with CLIPREVIEWED learn the articleHow to Buy the Best DSLR and Mirrorless Camera Lenses for 2021
If you shoot with an SLR or mirrorless camera and don’t use any lenses aside from the zoom that was likely bundled with your camera, you’re missing out. Bundled starter zooms—often referred to as kit zooms—are better made now than in years past, but still have limitations. Typically they don’t gather a ton of light, so you can’t blur backgrounds easily or snap sharp pics in dim situations, and overall build and image quality is compromised in favor of cost.
There are a number of ways to go when buying a new lens for your camera. You can simply upgrade to a higher-quality zoom, you can get a lens that captures a wider perspective or one that brings distant subjects into close view, or you can even opt for a macro lens to bring the tiniest details of the world into view.
If you already have an idea about what type of lens you want, and you’re already invested in a camera system, you can check out our targeted recommendations for most of the popular lens mounts on the market:
But if you’re not sure what type of lens you want, or aren’t yet invested in a camera system, read on to learn about kinds of lenses are available to expand the capabilities of your camera. Remember, third-party lenses tend to be sold in multiple mounts, so they can be used with different camera systems, but you can’t use a Nikon lens on a Canon body.
What to Look for in a Lens
There are a number of things to look for when buying a lens. Angle of view is the most obvious—the focal length, expressed in millimeters, tells you how broad or narrow the field of view is, although you’ll have to do a bit of mental math to compare lenses for different sensor sizes. An 18-55mm zoom on an APS-C camera covers roughly the same angle of view as a 28-85mm mounted to a full-frame system. Micro Four Thirds lenses enjoy a 2x crop factor, so you’ll want a 14-42mm to cover the same range. The shorter the focal length, the wider the angle of view.
This also means you’ll want to buy the appropriate lens for your camera. You need to pay attention to the mount, but also the coverage. You can put a full-frame lens on an APS-C camera—its angle of view will just be narrower than it would be with a larger sensor. But if you put a dedicated APS-C lens on a compatible full-frame body, you’ll see a big black circle at the edges of your images—that’s because the lens is only meant to cover a smaller sensor.
And you want to look at the f-stop—a measure of the light a lens can gather, with lower numbers gathering more light. Typically zooms open up to F2.8 at most and prime lenses to F1.2, although there are exceptions in both cases. If you wonder how a photographer manages to capture a photo with a blurred background behind the subject, it’s by shooting a lens at a lower f-stop value. You don’t have to shoot a lens at its widest aperture. There are times when you want to use a setting like F8 or F11, specifically to increase the amount of an image that’s in focus or to improve overall sharpness. Focal length, distance to subject, and distance between your subject and the background also come into play in how blurred the background looks—it’s easier to create blur with a telephoto lens than with a wide-angle, given an equal distance between camera and focus point.
You also want to consider image stabilization (IS). A stabilized lens makes it possible to capture handheld images without blur when keeping the shutter open for longer durations. It’s also a big plus for handheld videos—good stabilization will get rid of tiny jitters, which can be distracting. It won’t deliver Steadicam-level results, but it can certainly add some value to your home movies and cinéma vérité indie film projects.
Many systems, particularly newer cameras designed without optical viewfinders and mirror box assemblies, include in-body image stabilization (IBIS). It was a rare feature on SLRs—Pentax is the only option if you want to buy a new SLR with IBIS—but it’s an expected feature on mirrorless bodies once you cross the $1,000 mark.
Lens-based stabilization is what you’ll want to look for if your camera body doesn’t have its own IS system—and if your body does have IS, many lens systems will work in tandem to net results that neither system can manage on its own. It’s an especially important feature to look for when shopping for a telephoto lens.
Other factors to consider include focus type—most of the lenses we recommend to consumers are autofocus, but there are some very high-quality manual focus-only lenses out there, many of which are appealing for video use—and build quality. If you have a camera that’s sealed for use in heavy rain or snow, you’ll want to make sure your lens is also protected. Many weather-protected lenses now use fluorine coating on the exterior glass, a material that repels water and grease.
Read on to learn about the various types of lenses available for modern mirrorless cameras and SLRs.
A Better Standard Zoom
If you’ve got an APS-C camera—like a Canon Rebel or Fujifilm mirrorless—the basic starter lens is typically an 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 or a 16-50mm F3.5-5.6. The f-numbers tell you how much light a lens gathers when its aperture is at its widest setting; the lower the number, the more light the lens can gather. There are two numbers listed for many zoom lenses because the ability to gather light dwindles as you zoom in.
