Image credit: Brett Putman / Engadget

How to pick a lens for your mirrorless camera in 2019

So many new options, so many tough decisions.

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    Image credit: Brett Putman / Engadget

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    When buying a mirrorless camera, there's an equally crucial side question: What lenses do I need for this thing? The glass you place in front of that sensor plays a key role in how your photos or videos look and what kind of shooting you can do. It's a complex decision too. You need to consider factors like 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 so-called 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 think you'll be shooting. For most photographers, a versatile, wide focal-range zoom will be your best bet. Portrait photographers will want a 50-85mm fixed (prime) lens that best flatters the human face.

    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 to 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 more glass. Full-frame lenses for Canon, Sony and Nikon work just fine on their APS-C models. 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.

    Camera make Lens mount
    Nikon Z mirrorless Nikon Z-mount
    Nikon 1 mirrorless Nikon 1-mount
    Sony full-frame mirrorless Sony FE-mount
    Sony APS-C mirrorless Sony E-mount
    Canon APS-C mirrorless Canon EF-M-mount
    Canon full-frame mirrorless Canon RF-Mount
    Fujifilm X Series mirrorless Fujifilm X-mount
    Fujifilm G Series medium format Fujifilm G-mount
    Olympus, Panasonic Micro Four Thirds
    Panasonic full-frame mirrorless L-mount (Leica)
    Leica full-frame mirrorless Leica SL
    Leica full-frame M Series range finder Leica M-Lenses

    F-stop or aperture. Faster lenses with wider apertures (openings) have lower f-stop numbers, (f/2.8 instead of f/4.0, for instance), indicating that they take in more light. They also let you create more bokeh, or blur, in the background to isolate the subject. As a rule, they cost a lot more than slower models. Cheaper kit lenses often have variable apertures, which change depending on the zoom level. For instance, Sony's slowish full-frame FE 28-70mm OSS kit lens has a variable f-stop range of f/3.5-f/5.6 and costs just $398, the Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS model is $898, and the fixed-aperture FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM lens will set you back $2,198.

    Autofocus (AF). If you buy an extremely fast camera like Sony's A9, you'll want a lens that focuses just as quickly. Again, money helps here, as costly Canon RF models, 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 EOS R or Sony's A7 III, they already have built-in stabilization (IBS). For other models, 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 lens makers claim as much as three to four stops of improvement, but keep in mind that it won't help on every shot. Note that even if your camera has IBS, you'll still benefit from a lens that has it, as most IBS systems work in concert.

    Optical quality, bokeh and distortion. Generally, 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, 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) that 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 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.

    Best budget standard prime lenses

    If you already have a kit zoom lens with your camera, the next step is to get at least one prime. Why? It will let you shoot sharp, distortion-free portraits or take street and travel shots with nice bokeh. You'll also be able to shoot in bars, concerts and other low-light situations without cranking up the ISO and creating noisy images.

    Luckily, this is fairly easy: Every brand has a cheap, fast, "nifty fifty" prime that will take surprisingly nice shots. Sure, they're plasticky and not as durable as higher-priced primes, but they're also lighter, and thanks to modern manufacturing techniques, the optics are great.

    Sony full-frame FE. Sony's FE lenses are costly, so scale your expectations accordingly. I wouldn't recommend Sony's FE 50mm F/1.8 lens, as it has noisy, bad autofocus and mediocre build quality. That leaves just two options under $500. Sony's 28mm F/2.0 lens ($498) is sharp and fast for a wide-angle lens (I own one) and has good bokeh. The other is the FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro ($448), which provides good image quality and close focusing, with the main drawback being slow autofocus.

    Sony APS-C mirrorless (E-mount). Sony's own basic 50mm prime, the E 50mm F1.8 OSS ($298), is easy to recommend, even though it costs a bit more than other basic primes. For that sum, however, you get optical stabilization, great bokeh and decent build quality, even if autofocus is a bit slow. For a wider field of view, another interesting option is the E 30mm f/3.5 Macro ($278). It offers the 35mm equivalent of a 45mm focal length, and you can do macro photography with stellar bokeh to boot.

    Canon full-frame mirrorless. This is a short list, as Canon only makes one relatively inexpensive native lens. The RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM ($499) is a good, relatively fast lens with the added bonus of close Macro focusing.

    Beyond that, you'll need to get one of the three EF-EOS R adapters that start at $99. All work well, but the $199 control-ring adapter adds the same control ring available on native lenses, and the $399 drop-in filter-mount adapter gives you the added bonus of a variable ND filter -- very cool, especially for videographers.

    With one of those installed, I'd recommend Canon's 50mm f/1.8 STM ($125). It's the best-selling lens in the world and has great optics and fast and nearly silent autofocus, making it good for light video duty. If you have the need for more speed, consider the EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens ($329), which provides fantastic bokeh and good night-shooting capability for a relatively paltry sum. If you're OK buying secondhand, there's a vibrant market in Canon EF lenses as well. You can often find excellent prime and zoom lenses at half the price of a new one.

    Nikon Z-mount. As with Canon, there's only one relatively cheap lens in Nikon's new full-frame mirrorless lineup, the Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.8 S ($597). While a bit expensive, it's incredibly sharp and free of chromatic aberration and other artifacts. Nikon's Z-mount is the largest full-frame mount on the market, which makes lens design easier, so we'll likely see some good lenses on this system going forward.

    You're not stuck with just the Z-mount lenses. Using the FTZ lens adapter, which costs $299 but is currently shipping for free with Z6 and Z7 cameras, you can use any of Nikon's DSLR lenses. For both full-frame FX and DX APS-C cameras, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G ($217) is a must-have cheap prime lens. It's sharp and focuses quickly and silently. The drawback is the build quality, which is plasticky and not too durable.

