuff. It ain’t cheap but if you’re serious then an initial sound investment is almost always better than an initial poor investment.

    2. Dan Moses

      I think the point might be that a lens will out last the body. in the digital world of today. If you are like me I shoot so many clients that a body might last me about 2 years then I start to think about shutters. Plus new tech will be out and I will want that. so 2 years is fine I have and are still using some of my lenses that are 10+ years old.

    1. Mario

      I’ll send you two suitcases full of cash for your photography needs, lol.
      In a serious note, anything over 300mm will be a serious addition to your gear and in my opinion it is wiser to save and wait until you can afford a good lens than putting money on one you will have to sell at a loss in the future.

  2. mary

    This makes me want to cry. I have a panasonic lumix DMC-LZ8. it was an upgrade an arts council told me i should make. then i was given $350 and contracted to buy a Holga and have images printed. i can’t afford printing mostly.

    i bought this camera because it says leica lens. i thought i was doing something good. i didn’t feel i was being given a choice, since that amount of money, i suspected, wouldn’t buy anything at all that was upgraded.

    whatever the option is i read about, it can’t be added, not a remote or a lens or a filter. i can’t afford a tripod. so i just shoot a lot and hope…i do a lot of digital editing but can’t afford photoshop, can’t have a channel splitter on photoshop elements. after having used old photoshop programs, simply can’t use elements at all and paint shop pro isn’t what it used to be with a dual core processor…

    i know it’s nobody’s fault, but with extreme low income i already feel like a dinosaur. i have actually done a one-person show in the past when i was using a broken samsung film camera, a poorly rated one even.

    i used to buy and love digital photo magazine. now it seems to be just a catalog of things i can’t think of or hope to do…what about my leica lens?

    doesn’t that imply quality? maybe it isn’t the same leica that came out and was copied by russians as zenit. but my camera is terribly heavy for it’s size so maybe i have a good lens but i only paid $87 for the camera on an after-christmas sale on amazon…i seldom get lens flare. don’t shoot much in bright sunlight. mostly afternoon and evening sun…makes me feel like giving up hope and throwing away my camera.

    in fact i don’t have the personality or the body for a heavy dslr. i want more control, but with my kind of camera ignored, i can’t learn much except by doing. because there is no community for me with very limited funds and trying to fly by the seat of my pants.

    but you can’t put a lens on my camera if you do have money.

    1. Robert Wollins

      Hi Mary,
      The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ8 probably is as good as any other contemporary digital point and shoot camera. And, that you paid $87, is a testament to your ability to stretch your resources. I do not own this camera, but from what I have seen, results-wise, on Flickr: Lumix Photographer, my overall impression: the Lumix is as good a camera as any other in the point-and-shoot category to learn composition and technique. I have mostly film cameras, one a box camera, another a folding camera from 1938, another from the early to mid 1950′s. These cameras use 120 roll film, or have been adapted to take 120 film. My point: having limited funds, but wishing to pursue photography on my terms, I ignore those who push their “ultra this, super-luxe that” sales mentality. Become a contrarian and do what is good for you: (1) ignore the constant calls to spend money, per the photo magazines (their job is to sell advertising, not make you a better photographer), (2) check out the aforementioned Flickr group, and be prepared to ask questions – lots of questions – of those who have already posted their work. FWIW, flying by the seat of one’s pants is one of the few ways one learns. You can’t learn if you don’t try to fly. Don’t like the result? Delete it, and try again. Next, about the word “Leica” on your camera lens. Panasonic produced the lens, from a design licensed by Leica. It’s not a Leica lens, as one you would mount on a film SLR, but a good design for a digital point-and-shoot camera. Finally, you mention using older versions of Photoshop and how newer versions of PS Elements aren’t what you want. No problem: I didn’t know, after spending a pile of $ on Adobe CS3 Extended, that Adobe gives away their CS2 suite … it’s free for the downloading. They offer windows and mac versions (I downloaded & installed both windows and mac versions because I use both platforms). I probably would have been very happy with the CS2 freebie, had I known it was freely available. Finally, learn to love the lens on your Panasonic Lumix. With your camera, you don’t need fancy lens adaptors, filters, etc., to perfect your image-making craft.