When swapping out the starter zoom, you can go in a couple of different directions. You can get a lens with a wider range of coverage, like an 18-135mm, or even a superzoom like the Tamron 18-400mm F3.5-6.3 Di II VC, the longest all-in-one zoom available for consumer SLRs. You won’t gain any advantage for low-light photography, but you’ll be able to bring more distant subjects into view and cut down on the frequency of lens changes. For some photographers, especially those who prefer to capture images outdoors in sunlight, this is a good way to go.
If you’re happy with the range your current lens delivers, but want to be able to get crisper shots in dim light, go with a wide-aperture zoom. Most quality zoom lenses use apertures that are F2.8 or F4. SLR owners can look to a first-party upgrade, or opt for a lens like the 17-70mm F2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM Contemporary to replace the 18-55mm if you’re using a Canon or Nikon SLR.
Mirrorless shooters don’t have a large number of third-party zoom options available, but most systems offer a step-up lens, with Canon’s EF-M mirrorless line being a notable exception—it has the long-zooming EF-M 18-150mm, but no native wide aperture zooms.
Choosing a standard zoom for a full-frame system is a bit different than doing the same for an APS-C or Micro Four Thirds system. You’ll notice that the focal lengths are longer, because the full-frame sensor size is physically larger. The angle of view of the 16-50mm lens for APS-C is matched by a 24-70mm zoom on a full-frame system.
And because full-frame cameras are targeted at more advanced users, there are fewer basic kit lenses—even bundled options are fairly premium. It’s less about stepping up and more about picking the right lens for you. The 24-70mm F2.8 is the de facto standard for pros, especially event photographers who want to capture as much light as possible.
If you don’t need to shoot in dim conditions, you can save some money by going for a 24-70mm F4, 24-105mm F4, or even a longer zooming lens like a 24-240mm to maximize coverage and reduce the need to swap lenses.
With kit lenses starting at 16mm or 18mm for APS-C and at 24mm or 28mm for full-frame, you’ve already got decent wide-angle coverage out of the box. But what if you want to capture even wider views, or make images in very tight confines?
That’s where an ultra-wide lens comes in handy. They’re appealing for photographers who want to get more in the frame, but some care needs to be taken to get the best images. Most wide lenses show some barrel distortion (though not as much curve as a fish-eye), but it’s perspective that can get you into trouble. You’ll want to take care to keep the camera pointed straight on at your subject, as angled shots tend to stretch them out in a wide, unflattering manner. The same advice goes for distance—you can focus really close with most wide lenses, but putting a camera in someone’s face will skew their features.
Zooms for APS-C models, like Tamron’s affordable 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II VC HLD, cover a significantly wider swath than a standard zoom. The Tamron zoom is available for Canon and Nikon SLRs, both of which also have a number of first-party lenses at varying prices. Mirrorless shooters don’t always have third-party options in this class, but each system has its own solution.
You have more options for ultra-wide prime lenses with full-frame coverage. The Sigma 14mm F1.8 DG HSM Art is the widest bright-aperture lens we’ve seen, and is available in Canon, Nikon, and Sigma mounts. Canon and Nikon have their own wide 14mm lenses, but they only open up to f/2.8. The Sigma’s brighter design is especially appealing for astrophotography work, as it makes manual focus using the rear LCD easier and also makes it possible to use a lower ISO for cleaner images of the night sky.
Zooms are more common when you go ultra-wide, especially with a full-frame system. The widest full-frame zoom with autofocus is Canon’s unique EF 11-24mm f/4L, but you can save a bit of money if you go for the less ambitious Sigma 12-24mm F4 DG HSM Art, which is also available for Nikon cameras. Nikon doesn’t have its own zoom with 12mm coverage, instead its system starts with the Nikkor AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G, which has a low-cost competitor in the form of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 DG HSM Art.
Fish-eye lenses cover the widest of wide views, but do so with heavy barrel distortion that gives them their moniker. These lenses tend to garner a love it or hate it response, with little middle ground, but I like to use them to get more a more interesting perspective on the world, especially when traveling.
There are different types of fish-eye lenses available. One of our favorite affordable options, the Lensbaby Circular Fisheye, captures a fully circular image when paired with a full-frame camera. It’s manual focus, but you have a lot of depth of field when shooting at such a wide angle.
