Skip

How Lenses Are Made
February 3, 2007 1:31 PM   Subscribe

Ever wonder how camera lenses are made? *Almost* justifies the cost of some of these behemoths. via.
posted by notsnot (31 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Not sure I understand your comment. Lens factories are overpriced? Canon loses money on its lenses?
posted by QuietDesperation at 1:39 PM on February 3, 2007


Indeed that was very spiffy.

And case anyone was curious, that monster lens they were assembling in the third segment seems to retail for about $5300.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:49 PM on February 3, 2007


Having just traded up from a passable $150 lens to a less flexible but much higher quality $600 prime lens -- and tinkered with a relative's even more expensive $1800 pro lens -- I will say that I have the utmost respect for whatever voodoo Canon puts into its high-end freaky-expensive L series. I mean, yes, it's expensive, but damn. The colors...

I suppose it's a bit like high end audio production equipment...
posted by verb at 1:53 PM on February 3, 2007


Fascinating process. Great find, thanks.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:56 PM on February 3, 2007


My favorite process was the Material Processing Process.
posted by fidgets at 2:16 PM on February 3, 2007


I mean, yes, it's expensive, but damn. The colors...

Huh? How does a lens affect the quality of the colors? The sharpness, yeah, but the colors?
posted by delmoi at 2:16 PM on February 3, 2007


Colors don't get lost like they do to flare inside cheap lenses.
posted by notsnot at 2:26 PM on February 3, 2007


QuietDesperation, "the cost" was referring to the amazing cost of the super-telephoto pro lenses.
posted by notsnot at 2:27 PM on February 3, 2007


High quality lenses are usually apochromatic, which requires more-expensive materials and engineering.

I've seen non-photographers accurately distinguish between pictures taken with a Leica and a consumer-grade zoom, and it seems to be based mostly on the color rendition as opposed to sharpness.
posted by brool at 2:31 PM on February 3, 2007


Canon superteles (specifically: 300 f/2.8, 400 f/2.8, 500 f/4, 600 f/4) are in a class all of themselves and are the reason why Canon pretty much owns the sports photography market.
posted by jedrek at 2:36 PM on February 3, 2007


The quality of a lens determines quite a lot about the potential quality of a photograph. Flare, color, distortion, sharpness - the list goes on and on. I suggest hanging out in the canon lens forum of dpreview for a little while if you want to hear a lot of debate on lens quality.
posted by Muddler at 2:40 PM on February 3, 2007


Huh? How does a lens affect the quality of the colors? The sharpness, yeah, but the colors?

The sharpness of a lens is the measure of how well it can resolve detail on the film plane.

Color is just different wavelengths of light. If you recall Newton's prism experiments, different frequencies of light bend at different rates. This causes all sorts of problems in optical engineering. When you design extreme lenses (very fast, very long, very wide) these issues crop up more frequently.

Getting all of the wavelengths to focus together in an exotic lens design is tough. That (and economies of scale) is why F1.0 lenses cost thousands of dollars, but a 50mm 1.8 can easily be found for $99.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:58 PM on February 3, 2007


My buddy shoots sports and has one of those 300 f/2.8 teles. He set it up for me on it's monopod and fitted it to his 1D body. I stood by impressed as he demonstrated how he used it in on the field in conjunction with his other back up camera. Then, just for fun, he let me shoot through it for a bit, and while I was fiddling with it, he casually mentioned how much it all cost.

A sharp intake of breath from me and a very careful handing back of the rig to him followed immediately thereafter. He was wholly amused.
posted by quin at 3:05 PM on February 3, 2007


I've seen non-photographers accurately distinguish between pictures taken with a Leica and a consumer-grade zoom

I've had a non-photographer friend pick out the Leica shots in a pile of my photos mostly taken with Canon L primes (which are no slouches themselves). Without my prompting, and despite all the photos being captured using digital cameras and run through the same Photoshop actions. How? He just said they "looked different" or "looked more real". Beats me. I have my own preferences but once the lens is selected and the shot is made, I've never gone back to scrutinize the final product for differences in rendition.

*Almost* justifies the cost of some of these behemoths.

It's not just about lens specs: lenses are like brushes, and different lenses can draw very differently. Once you get past technical issues like flare and chromatic abberations, there's a vast realm of subjective qualities (the "Leica glow", the "Zeiss look", etc) that people are willing to pay top dollar for. A (very respectable) Pentax 50/1.4 costs $220; a Leica with the same specs costs $2800.

That tends to be on the primes (i.e. fixed-focal) side of things though. Zooms are so thoroughly computer-designed that they tend to have very neutral (or as prime-fetishists will allege, "bland" or "soulless") renderings, with the main differences among them being issues of technical defects, etc.

Huh? How does a lens affect the quality of the colors? The sharpness, yeah, but the colors?

Many older lenses from the black and white days (non-apochromatic and so on) perform terribly shooting color -- this is a very real issue for the camera nuts who like to shoot using vintage lenses (rangefinder enthusiasts, for example). Likewise, when you're looking at bottom-dollar kit lenses and the like, so many optical corners are being cut that shooting with a kit lens versus a high-quality lens usually yields a very noticable difference in color. People tend to shoot with low-end lenses though (including the tiny wonderzooms in cheap compact cameras), so most viewers suffer from having excessively low expectations when it comes to color rendition in photographs.

Then there are additional rendition issues like microcontrast and bokeh that drives endless debate on lens forums.

My buddy shoots sports and has one of those 300 f/2.8 teles [...] he casually mentioned how much it all cost.

