This is our third buyer’s guide dedicated to lenses. If you were forced to choose between a good camera and a good lens what would be your choice? Many of us would normally choose the camera since it is full of gadgets and innovations. But, would that really be the best choice?
The lens: your camera’s most crucial component
The lens is one of your camera’s most crucial components, if not THE most crucial (for both reflex and hybrid cameras): the lens is what makes it possible to capture light. Put a poor-quality lens on a good-quality camera and you will quickly discover that the camera will not be able to achieve its full potential. The opposite is also true to a lesser extent, and there is really no point in putting a very high-end lens on an entry-level camera.
The idea here is to find the right balance, without forgetting that a lens is an investment that will undoubtedly outlive your current camera – if you intend to remain with the same manufacturer when you buy your next camera. It is probable that you will change cameras in 3, 6 or 8 years, but the same can not be said about your lenses, especially if you have chosen good-quality ones. Lenses do not really wear out, they do not really get damaged (depending on how you use them) and do not really diminish in quality relative to the new lenses appearing on the market.
Therefore, by carefully choosing the lens that suits your needs, it will serve you well for many years to come, even if you decide to change cameras. To help you make your choice, and before buying a new lens, we recommend that you read our “Practical Wednesday” dedicated to this subject. This will allow you to know for certain what lens you need and not to make any mistakes in your selection.
Lastly, if you are looking to equip yourself with a full frame camera with a high-megapixel count sensor (the 36 megapixel D810 or even the 42 megapixel Sony A7R for example), you will need to choose high-quality lenses adapted to modern digital sensors, otherwise you risk not being able to exploit the full potential of this type of sensor. Therefore, this is a consideration to keep in mind when buying a camera.
APS-C or full frame?
Before going any further, you need to give some though to an important consideration: will you be using an APS-C or a full frame camera for the foreseeable future? This is an important consideration since it will determine your choice of lenses. Every manufacturer has lenses dedicated to APS-C reflex cameras (which are incompatible with 24×36 mm models, or which in the best case scenario produce a cropping effect when used on this type of camera, such as with Nikon lenses where a part of the image is lost) as well as a line of lenses dedicated to full frame cameras which work with both full frame and APS-C sensor cameras.
The lenses which are exclusively compatible with APS-C cameras are often inexpensive and of sufficient quality to work with this type of sensor.
However, if you intend to use a full frame reflex camera, you will need to buy compatible lenses which are often heavier and more expensive, but which guarantee that you will have optimal image quality regardless of the camera that you choose to use them on.
For clarity’s sake, here are the abbreviations used by the major manufacturers:
- Nikkor : DX for APS-C / FX for 24×36
- Sigma : DC for APS-C / DG for 24×36
- Canon : EF-S for APS-C / EF for 24×36
- Tamron : Di II for APS-C / Di for 24×36
- Tokina : DX for APS-C / FX for 24×36
- Pentax : DA for APS-C / D-FA for 24×36
- Fujifilm : XC or XF, both are for APS-C
Now that we have introduced the subject, let’s move on to our selection of lenses for this buyer’s guide dedicated to the subject. Once again, this is not an exhaustive list, but rather a list of the most indispensable lenses in each category and your choice will depend on your usage and needs. We will not go so far as to tell you what THE best lens is, rather we will help you to discover, depending on your particular needs and budget, what the right lenses are for you.
A word about kit lenses
You may have noticed that when we recommend a reflex camera, we do not always indicate the camera + lens combination – commonly called a “kit”. These kits allow you to be operational from the moment that you buy your camera and often allow you to save some money on the lens that comes in the kit. When we do not indicate the kit option for a certain camera, it is certainly not because we have forgotten to do so, but rather it is part of our recommendation!
If you are buying your first reflex camera – especially at the lower end of the product spectrum – we generally recommend that you choose to buy the kit which often comes with a 18-55 mm zoom with variable aperture (f/3.5-5.6 for example). This lens is not be thrown away, and it will allow you to take some good photos…to start out with at least. However, as it has often been confirmed by technical tests, these lenses do not always do honor to the cameras that they are being sold with – this is especially true of mid-level to professional level models. They often suffer from chromatic aberrations as well as image distortions and their maximum aperture opening is limited.
This is namely the reason why, if you do buy a full frame dslr camera of mid to professional level quality, you should not remain with the basic lens, but should invest in a better quality lens instead.