More traditional fish-eye lenses cover the entire frame. Nikon has a 10.5mm prime for its DX (APS-C) system, Pentax has a 10-17mm fish-eye zoom for its APS-C cameras, and Tokina sells a very similar lens for Canon and Nikon SLRs.
Micro Four Thirds shooters have some fish-eye options, too. Olympus and Panasonic both sell an autofocus fish-eye prime for Micro Four Thirds. Other mirrorless systems will have to go third-party and manual focus—the aforementioned Lensbaby is available for all the major players, as are options from brands like 7artisans, Rokinon, and Samyang.
Sony doesn’t offer any full-frame fish-eyes for its FE mirrorless mount, but you can use a Rokinon or Samyang manual focus lens via an adapter. You can adapt the Canon EF 8-15mm lens if you want both zoom and autofocus in your fish-eye, and of course it can also be used natively on a Canon SLR. Nikon also has its own fish-eye zoom for full-frame SLRs, the AF-S Fisheye Nikkor 8-15mm. The Canon and Nikon zooms capture a full circular image at their widest angle, and fill the entirety of the frame when zoomed in a bit.
You know a telephoto lens when you see one. They’re typically longer than other lenses, and can be very, very big—think of those huge, white-barreled lenses at the sidelines of major sporting events. The lenses the pros use cost thousands of dollars and bring distant action into clear view.
But telephoto lenses don’t have to be absurdly expensive, heavy, or large. Photographers who use smaller-than-full-frame cameras can opt for a basic long zoom lens to complement a standard zoom. These lenses typically sport smaller f-stops, so they’re really best used in brighter light, but can be had for a couple of hundred dollars. Look for a lens with a 50-200mm or 50-300mm range to match an APS-C SLR or mirrorless body. All but the lowest-cost options will include image stabilization, unless you’re shooting with a system that puts that feature exclusively in the camera body—at this point that’s limited to Pentax and Sony SLRs.
Micro Four Thirds cameras use a smaller sensor, so something like a 40-150mm zoom gets the job done. There are both low-end and high-end choices in the Micro Four Thirds world, ranging from the $200 Olympus M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm f/4-5.6 R all the way up to the $7,500 M.Zuiko ED 150-400mm F4.5 TC 1.25x IS PRO.
Aside from Fujifilm, which doesn’t have a full-frame system, there aren’t a lot of dedicated telezooms for APS cameras that move beyond kit level in quality. There are reasons for this—making a high-quality telezoom for a smaller sensor doesn’t provide a huge savings in size or weight, and APS shooters shopping for a telezoom will appreciate the extra reach and resolution they get. Given sensors of equal resolution, you’ll enjoy greater magnification of distant subjects with a 300mm lens paired with APS-C versus full-frame.
Our favorite affordable full-frame telezooms include the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary and the lighter, smaller Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary. Both are available for under $1,000 and work with Canon and Nikon SLRs.
And there are times when a bright lens is more important than one that offers long reach. The 70-200mm F2.8 is the go-to lens for full-frame event shooters, and there are on-brand and third-party options available for every full-frame system.
The most dedicated wildlife and sports photographers may opt for a prime telephoto lens instead of a zoom. The longest f/2.8 lens we’ve seen is a 400mm, but f/4 lenses are available through 600mm, and if you want to move up to an 800mm lens, you’ll have to be happy with an f/5.6 design, and be willing to spend more than $10,000 for the pleasure of ownership.
The wider apertures realized by prime optics offer a couple of real benefits—the ability to use lower ISOs in difficult light, extreme control over depth of field, and teleconverter compatibility among them.
Fast Prime Lenses
Long prime telephoto lenses certainly fit into the fast prime category on a technical level, but they’re not the first you think of when it comes to wide apertures. Typically you think of a wide to standard lens—somewhere in the 24 to 50mm range—with a maximum aperture that’s around F1.4 or F2. These lenses net shallower depth of field and better images in very dim light than a zoom.
For entry-level shooters, I typically recommend a lens in the 24 to 35mm range for an APS-C camera. Canon has its affordable EF-S 24mm F2.8 STM, which isn’t super bright, but is just $150 and incredibly light and compact. If you want a brighter design, think about the EF 28mm f/1.8 USM or the EF 35mm F2 IS USM, but be prepared to spend a bit in either case—these full-frame-compatible lenses sell for more than $500 each.
