Lens Elements and Groups: Is More Better?

In Gear by Improve Photography8 Comments

lens-elements

When it comes to modern technology, the feeling seems to be that more is better. In recent years, our computer terminology, for instance, has gone from megabytes to gigabytes and now terabytes. In the world of digital photography, photographers are always being lured by more megapixels, more frames per second, and higher ISOs. In the realm of lenses, however, it is not always clear that more is indeed better.

When reading about lenses, you may notice a listing of the number of elements and the number of groups each lens has. “Elements” are the individual glass lens elements within the lens itself, while “groups” are either separate elements or two or more elements fixed together. For instance, a lens with six elements of which two are fixed together would have six elements and five groups. In general, while more elements can better control optical defects, each additional surface area can cause reflections and scatterings that can result in flares and lower contrast.

So, when it comes to lens elements and groups, is more indeed better? Below we will look at several lenses noted by reviewers and users as being good or bad and see how many groups and elements each possesses.

But if you just want the quick answer–having more elements and groups does not mean a lens is better OR worse.

The Good:

Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS (20 elements and 15 groups)
This lens is known for its sharpness, fast focusing, and great image quality. Many Canon shooters swear by it, proclaiming it one of the best zooms they’ve ever used. It also has the highest number of elements and groups and the lenses discussed here.

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 (14 elements and 11 groups)
Another lens known for its sharpness and minimal softness along the edges. Nikon users looking for an excellent wide-angle lens have often been advised to look no further.

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG (13 elements in 8 groups)
This lens was highly anticipated and many have said that it is worth the wait, a prime lens known for super sharpness and fast autofocus. It also has the least number of elements and groups of the lenses discussed in this category.

The Bad:

Canon EF 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6 II USM (12 elements and 10 groups)
Poor build quality aside, many reviewers have noted this lens’ disappointing sharpness and noticeable vignetting.

Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S VR (15 elements and 13 groups)
Many have lamented the softness of this lens, along with its dark corners (vignetting). It has more elements and groups than two of the three best lenses mentioned above.

Tamron SP 200-500mm f/5-6.3 Di (13 elements and 10 groups)
While an alluring lens for many amateur and intermediate photographers due to its cost and range, it has been noted for being slow, having poor autofocus and even poorer image quality.

Conclusion

If you are looking to make a correlation between the number of lens elements and groups related to lens quality, there is not really one to make. While seeing that the highly praised Canon 70-200mm has 20 elements and 15 groups may make you think more is better, Nikon’s 50mm f/1.4G is also a highly praised lens with only 8 elements and 5 groups. Five of the six lenses discussed above have around the same number of elements and groups, yet three are considered poor efforts. So, when it comes to lens quality and lens elements, more is not necessarily better.


About the Author

Improve Photography

This post is a guest post by a reader of Improve Photography.

Comments

  1. So if not number of elements, could it be the quality of elements? An article on that subject would be nice. Or perhaps something like “What Makes a Lens ‘Good'”? Thanks for the article.

  2. So it is recommended to wait for professional reviews on new lenses for pro’s and cons’ to make a decision to buy it?

  3. nice post, but it’s not finished. I know, you were only talking about modern lenses; but what about the oldies? I want to know at the other end, if it can be a good lens with 3 elements in 3 groups for example, or 4 elements, and so on. Specifically, one aspect would be if there can be a good lens with 4 or 3 elements, which has good corner sharpness even at wide apertures

    1. Paul… You asking a lot of things from the old designs. Things they didn’t do to start with. Things they weren’t concerned with.

      I really really fond of the old Tessar design. It was cheap even in it’s day. It was knocked off and copied many times. It was 4 elements in 3 groups. I simple double gauss design. It was really good at painting lines on the image. It did strong high contrast images. In the middle.

      It didn’t stay high contrast to the edges, it was said the contrast ran out before the light fell off. They had to work and rework the design to get to be even ƒ/2.8. Understand a lot of large format old lenses were ƒ4.5 to ƒ8 at their widest and optimized for how they worked at ƒ/16. ƒ/4.5 used to be fast and ƒ/2.8 was absurd on large format.

  4. Comparing lenses of different specifications to find conclusions about the number of elements doesn’t make much sense. Obviously a zoom lens will need more elements than a prime lens. It might be more useful to look at only 50mm 1.4 lenses, and see if the number of elements correlates to the reviews.

  5. If you think about it mathematically, it may be the difference between the elements and groups themselves, or rather how many elements aren’t in groups. The Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS has 20 elements and 15 groups which means that there are 5 elements that are not in a group where as the Canon EF 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6 II USM has 12 elements and 10 groups which means there are only2 elements that are not in a group compared to the % in the Leica glass lense. The elements themselves could be a factor as well but i think if it was then it would be categorized better and listed on the lens itself.

  6. “L” series are all best lenses as I reviewed all youtubes..by the way what are they(L series) called in Nikon and Tamron?

    1. ok so im looking at lenses on canon’s website three different ones three different prices all three are L all three are the same 70-300 all three have IS one is 499, one is 649 and the other 1300. the elements are the only thing different so how do i know which one is better then the other based on the element count? the 1300 is out of my budget so no worries about that one but im trying to understand how i can tell if a lens is a good buy or not when im not going for high end prices due to financial constraints.

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