The indispensable fixed focal length lenses
It would be impossible to begin to list the selection of lenses we have chosen for this buyer’s guide without first speaking about fixed focal length lenses, namely THE fixed focal length lens that all photographers must have: the 50 mm – for full frame cameras – or 35 to 50 mm for APS-C devices (due to an enlargement factor of around x1.5). This is the lens which has always had the best quality to price ratio.
Why? Because it is of a simple design and inexpensive to produce – moreover this simplicity translates into quality. In this way, this “rock solid” lens will accompany you throughout your long life as a photographer, and will never let you down.
Still not convinced? You should be aware of the fact that a standard feature of 50 and 35 mm fixed focal length lenses is an impressive aperture opening of f/1.8, which allows them to capture an enormous amount of light and to create nice background blurring effects.
50mm f / 1.8 with Nikon D800
For the most demanding users, there is also an f/1.4 version, which is much more expensive, but which makes it possible to capture even more light. It is ideal for photographing in low light situations, but also for taking magnificent portraits with blurred backgrounds (at full aperture opening, be very careful to focus properly). Rest assured however, fixed focal length lenses with a f/1.8 aperture opening are already sufficiently luminous for the majority of situations.
If you have an entry-level DSLR camera, you must verify whether or not your chosen lens has an integrated autofocus motor, since some cameras do not have a built-in AF motor – which would result in your having to manually focus the lens. In terms of Nikon products, AF-S lenses have an integrated AF motor.
Fixed focal length Nikon lenses
In our team, three of us use Nikon DSLR cameras, both APS-C (D7000) and Full Frame (D800 and D600 in the case of Emmanuel). Here is a list of our favorite fixed focal length lenses.
Emmanuel uses fixed focal length lenses very often, mainly the 35 mm FX format lens, due to its versatility: this lens is capable of taking portraits, photographing almost any kind of scene as well as capturing landscapes. Since these types of lenses are not very complicated, they are often relatively small and light-weight. And since they are fixed focal length lenses, they often offer much better optical quality for a lower price.
His preferred lens is the excellent Sigma 35 mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART (available from 899 dollars – a version with a Canon mount is also available) which he took with him during his travels around the world in 2013: with exceptional image quality at all aperture openings, this lens is a little “bomb”.
The Nikkor 35 mm f/1.8 G (only compatible with APS-C sensor cameras) is also a good choice; smaller and lighter, providing slightly less sharpness, it is especially less expensive: it can be purchased starting at 196 dollars.
The Nikkor 50mm f / 1.8 and f / 1.4
The Nikkor 50mm 1.8 G is also a lens that any photographer would be happy to own. It is a little bit heavier and more imposing than the Nikkor 50 mm f/1.8 D, but it has the advantage of having an integrated AF motor, useful for entry-level reflex cameras which are not equipped with one. Those photographers in search of the widest aperture can buy the f/1.4 version instead, which is a little bit more expensive.
If you would like to photograph your subject from a little farther away, the Nikkor AF-S 85 mm f/1.8 G (from 476$) is an excellent lens, perfect for portraiture and even for everyday purposes – it was used to take this photo of the Tuileries Garden in Paris.
For macro photography lovers, the Nikon 105 mm f/2.8 is the ideal lens, especially since it is stabilized. It can also be used for portraiture. However, this lens is large and quite heavy (790g). Sigma offers an equivalent stabilized f/2.8 lens for people on a tighter budget.
Fixed focal length Canon lenses
In 2015, Canon announced its new 50 mm f/1.8 STM lens which replaced the 50 mm f/1.8 II. While it is a little bit more expensive than the older model (it can be purchased from 127€ versus 96€ for the previous model), it still has an excellent quality to price ratio. It allows its user to fully exploit its depth of field without requiring an increase in ISO sensitivity in low light conditions. Everyone seems to agree that this lens should come as the standard lens for all cameras!
If you are hesitating between the old and the new model because you would like to save a few dozen dollars, we highly recommend that you opt for the STM version, which is quieter and especially more rugged.
Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM and f/1.4
The f/1.4 is approximately three times more expensive, but the USM focusing motor is really very advantageous, for those who can afford it. If you own an APS-C device, this 50 mm lens would certainly still be useful, but in order to get the same focal rendition (due to the enlargement factor of the sensor), you would need to equip your camera with the Sigma 35 mm f/1.4, which is however much more expensive (but of excellent quality).
As a bonus, last year Canon released an ultra flat (2.2 mm) and ultra light-weight (130 g) Pancake 40 mm f/2.8 lens. With its small size and reasonable price (160 dollars), this is a good lens if your goal is to travel light and to go unnoticed. Its motor is not very fast, but it does have the advantage of being very quiet. In terms of image quality, at an aperture opening of f/2.8 the center of the image is very sharp, with a little bit of vignetting around the edges. At f/5.6 the sharpness becomes uniform and the vignetting disappears.