Nikon shooters have a dedicated DX (APS-C) wide aperture prime in the form of the AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm F1.8G, an under-$200 lens that captures a standard-angle field of view and pairs quite well with entry-level models. If you prefer a wider angle, the full-frame-compatible AF-S Nikkor 28mm F1.8G is a strong option, though it’s priced for full-frame systems ($700).
Full-frame owners have a lot more choices in this category, both from first and third parties—big-name lens makers Sigma and Tamron have a wide range of prime lenses for Canon and Nikon owners. You can choose from F1.4, F1.8, or F2 primes depending on your needs and budget in focal lengths ranging from 24mm through 50mm with ease—and newer mirrorless systems have included even brighter F1.2 lenses as an option, with autofocus.
What’s the difference between a dedicated portrait lens and your typical fast prime? It boils down to focal length, mostly. Sure, you can shoot an environmental portrait—one that incorporates both the subject and the world around it—with a wide-angle lens. But when you think about a lens for portraits, you think of one that’s around 85 to 200mm (in full-frame terms), with an aperture that’s large enough to blur out the background behind your subject.
Because of the longer focal length, we don’t see dedicated designs for APS-C SLRs. Canon and Nikon owners should look to a “nifty fifty” full-frame lens as an affordable lens for portraiture. Both the Canon EF 50mm F1.8 STM and the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm F1.8G are affordable options for portraiture. Sure, you can set your kit lens to 55mm, but the f/5.6 won’t blur out the background with the same aplomb as when shooting at f/1.8.
You can opt for a longer, pricier lens to shoot portraits with your SLR. On an APS-C sensor, an 85mm is a fine choice for tighter shots, though you’ll have to back up quite a bit from your subject to get something wider than a headshot.
Full-frame owners will look to a prime anywhere from 85mm to 200mm for traditional portrait work, or opt to use a 70-200mm F2.8 zoom to do the same job. Unless you’re going for an extremely shallow depth of field look, you’ll narrow the aperture a bit when framing your subject tightly.
One of the allures of photography as a hobby or vocation is the ability to capture the world in ways that our eyes cannot. Macro lenses, which focus close enough to bring the smallest details into clear view, are one way to do just that. The most important things to look for in a macro are focal length and magnification—the former tells you the angle of view, just as with any other lens.
Magnification is a bit more complex. It measures how large the image projected onto a camera sensor is in relation to reality. With a 1:1 macro lens, you’ll project a life-size image of a subject onto your camera sensor when the lens is focused as close as possible—if a lens is rated for 1:2, the projection is one-half life-size.
The magnification rating doesn’t change based on type of camera sensor you’re using, but smaller sensor cameras have less surface area. Filling the frame with a 1:1 subject on an APS-C captures about an 18-by-24mm area, while a full-frame sensor will capture 24-by-36mm subjects at full-size. It’s something to think about if you’re using a lens for technical applications, including reproduction and archiving.
If you’ve got an entry-level Canon or Nikon SLR, you can opt for a dedicated APS-C macro lens. Canon offers the EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro and 60mm f/2.8 Macro, while Nikon has the Micro-Nikkor DX 45mm f/2.8 and 85mm f/3.5. And full-frame macro lenses will also work on APS-C bodies—both have several available, and there are third-party choices too, like the excellent Tamron SP 90mm F2.8 Macro.
We’ve seen some innovation in macro lenses in recent years. Canon, for example, has released macro lenses with built-in lighting around the front element. Pros will still want to use a proper ring light for this flash effect, but lenses like the Canon EF-S 35mm F2.8 Macro IS STM (for Canon SLRs) and EF-M 28mm F3.5 Macro IS STM (for EOS M mirrorless) make it possible to get shadow-free macro shots without investing in expensive lights.
Full-frame owners can opt for macros in a variety of flavors. Most systems offer a lens similar to a 50mm F2.8 Macro with 1:2 life-size magnification, or longer designs around 100mm and 200mm with 1:1 results. Higher magnification can be achieved with add-on extension tubes, but when they’re attached you can’t focus on distant subjects. There are also specialized macro designs that net larger than 1:1 results—Venus Optics offers the manual focus-only Laowa 100mm F2.8 2x Macro APO for most camera systems, just as one example.
