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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Smart and Dumb: Prime Lenses 103

A reader usernamed dMatic wrote: I have Nikon D2h for my job (photojournalist) and Olympus E-1 as my private camera. I want prime lenses for Olympus, they promised them 3 years ago but still nothing. So I set my mind on Pentax K10 and those beautiful primes.

Primes, a.k.a. single focal length or fixed focal length lenses, are not popular, and they aren't good sellers. Generally, they're only widely used these days on cameras that take little else, chiefly view cameras and the Leica and Voigtlander/Cosina rangefinders.

What the manufacturers once understood, and need to understand again, is that the concept of a camera system is to provide everything everybody needs, or as close to it as it can reasonably come. This gives rise to a strange business model: the deliberate bringing to market of a product that will, in and of itself itself, lose money—a fate understood and predictable even in advance. (I'm sure our economist readers will tell me what that's called.) Why would any manufacturer do such a thing? Simply because the lack of that single product might keep a photographer out of the whole system who otherwise might be a customer.

I am modest proof of this fact. I can tell you that if Olympus had made a 20mm ƒ/2 lens for the 4/3rds system anytime between its introduction and the time I finally bought a competing DSLR in 2005, it is 100% certain that I would be shooting Olympus today. Not a big deal, specifically—I don't matter to Oly's bottom line, and I'm not claiming I do. I mention it only because I'm an example of the broader principle.

John Robison writes: "If they can sell a complex multi-element zoom lens for $100, then why do [the Pentax primes] have to be five times the price?"

Simple, really. Imagine that it costs $250,000 to develop a lens—design it, engineer the parts, contstruct and test a prototype, etc. Cost of manufacture, above and beyond the development cost, is then $100 per unit. If you know you're going to sell 250,000 units, then the cost of each lens is $101. But if you know you're only going to sell 5,000 units, the cost of the same lens is $150. Now imagine that you don't know how many units you're going to sell—you might sell 5,000, or you might sell 1,000 or even fewer. Your break even cost could be as high as $350 per unit. So what do you do? Try for a lower price in hopes that will help sales? Or CYA and try to make sure that core demand at least pays you back for what you've got in it?

Olympus's decision to make a couple of small, compact zoom lenses for the E-400 is both smart and dumb. Smart, because zooms are what the public will buy, so the company has a better chance of making back its costs. Dumb, because a "kit"-quality lens is not going to do justice to the picture quality a 10-MP sensor is capable of, and that minority of photographers who would be attracted to the E-400 for actually doing serious work would rather have the aforementioned 20mm ƒ/2 or something like it. And it would make a much more sensible match for the diminutive E-400.

So should Olympus make a 20mm ƒ/2? Hard to call—because that, too, would be both smart and dumb. In some cases I feel I can go through a manufacturer's catalog and tell you what products haven't made back their investments, but that might still be good bets for the company because they might attract buyers into the system as a whole who might otherwise have taken their business elsewhere.

Another curious wrinkle to the "system" concept is psychological—it's that sometimes people buy into a system in order to have access to components they're not actually going to buy. This might sound silly, but I don't think it is, really. I know pros who chose Canon because of the tilt-shift lenses. They might not actually buy the T/S lenses after buying into Canon; but they know they might need them one day, and they want to know they can get them if that happens.

But back to primes. Canikon has plenty of legacy primes from the days before zooms were really viable, and from the early days of AF. They're often not ideal for digital sensors—they're bigger and/or more complex to provide for coverage they no longer need, and they're not properly coated for the light bouncing back to the rear of the lens from the sensor (digital sensors are much more reflective than film). But they exist. With regard to primes in their lineups, Canikon is "coasting" on the existence of these earlier lenses. Prime are available in their lines—technically. But Olympus has no such luck. With an all-new system, and limited capability to introduce new lenses, the better selling zooms come first and primes, guaranteed to sell slowly, go by the wayside. Is this smart product planning, or dumb short-sightedness? Probably a bit of both.

Meanwhile, I keep hearing from photographers who are mulling over the idea of switching to Pentax because they like the idea of designed-for-digital primes...even if just for the comfort of knowing they're there.


