Vintage lenses – Why are telephoto lenses so cheap?

Go on to any vintage camera resellers website, and you will see that there are some lenses, notably telephoto lenses, that are inexpensive – I mean really cheap. Why? Doesn’t it require more material to make? Well, yes and no. They do have more metal (body), but the amount of glass is probably less than lenses with shorter focal lengths. Telephoto lenses generally have a very simple lens formulae, and so most of the added expense went into creating a large lens body. But that’s not really the problem.

Nearly all camera manufacturers provided an array of telephoto lenses. It’s a wonder they sold them all. For the reality is, then as now, telephoto lenses have a very narrow scope of use. The amateur photographer was likely only interested in the moderate telephotos, up until 135mm. The remaining lenses were the purvey of the professional photographer, and cinematographer. Who really needed a 300mm or 500mm lens, let alone 800mm? For example, in 1971, Asahi-Pentax sold 12 different Super-Takumar telephoto lenses:

  • Moderate : 85mm f/1.9 105mm f/2.8, 135mm f/2.5, 135mm f/3.5, 150mm f/4
  • Standard : 200mm f/5.6, 200mm f/4, 300mm f/6.3, 300mm f/4
  • Super : 400mm f/5.6, 500mm f/4.5, 1000mm f/8

The problem is that these telephoto lenses were only used for a narrow scope of use. Even a 300mm lens only has a horizontal AOV of only 10°. By the time you get down to 400mm it’s only 5°. Both are very low angles.

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s consider telephoto lenses above 120mm. That leaves three core categories: (i) the moderate telephoto’s around 135mm, (ii) the upper-end standards 200mm and 300mm, and the super-telephoto range > 300mm. Of the telephotos below 120mm, the most common are the 80-90mm lenses may be the most expensive of all telephotos, due to their popularity in portraiture work. Note that the prices quoted are for lenses in average to good condition, meaning that they are functional, yet may have minor optical issues, that won’t impact the quality of the image.


The most common lens in the moderate telephoto category is the 135mm, and there are a lot of them. Almost every lens manufacturer produced the 135mm as a “standard” telephoto lens. This may have been a legacy of rangefinder 25mm cameras which maxed out at 135mm (without the use of specialized devices). As such they are cheap because they are plentiful. The price only varies depending on manufacturer, lens speed, and mount (obscure mounts will reduce the price). If you search Kamerastore, you will find hundreds of 135mm lenses. A Soligor 135mm f/3.5 Tele-Auto (M42) can cost as little as C$60, whereas a Schneider-Kreuznach 135mm f/3.5 (M42) will only cost C$155. The rare exceptions seem to be lenses like the KMZ 135mm f/2.8 Tair-11, which sporting 20 aperture blades sells at about C$338.

Prices are also low because their use in as lenses on digital cameras is just not that popular, largely because once adapted to crop-sensors, a 135mm becomes a 200mm (APS-C) or 270mm (MFT) lens. Other reasons they aren’t popular include being slow, with an average aperture of f/2.8-4.0, and some lenses like the Meyer-Optik Görlitz Orestor 135mm f/2.8 are heavy, i.e. over 500g.


The “standard” telephoto range is often even cheaper relative to it’s size. A 200mm Asahi Super-Takumar f/4 usually sells for around C$200, the Jupiter 21M for C$175. Once you move higher than 200mm, prices seem to stabilize at around C$1 per mm of focal length. Here the higher prices indicate some historically significant lens. For example both a Meyer-Optik Görlitz 300mm f/4.5 Telemegor, or an early Pentax 300mm f/4 Takumar might be priced around C$400.


Again, these lenses can be cheap, even though they are not as abundant as smaller telephoto lenses. You can get an Asahi Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 400mm f/5.6 for around C$400. A Meyer-Optik Görlitz 400mm f5.5 Telemegor on the other hand might only cost C$200. The expensive 400mm lenses are often those with some history. For example a Kilfitt Fern-Kilar 400mm f/5.6 normally costs upwards for C$600-800 because it is a rarer lens, and due to its association with the film Rear Window.

The verdict? Telephoto lenses above 120mm can be fun to play with, but most people won’t use them that often. I think that is partially the reason why 135mm lenses are so cheap (and often in such good condition). People bought them to broaden their focal length choices, found they weren’t very practical, and relegated them to a cupboard somewhere. They weren’t that useful for everyday shots, and certainly too bulky to travel with. Eventually the market for them likely waned due to the growth of the zoom lens market. I would honestly avoid telephotos above 200mm unless you have a good use for the lens (and you choose a lens with good reviews). Longer lenses are fun to play around with, but may not exactly be that practical. Super telephotos are for the birds (literally).

P.S. There are also a lot of third-party lenses suppliers that produced telephoto lenses that are even cheaper than camera brands. For example Chinon, Sigma, Soligor, Tokina, Hanimex and Vivitar.


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