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 Micro 4/3, Fujifilm X and Sony E mount 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.
Best Ultra-Wide Zoom:
I’m starting with zoom lenses, and actually the category that was the hardest for me to decide. This is because I haven’t used some of the great f/2.8 ultra-wide zooms, and all ultra-wide zoom lenses have compromises. Some have better distortion control and flare controls, while others are sharper. Every one I’ve tried has some downside, but the most impressive overall to me is our winner, 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.
Honorable Mention: Sony 12-24mm f/4 G – The Sony 12-24mm f/4 G is an extreme ultra-wide zoom that provides a wonderful and uniquely wide field of view while maintaining a relatively compact size, with good sharpness and overall excellent image quality. It’s not a perfect lens, but considering the angle of view, lens size and cost, it’s a great lens.
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:
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II
I owned the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II for about a year at the tail end of my time shooting Canon DSLRs. While this lens was recently updated, and I’ve shot with a lot of impressive telephoto zoom lenses over the years, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II is the best I’ve ever shot with. Extremely sharp, with great bokeh and wonderful color, fast autofocus and a tank-like build quality, this lens is worth every penny of its $2,100 asking price.
While I’ve shot with many excellent telephoto zooms for mirrorless systems, none have approached the overall quality of the Canon. While the short telephoto f/2.8 zooms from Panasonic, Olympus, Fujifilm and Sony are all very good lenses, Canon has a lock on this category. If I were doing honorable mentions for this category, #2 would be the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS and #3 would be the Canon EF 80-200mm f/2.8L (The Magic Drainpipe.)
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.