Featured Comment by Anonymous: I think that a fast normal prime should have been the very first lens they ever made for the system, even before their first zoom. I'm sure there were some at Oly who felt this way—the system as it stands bears witness to much enthusiasm for and commitment to real photography. For me, this makes the lack of primes in the line—after three years of product development—all the more inexplicable, but there it is.

Featured Comment by Janne: Manufacturers can, as you say, design primes for a niche audience, then price them accordingly—or even eat a small loss—in order to present a complete system.

But there's another thing they can do: educate the public (yes, "educate" as in advertising and PR material, of course). They can tell a public infatuated with zooms that for the same price a prime is smaller, faster, more reliable and will give you at least as good, and probably better, image quality.

Companies do this kind of "education" all the time (and as one ad agency guy I talked to once remarked: you can sell anything for a little while with enough advertising, but if there's no truth at all in the message it will fail in the long run no matter what your advertising budget). And it is true—a given prime is a simpler design both optically and mechanically, with fewer elements and fewer moving parts. Given the same design and manufacturing budget a prime will become a better lens than a zoom.

And for many people a prime really is a better alternative. I come from an "all zoom all the time" background, but the last year I've used a prime (the Sigma 30mm ƒ/1.4) almost exclusively, and I'm preparing to get the Pentax this winter, because of the prime lineup. It's precisely because I'm an amateur of little actual skill that primes are good for me. It makes me think about my composition and removes one variable (zoom length) altogether, allowing me to concentrate on the ones that are left.

I really think selling primes to people with an argument of "lighter, better, easier to use!" really would work, rather than position them as exclusive or special.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well said, Mike. As another would-be Oly 4/3 buyer, I'd just like to underscore your point about the completeness of a system adding to its attractiveness. If Olympus doesn't believe this, they should take note of the number of 4WD vehicles (in the US at least) that have never seen off-road action.

I think that a fast normal prime should have been the very FIRST lens they ever made for the system, even before their first zoom. I'm sure there were some at Oly who felt this way - the system as it stands bears witness to much enthusiasm for and commitment to real photography. For me, this makes the lack of primes in the line - after 3 years of product development - all the more inexplicable, but there it is.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Bill Turner said...

Agree with the previous commenter.
I am a devotee to the 4/3 philosophy and currently shoot with E-1s. As I rarely, if ever, shoot long, I'm not concerned about those lenses.
The only non-zoom I own for my E-1s is the 8mm Fisheye and I love it.
I'd like to see a few Olympus primes also. 11~12mm would be nice and a 14mm too. Add to that a "normal" lens and I'd be pleased.

12:26 PM  
Blogger plabby said...

Additionally, let us not forget that nikon nor canon can ever introduce a stabilized lens of the size Pentax is now producing because they rely on in lens stabilization. This makes me desire a pentax very much, not to mention they have the 10-17 fisheye zoom, a really unique lens in addition to these pancake primes.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Bill said...

I bought the *ist-D because I loved the size and was only dimly aware of the primes. I picked up the 50 1.4, and suddenly non-constant aperture zooms were less and less satisfying. So a few bouts of LBA later, I've figured out what I shoot and how, and now I'm paring my collection to primes and 2-3 zooms for 'snapshots'.

The idea of buying the 'system' is both over and under estimated. I say over because the vast majority of buyers are looking at picking up a few zooms, maybe a 50mm prime (or digital FOV equivalent), and calling it a day. With 3-4 lenses, they can cover their needs and be satisfied with some good images. An 18-125 and a 125-300 should keep most picture takers quite happy.

On the other hand are professionals who need to know there's product available, and amateurs like me who are rediscovering photography, and want to challenge ourselves and our cameras. Primes make me think harder about composition, and encourage me to look at multiple angles before I bring the viewfinder to my eye. Given that amateurs are more likely to continue spending on this hobby, and thus invest in a system, I think it is important to be seen to meet as many lengths/niches as possible.