If you are a fan of macro photography, the EF 100 mm f/2.8 Macro L IS lens has an all-weather construction (weatherproofing) and its three axis stabilizer should allow you to lower your shutter speed while still obtaining a sharp image.
Fixed focal length Pentax lenses
Jean-Noël, a long-time convert to Sony’s full frame A7 camera used to use Pentax cameras. He shared with us his favorite lenses.
For both macro photography and portraiture, he really loves to use the Pentax 100 mm f/2.8 Macro WR, which provides great image sharpness and is capable of focusing at a macro scale with an aperture opening of f/2.8. It is also a stabilized lens.
Pentax 100 mm f/2.8 Macro
For the Pentax brand, the basic fixed focal length lens is the 50 mm f/1.8; a wider angle lens, the 35 mm SMC DA f/2.4 AL is also available, but it only has a maximum aperture of f/2.4. For a more luminous “classic” lens, it would be necessary to turn towards the 55 mm f/1.4 SDM which makes it possible to achieve a magnificent circular bokeh effect, but which comes at a high price (starting at 650 dollars) and which is not compatible with full frame sensor cameras.
Left, the Pentax 50mm f / 1.8, right the Pentax 35mm f / 2.4
Fixed focal length Sony lenses
As far as Sony is concerned, between its lenses destined for hybrid and reflex cameras, those for full frame cameras, and those which are only compatible with APS-C systems, the situation is rather complicated.
Here are some clarifications which will hopefully prevent you from making the mistake of choosing the wrong type of lens. It goes without saying that the standard fixed focal length 35 mm and 50 mm lenses are available in the Sony brand.
If you own a Sony reflex camera, you will need to distinguish between DT lenses (exclusively compatible with APS-C sensors) and A/ZA lenses (compatible with both APS-C and full frame sensor cameras). If you have a Sony hybrid camera, you will need to use the E mount type lenses (only APS-C compatible) or the FE mount type lenses (which are compatible with both APS-C and full frame sensors). It is also possible to mount lenses destined for reflex cameras on hybrid models by using an LA-EA adapter ring.
In the Sony A7 product line, there are two excellent fixed focal length lenses: the Sonnar T FE 55 mm f/1.8 ZA and the Sonnar T FE 35 mm f/2.8 ZA. Both of these lenses offer superior image quality, but are for two different types of usage:
- The 35 mm, with a maximum aperture of f/2.8, is great for urban photography. Highly compact, this lens makes it possible to have an easily transportable camera which can be carried around in a small case. The image quality it provides is definitely a notch above what the kit lens is capable of, without however matching the performance of the 55 mm lens.
- The 55 mm, which has a maximum aperture of f/1.8, seems at first glance to be a little large and expensive. However, it is an incredible lens! In conjunction with the A7, it is possible to take very precise images with unrivaled sharpness. We found the softness of the images it took – namely in portraiture – very pleasant. This is an ideal tool for fans of the bokeh effect.
Jean-Noel has the 55 mm f/1.8, and even if its 998 dollars price is somewhat hard on the wallet, there is currently no other alternative for the Sony A7, without making use of an adapter.
The other indispensable fixed focal length lenses are more dedicated to specific needs. For portraiture, the best lenses are those with a focal length of between 85 and 135 mm, allowing the photographer to gain more distance from the model. Certain lenses within this range of focal lengths are also geared towards macro photography, such as the 100 mm f/2.8 L Macro IS USM from Canon. If you are passionate about street photography or landscape photography, 24 or 35 mm lenses would be of more use to you. And if you are a wide angle aficionado, you should be aware of the fact that ultra wide angle lenses exist, such as 14 mm models.
And of course, there are the mythical 200 mm, 400 mm and 800 mm fixed focal length lenses, but these are mainly used for nature photography, and you don’t even want to know how much they sell for.
The zooms recommended by our team
Now that we have spoken about fixed focal length lenses, we will be discussing zooms. These lenses, which allow you to cover a more or less wide range of focal lengths – sometimes going from wide angle to powerful zoom – are quite numerous, and are of widely varying quality, depending on the product level.
Just as we did for fixed focal length lenses, we will not be going over all existing zooms, instead we will speak about those that we use on a daily basis.
