How to buy a mirrorless camera lens in 2020

If you’ve decided to take the plunge and buy a new mirrorless camera, possibly ditching your DSLR, you now have another decision: What lenses do you need? That decision could have a large impact on how your photos or videos look and what kind of shooting you can do. And this is no simple decision. You have to consider sharpness, distortion, speed, prime or zoom and, most important, price. In this guide, I’ll touch on all that and look at some of the best lenses for Sony, Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm and Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras.

What are you shooting?
Your camera likely came with a cheap kit lens, probably a zoom in the 24-70mm (35mm equivalent) range. However, most kit lenses are useless in low light and have mediocre image and build quality. So you should strongly consider supplementing it with at least one or two additional lenses.

What to buy depends largely on what you’ll be shooting. For most photographers, a versatile, wide focal-range zoom will be your best bet. Portrait photographers will need a 50-85mm fixed (prime) lens that best flatters your subject.

Product photographers might consider a macro lens; architectural and landscape photographers need wide-angle zoom or fixed lenses and wildlife and sports shooters will be drawn to large, relatively fast telephoto (tele) fixed or zoom lenses. If you shoot a lot in low light, you’ll need a fast lens (f/2.8 or lower) with stabilization, and video shooters will need to consider things like focus breathing, manual focus and parfocal qualities (more on those shortly).

Lens basics
Focal length and angle of view. The key feature of a lens is its focal length in millimeters. (Angle of view is much the same but takes into account the sensor size.) We often express focal length as a 35mm film camera equivalent so we can understand the relative angle of view for any camera. By that metric, lenses under 24mm are ultra-wide angle (or fish-eye, if there’s significant distortion), wide are between 24-35mm, standard are 35mm-70mm and telephoto lenses come in above that. Macro lenses, which capture very close subjects, are usually in the 35-100mm range.

Prime vs. zoom. Zooms are more versatile and make it easier to frame your subjects without moving while primes generally offer better optics and low-light performance (speed) for the same price. That’s because there are optical compromises in zoom lenses that don’t exist with primes.

Mount. Lenses are usually designed for specific brands (Nikon, Sony) and sensor sizes (full-frame, APS-C or Micro Four Thirds). Generally, lenses are a lot more expensive for full-frame cameras because there’s just more glass. Full-frame lenses for Canon, Sony and Nikon work just fine on their APS-C models, but you’ll be spending more money and using only a part of the lens. You can also stick APS-C lenses on full-frame Nikon and Sony cameras, but the image will be cropped and zoomed in. Generally, it’s best to buy lenses made specifically for your camera.

Autofocus (AF). If you buy an extremely fast camera, like Sony’s A9 II, you’ll want a lens that focuses just as quickly. Again, money helps here, as costly Canon RF, Fujinon, Nikon Z and Sony GM glass mostly offer great AF performance. That said, many cheap kit and prime lenses, like Nikon’s 35mm f/1.8 Z-mount, also pack solid autofocus systems. Cheaper lenses can have noisy autofocus, which is something that video shooters, especially vloggers who rely on AF, should keep in mind.

Stabilization. Stabilization reduces hand and other camera movements (though not subject movement, obviously), letting you shoot with less light than you normally could. If you have certain mirrorless cameras like Nikon’s Z6 or Sony’s A7 III, they already have built-in stabilization (IBS). That means any lens you use, even manual focus models, will benefit from stabilization.

For other models, like the Canon EOS R or Fujifilm X-T3, though, you’ll need to get that feature from the lens. The key metric is how much extra speed you get (in f-stops) compared to having no stabilization. Many manufacturers claim as much as 7.5 stops of improvement (the Olympus O-MD E-M1 Mark III), but keep in mind that it won’t help on every shot. Even if your camera has IBS, you’ll still benefit from a lens that has it, as most IBS systems work in concert with the camera.

Optical quality, bokeh and distortion. Most modern lenses, including kit models, are sharp enough for the average user. Better lenses, however, will remain sharp at wide-open apertures and toward the corners of the image with less vignetting or dark corners.

Higher-end models will also have better quality, softer-looking bokeh in the blurred parts of the image. As for distortion, it’s mostly an issue with zoom lenses, not primes, and modern mirrorless cameras will automatically remove it. Zoom lenses, especially cheaper models, are also more susceptible to chromatic aberration (CA), which causes blue or pink tones at the edges of objects in a photo.

Handling, manual focus and other factors. Expensive zoom and prime lenses can be heavy, cramping your style for street or tourist photography. If you want to travel light, then, a pancake, light prime or a lightweight kit zoom lens will do the job best.

Though most photographers don’t need manual focus, it’s still important for videographers who rack (change focus) from one subject to another. Video pros will also want a lens with a lot of focus-ring travel for finer control and models that don’t breathe, or zoom, when you change focus. (Purpose-built cinematography lenses don’t breathe, but are expensive.) For zooms, videographers might need parfocal lenses that stay in focus when zooming — again, these tend to be costly.

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