You’re not going to find any tilt-shift lenses for entry-level cameras or APS-C sensors (at this time), nor any with autofocus. These lenses mimic the capability of large format cameras with bellows and movements. You’ll use knobs and levers to move the glass up, down, left, or right—the shift effect—or actually angle it so it’s not parallel to your image sensor—tilt.
Most useful for architectural photography, the shift function moves the lens up, down, left, or right. Setting your camera on a tripod, level to the ground, may cut off the top of a building, even if you’ve got a wide-angle lens. Shifting up will get less of the ground and more of the structure you’re photographing in frame. Yes, you can simply tilt the tripod head up with a standard lens, but doing so will introduce keystone distortion—the effect where lines that should be parallel in a photo converge.
The tilt effect changes the relationship between subject and image sensor in a different way. Typically a lens is perfectly parallel to the image sensor, but by tilting the lens you can change that. It gives you the ability to change the plane of focus—so if you’re tasked with macro product photography, for instance, you can tilt the lens to get all of your subject in focus, while blurring the background, even if you’re shooting it from an off angle.
Tilt-shift lenses are often associated with technical, clinical imaging, but they’re not only used for that purpose. You can certainly use the tilt for an artistic effect. Isolating a subject in a wide-angle shot is effective, and tilt is also how you create images with the Diorama Effect optically rather than with software. Photographing real-world locations from a high angle and isolating areas of the image via tilt makes it look like you’re shooting a miniature world with a macro lens. It’s been mimicked via software, but with the right lens you can do it in-camera.
Canon and Nikon both have tilt-shift lenses in their current libraries. Canon calls them T-S and Nikon PC (Perspective Correction), but they don’t come cheap—you’re looking at a few thousand dollars at a minimum. Thankfully Samyang has a budget option, the T-S 24mm F3.5 ED AS UMC, which can be had for well under $1,000. It’s available in several mounts, for both SLRs and mirrorless. The same lens is also sold under the Rokinon brand.
Special Effects and Manual Focus Lenses
Finally, we look at special effect lenses. Lensbaby and Lomography are the big names in this area, both offering a bevy of lenses that are, well, different. Exclusively manual focus, the Lensbaby Composer Pro II is a tilting lens mount with interchangeable optics. It’s a popular choice for portraiture, as it allows you to really isolate your subject from the rest of the world. And, depending on which lens you put in the Composer Pro II, you can surround them with some almost trippy blur.
Lensbaby has moved beyond its tilting origins. It also sells more traditional lenses, without interchangeable optics. The Velvet 56 and Velvet 85 are soft focus optics with macro focusing support, and the Twist 60 uses Petzval optics, which draws background blur with a swirled look.
Lomography has its roots in Russia, selling Soviet-era film cameras to artists and hipsters alike. But, like Lensbaby, it’s grown beyond its origins. Lomo was the first to reintroduce the Petzval look, with a pair of brass bodied, retro portrait lenses sold via Kickstarter. It’s kept the brass look for another 19th century throwback, the Daguerreotype Achromat, and has gone out on a limb with the design of its Neptune lens series. The Neptune system puts lenses into two pieces—a base that mounts to the camera, and detachable lenses (there are four right now) that connect to the base.
Manual focus lenses don’t have to be made for special effects. There are a plethora of modern options out there from budget-minded brands filling gaps in libraries—think Venus Optics and Rokinon/Samyang—to high-end boutique brands—Leica, Schneider, and Zeiss come to mind.
There are reasons to choose a manual lens—they’re especially useful for video production when paired with gear systems to smoothly adjust focus. We tend to recommend autofocus lenses to most users, simply because they have more mass market appeal, but if you like to take complete control over making an image, manual focus will serve you well.
Spend Your Money Right
Many casual users who buy an interchangeable lens camera never move beyond the bundled zoom lens. If you’re ready to go beyond the 18-55mm, think about what you want from your camera and what will get you there. Lenses are one upgrade to consider—a flash, off-camera lighting, or a good tripod are others.
But regardless of how much you want to or are willing to spend on your photographic endeavors, be sure to use the information at your disposal to make the right choice. And for more, check out our quick tips to fix bad photos and beyond-basic digital photography tips.
keyword: How to Buy the Best DSLR and Mirrorless Camera Lenses for 2021How to Buy the Best DSLR and Mirrorless Camera Lenses for 2021How to Buy the Best DSLR and Mirrorless Camera Lenses for 2021