      1. mary

        to robert wollins from mary, your comment to me on 2-17-13 AT 6:43 P.M. IS so encouraging. only today an i finally able to respond. have been very sick and devastating knee inury as well, but today i hear and understand you and am taking hope from your words about poverty and pressure. i think i tried to get the free photoshop you mentioned. i am on xp and have been librerally virused and hacked into. don’t know if i can run it, but i seem to remember there was a problem.

        paint shop pro is still partly working for me and even picasa is some help.

  3. Ralph Dawson

    Im in total agrrement with Fahrertuer on this one.
    I dont need preaching to, in todays real world people do not have the resources to buy over priced lenses that will make little differance to the amateur photographer.

  4. Les Boucher

    I do a fair amount of Landscape Photography and for that I use a Tokina 12 – 24 Lens attached to a Nikon D7000. Now, I agree that at over $AU 500 it isn’t cheap to many people but, compared to the Nikon Lens it was a bargain. Living in the country I didn’t have the chance to actually handle the lens but, I did my research, I read online reviews and tests both positive and negative and weighed up what I was getting for my money.

    To me, whenever someone is starting out in photography, my suggestion is always …..Go into the outlet (knowing what you can afford to spend) and handle the camera’s available. When you have your choice down to a couple walk away and check out the Lens’ available for that camera.

    Quite often, it is better to purchase a higher quality glass and a cheaper model of camera than go for the most expensive camera and end up with the “Kit” lens. Once you have advanced in your photography you will want to upgrade your equipment and in most cases it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to upgrade a camera body than to upgrade the glass. If you have followed my suggestions then, you are more than half way towards taking shots that you will be proud to display.

    Oh!, before you ask why I didn’t follow my own advice when buying my equipment I should point out that while I still have the body from my original purchase the lens were stolen and I am just starting to rebuild my equipment which is “NOW” insured against loss or theft where the other lens weren’t. A lesson for us all there as well I think.

  5. Mario

    I thank kit lenses for the chance they give a person to explore photogrphy and figure out if that’s something they will enjoy.
    Getting to know what a kit lens can do takes time and once you outgrow it and start thinking about new lenses I firmly believe you’re at a point where your knowledge will guide you towards buying the best lens possible.
    I truly believe it is expensive to go cheap on lenses because the end result will be poor and you will never be able to take that shot again. If money is an issue look for second hand glass, take your time checking it and save money (those caramel lattes are kind of expensive, right?).

    [img]http://www.flickr.com/photos/91218441@N04/8474372661/in/photostream[/img]

    1. fahrertuer

      If there was a source for acceptable 2nd hand equipment in my area I’d love to buy used.
      But most of the stuff is either overpriced (you’d only save maybe 50€ to 100€ over buying new, with older, manual lenses you can somtimes save up to 700 for super teles) or so worn out that they are no longer useable or require major maintenance that would end up costing you more than buying a new lens.

      Oh, and than there’s the small minority of equipment sold that’s highly overpriced and unuseable…

      Sure, buying quality means you only have to buy once. But I prefer to shoot now and not drool over stuff that is months or even years away from me

  6. David

    Mario is right on! Do with a few less coffees & get a 2nd hand lens after research, if that is the only way- pawnshop (probably not) or craigslist (better), but if you are doing original stuff, you’ll never have a chance to take that shot again!

  7. yes.i-do

    ok, guys, here is my situation.

    firstly, i am going to stand on side of manufacturers producing cheap lenses- hey probably know there are plenty of guys as myself who is going to buy them. why?

    well here is my simple and logical explanation.
    after one year learning photography with my brand new 1100d with kit lenses, i was amazed what kind of great photos i have been making. as i was fast learner, after 8 months my lovely 1100d and kit lenses turned out to be trash-plastic-boxes. in terms of wanting better photos, i regreted buying that new camera, instead of buying used one on Ebay.