    Micro Four Thirds. By a fairly wide consensus, Panasonic's Lumix G 25mm F1.7 ASPH ($148) is the best budget standard prime you can get for Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras. With a 50mm equivalent focal length, it's not only faster than most nifty-fifty lenses but also sharper. As with most lenses in this category, it's a bit fragile though. If you want to go a bit wider, check out the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/1.8 lens ($449). It's small, light, sharp and well built, with the main drawback being some vignetting at f/1.8.

    Fujifilm X Series. Fujifilm has arguably the most consistent lens lineup in terms of quality, but it doesn't have any super cheap models either. The cheapest prime is the Fujifilm XF 35mm f/2 R ($399). That's a lot for a nifty fifty (53mm equivalent), but the optical quality is excellent and it's built like a tank. If you need something faster, you'll need to splash out on the XF 35 f/1.4 model ($599), which is optically excellent but lacks weather sealing.

    Canon APS-C mirrorless. The EOS-M system is relatively new, so Canon has only two dedicated prime lenses, unless you're willing to use an EF adapter. Luckily, both are relatively cheap. The EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM ($249) is a good wide lens for close-ups and street photography while the EF-M 22mm f/2 STM ($229) gives you more speed and an even wider field of view.

    Step-up zoom lenses

    If you have more cash to burn, it's time to step up to a better zoom lens. For most folks, the best way to go is to get a fixed-aperture zoom with a range somewhere between 24mm and 105mm. Another option is to go more extreme, with telephoto or wide-angle range zooms or models that can cover the entire gamut. Let's look at the best of those.

    Sony. Sony's full-frame FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM zoom lens ($2,198) is highly desirable, but it sure is expensive. Instead, why not consider Sony's new 24-105mm f/4.0 G OSS zoom ($1,398)? While a stop slower, it's lighter, smaller, has better range and is weatherproof to boot. Sony APS-C users, meanwhile, should look at the 18-105mm f/4 OSS model ($598). For a more extreme zoom, consider the Sony FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 ($998) full-frame lens or the 18-200mm (27-300mm 35mm equivalent) f/3.5-6.3 OSS ($848) model for E-mount.

    Canon. Again, your choices are a bit limited here, but if you're not cash poor, they're all excellent. Canon's RF 28-70mm f/2L USM ($2,999) is one of the best and fastest normal zooms on the market, with incredible sharpness and color reproduction, even wide open. The only drawbacks are the weight and breathtaking price tag. Canon's RF 50mm f/1.2L USM ($2,299) is also an incredible lens with unbelievable sharpness, speed and bokeh. Finally, the 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM ($769) is a great normal zoom with a bit of extra zoom range, and it's reasonably priced.

    If you'd rather use an F-mount lens with an adapter, I'd recommend the more expensive 24-70mm f/2.8 L II lens ($1,599) over the 24-105mm f/4.0 L II lens. Sure, it's a good $500 more than the f/4.0 model. But it's sharper and more contrasty than nearly any other midrange zoom, and it has fast and accurate autofocus. The Canon 70-200mm f/4L ($1,299) offers a nice blend of reach and speed for sports and wildlife photography.

    Nikon. Nikon's Z-mount lenses are a bit less interesting than Canon's, but there's more choice and they're more affordable to boot. First up is the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S ($2,297), which looks like Nikon's best Z-mount lens yet. Nikon is also about to launch the Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S wide angle ($1,297), which looks like a must-have for landscape and architectural Z6 or Z7 owners. Rounding out the list are Nikon's Z 35mm f/1.8 S lens ($847), another tack-sharp model that should be good for street photography, and the 24-70mm f/4 S zoom ($997), which is essentially Nikon's Z-mount kit lens.

    If you'd rather use the adapter, Nikon's 24-70mm f/2.8G lens ($1,797) is your best pick. It's sharp and solidly built, and it's $500 cheaper than the 24-70mm f/2.8E model. It's missing vibration reduction (stabilization) and has a steep price, but that's not an issue for the Z6 and Z7, which have in-body stabilization. For something more extreme, consider the Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G lens ($947), a great option for fledgling sports photographers.

    Fujifilm X Series. I'd pick the Fujifilm 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS ($699) over the 16-55mm f/2.8 ($1,199) model. It's cheaper, for one thing, but it's also much lighter and has image stabilization. As for a good travel lens with a wide zoom range, consider the Fujifilm 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 OIS ($899) for its versatility and awesome, weather-sealed build.

    Micro Four Thirds. I used the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO Lens ($899) when I tested Panasonic's GH5s, and dang, is it good. For your money you get a midrange 24-80mm equivalent zoom with outstanding sharpness, speed and build quality. Need more range? Consider Panasonic's Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm f/2.8 II POWER O.I.S. ($998), which gives you speed, excellent image quality and a solid build, all in a relatively small and lightweight body.

    Wrap-up

    There are a lot of lenses on the market, and we've just touched on a fraction of them here. The key is to figure out what you want to shoot and buy the best lens you can afford to do that. For more information and detailed tests, check out Switchback Travel, which offers detailed lens reviews and great roundup lists. Ken Rockwell's site is also worth a look, thanks to the detailed and up-to-date reviews of nearly every lens on the market. Other good lens-review sites include Digital Photography Review, DxOMark and The Digital Picture. Finally, if you still can't decide, rent the lens you're thinking of buying from a site like Lensrentals.com.

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