If you intend to travel with a single lens mounted on your Nikon APS-C camera, and if the idea of mounting a fixed focal length lens is unpleasant to you, the 18-200 mm AF-S f/3.5-5.6G IF ED VR II is the lens that you need. It goes without saying that this is not the most luminous lens, nor is it the one which will give you the best sharpness, but it is the one which will allow you to cover the widest range of focal lengths – allowing you to to take a photo in situations when you would otherwise have had to swap lenses. Sigma’s 18-200 mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM Contemporary is slightly less luminous, but it retails for almost half as much as the Nikon lens and is of comparable quality.
From left to right: 18-200 mm f / 3.5-5.6 IF ED VR II, 18-105 mm f / 3.5-5.6 ED VR and 18-300 mm f / 3.5-5.6 DC OS HSM Macro
The 18-105 mm AF-S f/3.5-5.6G ED VR is also a good option for those starting out it photography; it is less expensive, but it covers a more limited range of focal lengths. It is sometimes sold as a kit lens with some cameras. Sigma’s 18-300 mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM Macro lens, first announced at Photokina 2014 has an excellent price to quality ratio if you are looking for a lens with a little bit more zooming power. It can be purchased starting at 399 dollars– a version with a Canon mount is also available.
Nikkor 24-70mm f / 2.8 mounted on a D810
If you have a full frame camera, you will need to choose an FX lens. In the Nikon brand, the holy grail is the 24-70 mm f/2.8, ideal for photojournalism because it provides both a 24 mm wide angle as well as a more standard 70 mm focal length and because it has a fixed aperture opening of f/2.8 which allows it to capture more light. However this lens is large, heavy, and above all expensive. For this reason, we recommend the equivalent lens manufactured by Tamron, the 24-70 mm f/2.8 which is stabilized, much more compact, while still being well-built and providing a very high level of optical quality. And, at almost half the price of the Nikon lens (the Tamron lens is available from 1099 dollars), it is an excellent alternative.
If you are a fan of Sigma products, the 24-70 mm f/2.8 HSM is also much more inexpensive than the Nikon lens, but it does not provide the same degree of sharpness as the Tamron version; moreover, it is subject to some vignetting.
The two 70-200 mm of Nikon. At the top, the f/4 and down the f/2.8
The same thing can be said for zooms with the exception of the Nikkor 70-200 mm f/2.8 ED VR II, which provides excellent sharpness, a very wide fixed aperture opening, a remarkably good-quality construction as well as stabilization. Unfortunately, it weighs more than 1.5 kg and there is a strong possibility that its price will dissuade you from buying it. Fortunately, Nikon also offers a model with a f/4 aperture, the Nikkor 70/200 mm f/4G ED VR. While it is certainly less luminous, it is well built and is a perfect choice if you don’t really need a highly luminous lens. However, be forewarned, this lens still weighs in at 850 g and is available starting at 1396 dollars. A little bit of sneakiness on Nikon’s part: this lens is not sold with the tripod mounting collar (RT-1) which costs 170 dollars. Without this collar, using this lens on a tripod mounded camera risks putting pressure on the lens mount, not to mention that the whole setup will suffer from a poor weight distribution. Once again, Tamron offers an equivalent lens in terms of optical performance and design, but for a much lower price: the SP AF 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD which can be purchased from 999 dollars. Sigma offers the 70-200 mm f/2.8 DG APO OS EX HSM – available starting at 1299 dollars.
Are you interested in entering the world of nature photography without going bankrupt? Both Tamron and Sigma offer a 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 zoom of good build-quality: 869 dollars for the Tamron model and 1089$ for Sigma’s.
Are you looking for a wide angle zoom? We recommend the Nikkor AF-S 16-35 mm f/4G ED VR which is not the most luminous, but its stabilization will allow you to gain a few precious f stops.
The Canon brand offers more or less the same lenses as Nikon. For the hardcore traveler equipped with an APS-C sensor camera, the Canon EF-S 18-200 mm f/3.5-5.6 IS makes it possible to photograph things at very short or very long distances with a single lens.
Canon EF-S 18-200 mm f/3.5-5.6 IS and Sigma 18-300 mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM Macro
Just as for Nikon, the Sigma 18-300 mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM Macro has an excellent price to quality ratio if you are looking for a lens with a little bit more zooming power. It can be purchased from 399 dollars.
If you have a full frame sensor camera, the 24-70 mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 Canon zooms make the perfect duo, so long as you are a professional photographer or your bank is willing to loan you money. If you are on a tighter budged but still want to take advantage of these lenses, two less luminous versions – f/4 aperture –exist. These lenses cost less while still being of excellent quality (L series). The 24-70 mm f/4 sells for 899$ (versus 1750 dollars for the 2.8 version) whereas the 70-200 mm f/4 IS (stabilized) sells for 1099 dollars (versus 1949 dollars for the 2.8 version).