I like WA to short tele, so the Pentax system works for me. They have five strong DA zooms (and two great fixed aperture zooms coming) and four DA primes that cover 10-77mm. Add in their outstanding film lenses, such as the 50 1.4, and the three limited primes, and you've got tremendous coverage between 10 and 77. I don't shoot sports -- at least not seriously -- so anything above 200mm is of little interest.

I think the K10D is a good camera, and I think it will make the Canikon products better as well. I don't think that each camera maker needs to provide everything, but I do think they need to be seen to be interested in 'niche' products, because it speaks to their confidence in the platform.

Does that make sense?

1:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, considering Pentax, i think what really stands out in their product portfolio are the pancakes. If you ever hold a pancake in your life (for me it was the pentax 40mm/f2.8) you understand the feeling of instantly wanting a lens before you even know what to do with it :)

Primes should be a crucial part of every system, yet there must be some kind of company dedication to the tradition of lens manufacturing. And Primes should be a crucial part in learning to photograph, you learn so much more if you walk around with one or two primes imho.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

Great post. I bought my E-1 in the beginning of 2005. At that time, the small-sensor-digital lens line-ups from all manufacturers were quite incomplete. I picked Olympus for the E-1 body and the promising lens roadmap: amongst other things, it contained a fast normal prime for 2005. This lens has not materialized.

When it's time to upgrade my E-1, the systems from all major manufacturers will have improved considerably. If the Olympus (or 4/3) primes are still missing, I will simply get another brand. Pentax looks promising, that's certain.

2:07 PM  
Blogger stevierose said...

Nice post, Mike. I, too, am intrigued by the path that Pentax has recently taken. It suggests that they might actually have real photographers involved early on in the design process (gasp!). However, we are now in an age where the sensor is permanently affixed to the camera, so I must wait to see whether Pentax has also had the foresight to improve their sensor. I hear the sensor in their previous bodies wasn't so great. All the primes in the world won't make up for that. So, I await the pixel peeper reviews...

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the point about buying into a system so important.

I bought Canon because I know that pros everywhere use it (as well as Nikon).

If the pros use it then the sky's the limit. When you layout money for your first camera and lenses you want to know you're not throwing money away.

The 4/3 system worries me because unless its commercially viable it could die a death - which would cripple the 2nd hand market for your gear.

4:03 PM  
Blogger Photoburner said...

I don't agree with your evaluation of Canon. They are bringing out mew primes, they just introduced the new f/1.2 50mm and they have a 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8 and f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.8 amd f/1.2 and finally the 100mm and 135mm lenses. That's at least 8 digital primes below 150mm and not counting macro primes which they have at least 5 or 6 in production.

All are digital optimized so far as I know. They also have a lot of older primes which fit your description of carry over lenses.

The difference is this (my guess). Say Canon has the same production cost of a new lens, $500,000. Actually it's probably lower since Canon has a larger in house capability. A short run for Olympus, a tiny niche manufacturer, might be 1,000 lenses. But a short run for Canon is probably 10,000 or 20,000 lenses. Just because they have 10 or 15 times more users. Thus they can better afford to produce primes and they do.

I have no idea what Nikon is doing.

4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Bill. I bought the istDS precisely because of Pentax's support for their A series MF prime lenses. I have since bought the 24/2.8 and the 50/1.4 MF A lenses (used). I hardly use the kit zoom that the Ds came with, as I primarily shoot at the focal lengths of these other lenses, plus the prime lens on the camera is about 1.5 inches shorter than the zoom, and only about 3/4 inch longer than the pancakes.
Since I had been shooting with a Fuji645 60mm lens for 10 years, and got used to using a single lens, I am comfortable with the use of primes, and find I can concentrate more on the picture taking, than on the zooming, AF lag, etc. Just set the aperture, preset the focus and shoot!
With the new K10, the extra mp means that electronic zooming (cropping) is very viable using the primes (as heretical as this may be).

4:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget that Leica Panasonic and Sigma are there as well some primes to come out of those guys

5:05 PM  
Blogger ricardo said...