    anyway, every school costs money, so mine does too. i finaly realised i do not need 70-300 lens that much, and decided to sell it after i found out ii can buy BRAND NEW 50MM 1.8 fix lens, wich has amazing outcome for money spent. that lens cost me 100 euros (cca. 140 USD) and i can tell my photos quality moved much forward, so in some time i can decide should i buy more expensive/quality lens and load my pockets, or just be satisfied for some times with this gear i have.
    i reallywanted to comment on this, because there is a picture of broken lens, the same one i have.
    in many forums, lens testing sites, my photographers friends, that lens preformances turn out to be sama or even a little bit better than 50mm 1.4 USM (when i say preformances sure i am focused on image quality) and it costs more than 400 Euros USED. so, my point is, of course its good to have non cheap lens, eveerybody wants to have best gear, but a lot of guys out there taking photos just need some cheap/better lenses to move on, make a step forward, and decide how serious phoographers they really want to be in their lives.
    cheers

  8. Lonnie Utah

    Legacy manual focus glass on a mirrorless system. The best of both worlds. High quality optics and superior build quality with a “cheap” prices.

  9. TwoFisted Scientist

    There is a time and place for every lens. I say this as a part-time pro who shoots with both “cheap” and pro lenses regularly.

    There are a lot of “cheap” lenses that are pure crap. Many of them are put out by the big guys (Canon, Nikkor, Sigma, etc.). A good example if the 18-55mm EF-S “kit” lens that comes with most Canon camera.

    However, there are “cheap” lenses that shine and have almost professional image quality. Canon’s “Nifty Fifty” (50mm f/1.8 II) is about $100, yet the image quality is incredible. Likewise, the 30-70mm f/4-5./6 (not the mkIII) takes L-quality photos for 1/3 the price of the L equivalent. The 50mm f/2.5 compact macro is also a great lens and only runs $275.

    Cheap lenses can also accomplish great things in the right context. With good lighting and composition, you would be amazed at what you can do with a cheap lens. Even the 18-55 lens I disparaged above can produce quality images in the right conditions. It’s all about your ability and willingness to do what it takes to get the shot, as well as understanding the limitations of your gear and how to work within or around them.

  10. Robert

    Yes nearly all Canon L lenses are amazing (50mm L F1.4 is a duffer just read the comments on Flickr) but Canon also have cheaper lenses which are soft focus, etc. Sigma lenses are more middle of the road and some of their prime lenses are on a par with Canon L lenses and in a few cases slightly better like the Sigma 30mm F1.4

  11. Ahmed Mohamed Darwish

    I disagree with you, I have a cheapo $200 Tamron lens and I got pretty great photographs with it, check them here:[img]http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.305245192912043.49017.282487311854498&type=3[/img]

  12. That's me

    Well this is kinda bullshit.. I’ve tried for example the Samyang lenses, the 24mm, 35mm and 85mm, and a friend of mine is shooting with the 8mm. All of those lenses are absolutely perfect. The same lenses from other “real” vendors cost a limb and a lung and the results are the same.

  13. Jerry Kelley

    I have two of the first Lensbaby lenses. I’ve got a few good photos with them but it was not what I was looking for. I was at a dollar store back in 2005 and saw a Frog magnifier lens. I bought 2 of them. They are 60mm di x 200mm FL. I went to an auto store and purchased a generic rack and pinion boot that looks something like the LB tube but larger. I cut off a section about 4.5 inches. At one end I put the two lenses in and at the other T-mount camera adapter. This ended up being a 100mm F/2 lens. Because the two lenses are identical, they basically canceled out the image distortion and left great flare and color effects. I was at Stellafane Telescope convention back in 1988 and purchased a diaphragm used for adjusting the aperture on an old Japanese telescope. I got that for my darkroom at the time and I used it to burn in prints. I looked at that and looked at my homemade lens and saw they wood be a perfect fit. Now I can adjust my F-stop from F/2 to F/8 plus it now has a perfect lens shade too. I can choose how much depth of field I want and the amount of flare and color distortion by changing the F-stop.

    I find I get a very painterly effect with my homemade Wibbly-Wobbly lens. Also, I by using the Nik Silver-Efex in Photoshop I get some really beautiful soft focus monotone images.

    Since I made this lens in 2006, I have not used the Lensbaby lenses. I never got what I really wanted out of them but with my homemade twenty dollar lens I do. The great thing about it is I never really know what the image will look until I have processed it in Photoshop and I’m always surprised!

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