From top to bottom: Canon 70-200 mm f/4, Canon 70-200 f/2.8 and Tamron 70-200 f/2.8
Just like for Nikon cameras, Tamron lenses are excellent alternatives to Canon lenses – they are much more compact and oftentimes almost as powerful as the lenses they replace; they are also of a very robust construction. In this particular case, we are referring to the 24-70 mm f/2.8 Di VC USD (available from 804 dollars) and the SP AF 70-200 mm f/2.8 Di VC USD which can be purchased starting at 999 dollars. Sigma also offers the 24-70 mm f/2.8 HSM from 849 dollars and the 70-200 mm f/2.8 DG APO OS EX HSM starting at 1299 dollars.
Lastly, Canon offers a stabilized 24-105 mm f/4 lens which is often sold in a kit with certain high-end cameras such as the 7D or the 5D Mark III. This lens provides excellent quality (which is expected of the L series) and makes it possible to access those few extra millimeters of focal length which the 24-70 mm lens lacks. Sold starting at 697 dollars, this might be just the lens you that need on your APS-C or full frame camera.
As a general rule, Canon’s L series lenses (professional product line) with a constant f/4 aperture opening are a safe bet and are among the lenses that we recommend the most. They have the advantage of being more affordable than other lenses with wider aperture openings.
Are you interested in entering the world of nature photography without going bankrupt? Tamron and Sigma both offer a 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 zoom of very good build-quality: 869$ for the Tamron lens and 849$ for the Sigma lens.
Are you interested in a wide angle zoom? We recommend the Canon 16-35 mm f/4 EF L IS USM which is not the most luminous, but its stabilization will allow you to gain a few precious f stops and its construction is exemplary, not to mention that it delivers very good image quality. However, with this lens you will need to be careful about the distortions and vignetting which occur at the 16 mm focal length. For APS-C sensors, Canon also offers another wide angle zoom: the 10-22 mm f/3.5-4.5 USM which, although it is more luminous, is quite compact and well-built. It can be purchased starting at 649$.
In the Pentax brand, two zooms are universally appreciated: the Pentax 17-70mm f/4 AL IF SDM and the Pentax 18-270 mm f/3.5-6.3 DA SDM.
Pentax 17-70mm f/4 AL IF SDM and Pentax 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 DA SDM
The first of these is a trans-standard zoom which is an excellent basic lens for a camera. Its fixed aperture and its slightly wider than 18-55 mm focal length range makes this a useful lens for most situations and its watertight gasket makes it a perfect adventure companion. Last but not least, this lens is also economical since it can be purchased starting at 423$.
On paper at least, the 18-270 mm lens has impeccable build-quality; it is also weatherproof and has an ultrasonic AF motor. However, this lens’s most interesting feature is its zoom which provides x15 magnification. This is a very useful lens for “traveling light”. It is being sold starting at 530$.
Just as for Sony’s fixed focal length lenses, in this section we will be making our recommendations based on FE format lenses, destined for Sony A7/R/S cameras.
From left to right: Sony 16-35 mm f/4, Sony 24-70 mm f/4 and Sony 70-200 mm f/4
At the moment, there are three very interesting zooms: the 24-70 mm f/4, the 70-200 mm f/4, and the 16-35 mm f/4. These three lenses are stabilized and have excellent optical quality and build-quality. However, none of these lenses – which have a maximum aperture of f/4 – are available for under 1000 dollars. In our opinion, this is a major limitation of the A7 system, which does not currently offer any f/2.8 zooms or any less expensive f/4 alternatives. Nevertheless, we hope that over the course of the year Sony will rethink its prices and release lenses which are able to compete with high-end Canon and Nikon models.
To find out more about lenses designed for Fujifilm, Olympus or Panasonic hybrid cameras, check out our photography buyer’s guide entitled the best hybrid cameras and their lenses.
If you own a lens which does not appear in this list, but which you feel deserves to have a place in this buyer’s guide, do not hesitate to suggest it in the comments section, alongside a description of how you use it. Our list is very general and does not cover specialized uses such as architecture photography (which requires tilt shift lenses), nature photography or macro photography, just to name a few.
In any case, and as a conclusion to this guide, we would just like to remind you to protect your lenses with a sun hood or an anti-UV filter, especially in wet or dusty conditions. Given how much these lenses cost, and how long you would ideally like them to last, it would be a real shame to damage them needlessly.
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