I for one have waited for a 21mm lens before going digital. I could have bought something like Canon's or Nikon's huge and expensive 20mm but one of the reasons I want a fixed focal is size/weight.

5:19 PM  
Anonymous fernando said...

Hi steve,

I understand all 6.1mp pentax cameras use the same sony sensor used by nikon. The pixel peeper reviews that you make a reference to, talk about in-camera jpeg process, which, AFAIK was "corrected" in the later K100D model. No problem if you shoot raw or know a couple of tricks known in the pentax comunity (dpreview forums) don't use bright mode, sharpness +1, contrast -1 IIRC.

5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can someone point me to some evidence about this supposed need for special coatings on lenses for digital optics? It seems to be something manufacturers threw out there and everyone just accepted as fact.
I'd really like to see something where I can hang my hat. As a consumate used lens buyer, it could impact my buying decisions in the future.

6:21 PM  
Anonymous Mike Potter said...

Just a comment or three about the Pentax digital prime lenses. They have three that fit the "very small/pancake" variety - a 21 mm, a 40 mm, and a 70 mm. On APS-C sensor cameras (such as the K10D), these translate to 35mm-equivalent (35mm-e) focal lengths of 31.5, 60, and 105. Now, while these may all three be fabulously performing lenses (I've never used them, so I don't know how they perform), their 35mm-e focal lengths don't seem quite what I'd want out of prime lenses (IMHO). The 21mm (31.5mm-e) is a bit too short for a "normal" lens, and a bit too long for a wide angle. The 40mm (60mm-e) is a bit too long for a normal lens, and a bit too short for a true telephoto. However, the 70mm (105mm-e) seems to be a good length for a medium telephoto/portrait lens. They do make a 14mm (21mm-e) digital prime, but it's much larger/heavier than the three other digital prime lenses.

8:52 PM  
Blogger Oly said...


There are two issues with digital that inspire new lens design.

The first is the digital sensors are like wells. This means if you have a rear element close to the "film", you suffer much more vignetting. This is why some Canon lenses suffer strong vignetting on the Canon 5D, for instance. Leica's new M8 has a special off-set microlens over it's CCD to try and minimize this too, since it's even more prone to such issues with it's short lens-to-film distance.

The second is that the CCD/CMOS chips are very reflective. It can actually bounce light off the chip to the rear of the lens and back down again. So most (all?) "optimized for digital" lenses add an anti-reflective coating to the rear element, which was not necessary for film.

That said, I have an old 28 f/2 on my DSLR and it's my favorite lens. I wouldn't hesitate buying any lens that fit a need for me - "digital" or otherwise.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Morven said...

I think the 21 mm, at 31.5 mm FOV equivalent, is a very usable focal length. It's not quite 28mm short, but it's wide-angle enough to be a nice street-shooting lens. Especially with its tiny, non-threatening size.

I'd have to spend some time with the 40mm to see how I felt about it. I do know that I've found many times (with a 35mm film camera) that 50mm is too short and 85mm too long. It might work.

No questions at all about the 70mm; that 105mm FOV equivalent is perfect.

1:02 AM  
Blogger Morven said...

oly: That's what makes me think Canon should invest a little more in updating their wide-angle primes, many of which are very old designs indeed and rather lacking.

It's not for nothing that there are Canon shooters going out and using manual-focus lenses from other companies using adaptors - even with all the pain-in-the-ass that that entails, with stop-down metering and all.

1:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second Janne comment.
I would like too emphasize that camera bodies follow Moore's law., more or less. New features, better sensor or processor almost every year. That's why I decided, being happily equipped with two DSLR, to make efforts to acquire very good, long lasting, lenses, which happen to be, for me, fast canon primes. My next body will be what ever is available when one of mine break down. I don't bother now.
That's how I understand the usefulness of whole consistent camera system.

1:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe somewhat off-topic, but I find it very interesting to see that many users are now comparing the brands by their lens-lineup - and seem willing to switch.

4:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe it is smart to be dump. Dump like a prosumer. I mean, really, who cares for phtographs anymore as long as the camera is 1) new 2) expensive 3) looks complicated 4) has a lot of features.

5:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Johnston,
did you notice the existence of several brands and pre-production versions of face recognition software (just google the word for it). Imagine a camera with this software controlling the shutter release ;-))
Some software may even allow automatic cropping, de-blurring and sharpening. Perfect street shooter tool.
Who needs primes anymore?

5:14 AM  
Anonymous Ray Bullen said...

Just a thought and probably daft, but perhaps more manufacturers could follow Voigtlander's lead and produce bodies to fit existing lenses.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Just a thought and probably daft, but perhaps more manufacturers could follow Voigtlander's lead and produce bodies to fit existing lenses."

Not really, because lensmounts for the most part are patented and proprietary. The only true "open" standard today is the 4/3rds system, which, theoretically, any company can use. In the old days, Pentax had a "pseudo-open" standard with the K-mount--it wasn't actually open, but Pentax was very generous in giving other companies permission to use it, and a number did. Independent lensmakers are allowed, to prevent monopoly and restraint of trade or whatever legal principle applies. But the legal dance can be complicated and delicate. I'm positive that no third party could come out with a body that uses EF lenses, for example.


7:44 AM  
Blogger Colin [] said...

" I'm positive that no third party could come out with a body that uses EF lenses, for example."

Didn't Kodak have an SLR using the EF mount in the recent past?

8:08 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I knew I was going to regret that. I should have added "...without licensing it from Canon."



8:10 AM  
Blogger scotth said...

I see discussions like this on photography forums etc, and I wonder how much of it actually applies to the larger camera buying market. If a manufacturer sold a coke bottle as a kit lens on a ten megapixel camera, and a 14 mm prime on an 8 megapixel camera; which would sell more?

9:18 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

A reasonable point, scotth, but I've never cared about the camera buying market. I only care about what photographers need versus what they can get. "Photographers" meaning people who are working at creating things using pictures. They have always been a small minority in the camera buying market, and always will be.


11:03 AM  
Blogger Morven said...

The last Kodak Canon-mount camera was not built by Canon, but by Sigma; the SLR/c has pretty much the same body as the Sigma SD10. Of course, it's possible that Kodak had a license from Canon already, since previously Kodak had modified Canon cameras to digital.

As long as it's been, though, no basic patents can exist over the 1987-vintage EF mount. Making a camera that works with all EF lenses should be quite do-able.

I suspect a good deal of it is that making an EF-mount camera would require a whole bunch of reverse-engineering and that the companies with that knowledge (3rd party lens makers) prefer the margins available with lenses over that of bodies. It could also be that the big players, e.g. Sigma, have agreements with Canon never to make an unlicensed body.

Parenthetically, Sigma's SD mount, available on their film and digital SLRs, is a fascinating hybrid. Physically, it's a K mount, but placed at the same distance to the film as the EF mount. It eschews the mechanical and electrical protocol of the K mount in favor of using the EF mount protocols.

9:04 PM  
Blogger scotth said...

"I only care about what photographers need versus what they can get. "Photographers" meaning people who are working at creating things using pictures."

Of course, and I am only really interested in equipment that is going to do what I would like. Most often these discussions seem to spell the end of the company if they do not produce what is essentially a specialised piece of equipment.

In the case of Olympus, for example, they are a small company and I suspect they have fairly limited capital resources. The current market has to be a huge drain on capital with the speed at which products become obsolete. They have to make a business decision about what is going to get them the most return on their investment.

I own an E-1, and there are some holes in the lens lineup I would like to see filled. I would also like to see a replacement for the E-1 sometime soon. I think that is going to take some time though, and hopefully they won't go out of business in the meantime.

I think with the E-400 they saw a market that could be exploited and went after it. If the kit lens is not something I would want to use, there are probably a lot of people other people that will buy it.

I could use one of the lenses I already have, which are quite good. If I want to use a prime, there are Olympus 35 and 50mm primes; and the Sigma 30mm prime available. It would be nice to have something wider too, but there you have it.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"In the case of Olympus, for example, they are a small company and I suspect they have fairly limited capital resources."

