Last updated 2/14/21
What lens is best? I get asked this all the time, and there’s never really a right answer. “Best for what?” is what I usually reply, as the answer will depend on what the photographer wants to accomplish, what their budget is and what is important to them. Everyone will have a different notion of what constitutes the ‘best’, but I figured I’d put together a list of what I personally consider the best.
As part of my work on this site, and throughout my 15 years of photography, I’ve used a lot of lenses. I will shortly publish my 85th lens review later this week (which will be the Voigtländer 21mm f/3.5 Color-Skopar), and I’ve owned at least 50 other lenses that I did not review. This list will feature lenses from every system that I’ve owned for my personal shooting, plus some others that I’ve adapted. Note that this will not be a definitive list of the best lenses ever made: I haven’t used them all. Also, it’s a subjective list based on what is important to me in my shooting.
Sorry Nikon and Pentax fans: I have never used an autofocus Nikon or Pentax lens for more than a few seconds…so you won’t see any of those lenses represented here. I started shooting with Canon DSLRs back in 2004, and have extensive experience with Canon EF, Micro 4/3, Fujifilm X, Sony E mount and Canon RF lenses, plus I’ve adapted dozens of manual focus lenses from systems past, though I haven’t come close to using everything for every system. Again, this list is subjective and based on my experience and what is important to me. I’m sure there will be disagreements here, but let’s dive in.
I’ve selected a winner in each of four zoom categories and four prime categories. If judging the winner was very tight, I’ve also included honorable mention candidates that just missed out on the top spot. If a lens name is linked, it will take you to my review of the lens. I will attempt to maintain this article, replacing any lenses with new top lenses as I discover them.
Best Ultra-Wide Zoom:
Edited 3/16/20: This is the first lens that replaces the previous winner on this list, which has now been moved to the Honorable mention spot. The Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 is a simply stunning lens. Capable of corner-to-corner sharpness throughout the entire focal range, even on ultra-high resolution sensors, the Sigma 14-24mm is simply spectacular. Not only is it exceptionally sharp, rivaling the best full frame wide prime lenses at any focal length, but it has outstanding color and contrast, virtually no chromatic aberration, very good flare control and only shows any real distortion at the widest focal lengths. It’s a lens that simply stuns me with its image quality.
Honorable Mention: Olympus M. Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO
All ultra-wide zoom lenses have compromises. Some have better distortion control and flare controls, while others are sharper. But an eminently impressive lens overall is the Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO.
The Olympus 7-14mm has fairly hefty native distortion, and can flare like mad in the right circumstances, but it is also tack sharp to the corners stopped down, features an impressively wide range equivalent to 14-28mm on a full-frame body, and does so in an extremely well-built, weathersealed and compact package for only $1,199.
Best Standard Zoom Lens:
The next category was quite easy for me to decide. The Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM is a spectacular zoom lens. With prime-like sharpness throughout the zoom range, great color and contrast, beautiful bokeh, great control of lens aberrations and a robust build quality. It’s a very big and heavy lens, but it’s eminently impressive.
Best Telephoto Zoom Lens:
Dethroning the previous winner in Canon’s DSLR 70-200mm lenses are two new mirrorless lenses that have combined exceptional optics with a massive reduction in size and weight. Just edging out the honorable mention for the top spot is Canon’s new RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. The RF 70-200mm cuts over 400g from the weight of their DSLR lenses, and reduced overall size by a full two inches while sacrificing nothing in optical quality. The robust build quality, slightly better bokeh and excellent IS unit bring it up into the top spot over the Tamron. It certainly will cost you, though.
Honorable Mention: Tamron 70-180mm f/2.8 Di III VXD
Tamron has come in to take an honorable mention in this spot, packing exceptionally good optical quality into the most compact f/2.8 telephoto zoom ever made for full-frame cameras. It’s smaller than the typical 70-200mm f/4 lens, yet is a full stop faster. Add in blistering sharpness throughout the range, good bokeh, excellent color and a very fast focus motor, and you’ve got a winner. It’s definitely the winner on best value in this range as well, packing similar optical quality and size to that of the Canon at less than half the price.
Best Supertelephoto Zoom Lens:
This is a category where I’m sure the super expensive options like the Canon 200-400mm f/4 (with its built in 1.4x TC) would probably exceed what I’ve used, but among the supertelephoto zoom lenses I’ve used, none top the Fujifilm XF 100-400mm. This is a large lens with the reach of a 150-600mm lens on a full frame body. It’s very sharp throughout the zoom range, has gorgeous bokeh and good control of almost all lens aberrations. Add in truly excellent optical image stabilization to a lens that Fuji knocked out of the park.
Honorable Mention: Panasonic Leica 100-400mm f/4-6.3 DG Vario-Elmar OIS
This lens has crazy reach, with an angle of view of a 200-800mm lens on full-frame. It’s got very good sharpness, great color and contrast, fantastic build quality and is relatively compact considering the reach. If you are invested in the Micro 4/3 system and need something for wildlife shooting, it’s really hard to go wrong with this lens.