The real bank-breakers (and back-breakers) are the 400/2.8 and 600/4 monsters for birders. Ouch. In my experience, Canon's 400/4 DO/IS lens is the heaviest lens I can comfortably use.
posted by DaShiv at 3:47 PM on February 3, 2007


The real bank-breakers (and back-breakers) are the 400/2.8

I was wracking my brain on that DaShiv, I was pretty sure it was a 300, but the more I think about it and look at the prices, you might be right. It might have been a 400 2.8. All I remember was thinking that his rig was worth more than both my cars put together.

Though my cars are both pretty crappy, so I suppose that ain't saying much.

posted by quin at 4:01 PM on February 3, 2007


Speaking of fantastic lenses, this post has much in common with the video link hortense posted yesterday. The video is, shall we say, "creative", but the f0.7 lens discussed is quite real.
posted by aladfar at 4:05 PM on February 3, 2007


He must be shooting soccer or the like with a 400/2.8. Those things are huge (and heavy)!
posted by DaShiv at 4:15 PM on February 3, 2007


My favorite process was the Material Processing Process.

Don't you mean the Material Prosessing Prosess?

Canon needs spell-check.
posted by bwg at 4:18 PM on February 3, 2007


When you get down to it, there's really not that much difference between a large, high-quality telephoto lens and a small apochromatic refractor telescope. The amount of craftsmanship that goes into those things, and the cost of the materials, really makes you understand the (otherwise ridiculous) cost.

I do wonder why no one in the photography world has tried mirror-based designs, though. They're totally apochromatic and vastly cheaper. There are ways to get around the central obstruction issue.
posted by Mitrovarr at 4:37 PM on February 3, 2007


The sharpness of a lens is the measure of how well it can resolve detail on the film plane.


I absolutely love my Rollei 35S for that reason, the film plane is so flat,and the Sonnar so good, that the end result just makes people go *wow*.

The lense I really want is the 800MM f/4 for my 67II Pentax... weighs 17.7 kilos and costs a fortune but hey...
posted by hardcode at 4:43 PM on February 3, 2007


Informative and an excellent use of Flash, thanks.

More on the art and science of optical lens designWP. Digital Photography Review has a brief optical glossary explaining chromatic aberration and other lens characteristics (also see Canon's more detailed glossary.)

The big guns have white barrels to keep their large internal lens elements cool in hot sunshine. Otherwise, the fluorite glass — more sensitive to heat than normal optical glass — might expand enough to affect the lens' optical performance.
posted by cenoxo at 4:45 PM on February 3, 2007


DaShiv, He shot indoor soccer for a while, but mainly he does pro football, basketball and baseball (depending on the season). His real love is shooting Formula 1 racing though. I'm jealous of his abilities in a way that I find hard to articulate.

Fortunately he is a very cool guy and more than willing to field my "Ok, I'm trying to shoot this damn horse, at 300mm, it looks like crap. Help me oh master..." phone calls. For that, I have been eternally grateful. (And surprisingly, he's good enough that he can, over the phone, give me instructions that make my picture better. If I ever get skilled at this, it will be because I paid attention to him.)
posted by quin at 4:49 PM on February 3, 2007


Really good reading for lens-designer-junkies: The Thousand and One Nights -- personal stories about the development of many of Nikon's most famous lenses from a couple of engineers that worked there.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:10 PM on February 3, 2007


Mitrovarr said: I do wonder why no one in the photography world has tried mirror-based designs...

Catadioptric mirror lenses have been around for many years. While chromatic aberration is not a problem, they don't have adjustable apertures.
posted by cenoxo at 5:24 PM on February 3, 2007


It seems odd that they go to such trouble to purify the initial ingredients for the glass, then later they cool the stuff by putting a big ol' shop fan on it, then later they have a bunch of sweaty guys beat the crap out of it with poles. It seems incredibly low-tech, and like a good way to get impurities in the glass.
posted by Western Infidels at 6:54 PM on February 3, 2007


Camera bodies, even the best ones, come and go. Good glass, on the other hand, will last forever. In other words: bodies are an expense; glass is an investment.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:20 PM on February 3, 2007


Mitrovarr writes "I do wonder why no one in the photography world has tried mirror-based designs, though."

Nikon made a MF 500mm mirror that's fairly well thought of (for a mirror). The problem is that one one hand they are slow as molasses (F5.6-F8) and on the other you can't stop them down to increase DOF.
posted by Mitheral at 8:19 PM on February 3, 2007


They're called Reflex lenses lenses, Mitheral. The other problem with them is that they produce absolute crap bokeh-donuts.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:57 PM on February 3, 2007


That was really cool to watch and learn about, thanks notsnot!
posted by fenriq at 9:46 AM on February 4, 2007


Cool! I'll check this out after the super bowl, the bit I watched looked interesting.

I'm a Canon guy with a Rebel XT, my lens collection is:
50mm 1.8, 24-85mm 3.5-4.5, 70-200mm 2.8L (a gift) so I'm not exactly the lens master, but I've been taking a lot of shots and can tell that a decent lens makes pictures a lot better.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:15 PM on February 4, 2007


On the subject of big, expensive lens'…

Zeiss built this 1700mm monster for a custom order a little while ago.

Note on the scale in that illustration. It is mounted on a Hasselblad, or rather, a Hasselblad is mounted on the end of the Lens!
posted by JBennett at 9:21 AM on February 5, 2007


« Older 'To an Eastern man this city is full of surprises....   |   Mexican wrestlers Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post