I don't know what you consider "small," but Olympus has more than 30,000 employees and listed its capital in March of '06 at $410 million (48,331 million yen). That doesn't seem particularly limited to me, but then I don't know very much about business.


7:26 AM  
Blogger scotth said...

If Olympus is structured like most companies, it is made up of discrete business units, each of which is expected to make a profit on its own. Profits from microscopes and medical diagnostic equipment are probably not going to be funneled into development and capital investment for digital SLR's, but into the development and capital investment for microscopes and medical diagnostic equipment.

With 3% market share, Olympus will not have the money to finance development and capital equipment that companies with larger market share, like Nikon and Canon do.

Anyway, it is all speculation on my part, and I could be way off. Like I said, I would like to see holes in their line up filled to meet my desires. I realize they are running a business though, and have to make money to stay in business.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Brendan said...

Speaking of special coatings for "digital" lenses, I have a Canon EF 85mm F1.8 that took wonderful pictures on film. When I use it on my 1DMII I can sometimes see chromatic abberation (purple fringing). Its not too excessive, but bothersome nevertheless. Never had this happen when shooting film. I used to use the 70-210mm F3.5-4.5 zoom lens and it was one of my favorites, but it showed terrible purple fringing when used on my 20D. When I upgraded to the 1DMII I also bought the 70-200 F2.8L and haven't had any problems with chromatic abberation.

I too am a lover of prime lenses, and will use them whenever possible.

11:28 AM  
Blogger arbus said...

I'm hoping that the Pentax K10D lives up to the expectations. I think the DA 21 (at 31.5mm POV) is just about perfect as I mostly shoot with a 35mm lens when using film.

I have an Olympus E-1 with the 14-54 and think it's a wonderful body for the quiet shutter, good viewfinder (that shows 100% of the image) and the weather sealing.

I would take the E-1 with me more often if it had a moderate WA prime. I'm thinking of a K10D with the 21 DA as a good carry-everywhere kit.

I'm not sure if the 40 DA (60mm POV) is too long as a "normal" lens. I would have to see it in person, but the 21 and 40 could be a very nice two-lens kit that comes close to a Leica M with a 35 and 50. Sebastiao Salgado's favorite lens for his SLR was the 60/2.8.

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pentax makes a fantastic 31mm prime, it serves as an amazing normal lens on the digitals. Not cheap, but you get what you pay for.

On the other hand, the commonly available Pentax 50 f/1.4 primes are some of the best fast primes ever made, they all work on the newer cameras, and they can be boght used for less that an arm and a leg (for now).

9:16 PM  
Blogger dyathink said...

gosh, just read this entire blog after coming home dragging my tired a** after shooting a ballet rehearsal with my D200 and a Nikkor 20mm f2.8 prime...i guess i'm just naively oblivious about the digital optimization stuff. All i know is the lens speed allowed me to shoot with a lower ISO for reduced digital noise, the AF sizzled, the 20mm is wide enough to get all the action into the frame (not easy with an assortment of dancers flitting all over the floor) and, compared to zooms, is light and nicely balances the heft of the D200 in my small hands. In addition, used with the 10MP of the D200, i can crop the shot in PS if i want to narrow the view. i also use and treasure my Nikkor 50mm f1.4 but find it's just too narrow for dance. When i shoot in the theater i'll use a fast zoom, but in the rehearsal hall it's prime all the way. And 99% of the rest of the time when i'm shooting film on the street or in the field, i'm also using primes. (those pancakes look very sweet though. Yum).

12:10 AM  
Anonymous jack dahlgren said...

Arthur McLean asked about a specific example of some lenses not being suitable for digital cameras. The Nikon f/1.8 is an example where the reflection off the sensor reflects off the back of the lens and causes a spot in the middle. It is most noticeable as smaller apertures.

There are probably other examples where this sort of thing happens due to the higher reflectance of the sensor. And there are probably more times this effect is noticeable since people more often look at pictures at higher magnification on their screens.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Do you mean the Nikon *50mm* f/1.8? "Nikon f/1.8" doesn't adequately specify what you mean.


3:50 PM  

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