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World's Costliest Camera Lens

There are a fair number of rare and exotic camera lenses available from different optics manufacturers. Some offer a particularly large aperture, others an extreme telephoto reach, and still others are notable for the control they provide over perspective or angle-of-view. The Leica APO-Telyt-R 1:5.6/1600mm carries the somewhat dubious honor of being the world's most expensive lens ever produced for civilian use.

It is Leica's longest, biggest, and heaviest telephoto lens. It was delivered in 2006 on special order from a rich photography aficionado and former Minister of Culture, Sheikh Saud Bin Mohammed Al-Thani of Qatar, at a price of 16 million Hong Kong Dollars - the equivalent of 2,064,500 US dollars. The lens is a unique copy, but a prototype is on display at Leica's showroom in Germany, and can be admired there.

Al Thani
Sheikh Al-Thani[qtel]

Unfortunately, little is known about the technical specifications of the lens. It has a bayonet mount for Leica's R-series manual focus SLR-cameras, is approximately 1.2m long (1.55m with lens hood attached), has a maximum lens barrel diameter of about 42cm, and weighs no less than 60kg. With a focal length of 1600mm, it covers a diagonal angle of view of merely 1.5 degrees. The lens should be compatible with Leica's 1.4x and 2x APO-teleconverters, giving rise to whopping 1:8/2,240mm and 1:11/3,200mm optical systems, respectively.

The designation APO-Telyt suggests that the lens contains apochromatic lens elements to correct for chromatic aberration. In good Leica tradition, this correction should not only apply to the center but throughout the entire image circle, so that color fringing should be well controlled. Yet, getting sharp images from such a behemoth of a lens will be a major challenge and requires very solid tripod support. The Danish Leica expert Thorsten Overgaard reported that Sheikh Al-Thani had commissioned a specially-equipped Mercedes four wheel drive to carry his expensive lens and move it around. Whether this setup has been successful in sufficiently steadying the lens is unclear, however, since no images taken with the lens have been made available.

Luckily, there are supertele options that are more accessible and affordable, even though they might not provide the same reach and light-gathering power as the APO-Telyt 1600mm. The table below lists a number of lenses from different manufacturers with a focal length of at least 500mm, together with their physical specs. And unlike Mr. Al-Thani's Leica R-lens, all of the optics support autofocus operation, which is – well – extremely useful when shooting sports or wildlife. Maybe the Sheikh has a collection of these lenses in his gear bag too, since in relative terms they look sooooo cheap. Indeed, he could buy all 16 of them for less than one sixteenth of what he paid for the Leica...

Some Extreme Tele-photo Lenses and their Specifications
Lens
Length
(mm)
Diameter
(mm)
Weight
(kg)
Launch date
(year)
Launch price
(USD)
Street price
(amazon)
Used price
(ebay)
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0L IS II USM3831463.19020119,499latestcheck
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L IS II USM4491683.920201111,999latestcheck
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM4611634.500200812,999latestcheck
Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/4E ED VR2681082.30020151,399latestcheck
Nikon AF-S 500mm f/4E FL ED VR3871403.090201510,299latestcheck
Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4E FL ED VR4321663.810201512,299latestcheck
Nikon AF-S 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR4611604.590201316,299latestcheck
Sigma AF 50-500mm f/4-6.3 APO DG OS HSM2191041.97020101,659latestcheck
Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary2591041.95020141,289latestcheck
Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports2901222.86020142,229latestcheck
Sigma APO 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG72623615.700200825,999latestcheck
Sigma AF 300-800mm f/5.6 EX DG APO HSM IF5441665.88020057,999latestcheck
Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX DG HSM3501233.15020054,999latestcheck
Sigma 800mm f/5.6 EX DG HSM5211584.74020056,999latestcheck
Sony 500mm f/4 G SSM3681403.460201212,999latestcheck
Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD2581061.9502013999latestcheck

Further Reading

The Leica 1600mm is not the only exotic lens in the APO-Telyt range. A Leica 600mm f/5 mirror lens has been equally coveted by collectors and changed hands at photography auctions for six-figure amounts. Now, the low contrast and donut-shaped out-of-focus bokeh of mirror lenses is not to everybody's liking, so that a look at Leica's APO-Telyt Module system of two heads and three focusing units, which can be combined to create six lenses with focal length ranging from 280mm to 800mm, is perhaps advisable if high optical performance is called for.