Unlike most photographers that buy either Canon or Nikon and stick with it, I switched from Canon to Nikon about a year ago. Shooting both brands has helped me to see the advantages and disadvantages of both systems. It also has helped me to know what the best lenses are for both brands. Most beginning and intermediate photographers stick with their kit lenses for a year or two, but eventually they feel like they want more quality. If that's you, then it is time to start figuring out which lenses will give you the best results.
It would be impossible to make a list of lenses that pleases everyone. We all shoot different types of photography on different cameras and we all have different budgets. However, I believe this list is helpful to most photographers who want to become better acquainted with the best lenses for their camera to avoid spending money on junk. In short, you could say that these are the “smash hit” lenses that are popular because of price and broad appeal. There are certainly a dozen or more great lenses that have fantastic optical quality, but are more specialized to a certain group of photographers.
Outstanding Nikon Lenses
Nikon 28-300mm ED VR AF-S Lens – I know of no other lens on the market that offers such fantastic optical quality at such a low price point and with such an OUTSTANDING zoom range. Great photowalk and travel lens and I love that it is FX format. In fact, I would say that, for around $950, this is the best deal on any lens on the market other than the 50mm prime. See my full review of the Nikon 28-300mm lens here.
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S Lens – This lens is outstanding in every way. It is widely (sorry for the pun) considered to be the best wide-angle landscape lens ever produced. I could hardly disagree. This lens is RAZOR SHARP!
Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S Lens – This is NOT the 50mm f/1.8D that we have seen for years. This is the new, updated version of the lens that came out this year with a new silent-wave motor and improved optics that make this lens outstanding. I was thrilled when Nikon announced this lens because I never recommended entry-level Nikons since they don't have a focus motor that was required for the old Nikon Nifty Fifty.
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 ED AF-S Lens – For professional portrait photographers, this is probably the most popular portrait lens on the planet. I personally don't own this lens because I feel more comfortable shooting portraits with a longer focal length, but I am in the minority on this point. This list would be incomplete without this lens.
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II Lens – Many portrait photographers prefer shorter focal length primes for most portraits, but this lens is my personal go-to choice for portraits. I shoot most weddings with the 70-200mm and only feel the need to switch lenses occasionally. Sharp as a tack through most of the focal range, too.
Nikon 400mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S Lens – I know… I know… this lens costs more than many used cars. However, it would be difficult or impossible to argue that there is a better sports lens than the Nikon 400mm f/2.8. I shot it a few months ago and was BLOWN AWAY. Can I give a more positive review of this lens?
Best Canon Lenses
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Lens – Without a doubt, this is the best wide-angle lens available for Canon DSLR cameras (but most people consider it to be slightly inferior to the comparable Nikon 14-24mm). It is sharp as a tack, fast, and has a convenient zoom range; however, I would only recommend this wide-angle lens for photographers with full frame cameras. If you own a crop sensor camera, then I'd get the 10-22mm. If you don't have any idea what I just said, check out this previous post on the difference between wide angle and crop sensor DSLR cameras.
Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L UD Lens – For architectural photographers or landscape photographers who are fanatical about depth-of-field, this lens is the perfect choice. It's sharp and it impresses your friends when you bend the lens. What else could a photographer ask for?
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 USM Lens – At around $99, the price is outstanding and the optical quality for that price is very good. For photographers who like to be close to the subject and don't mind shooting primes for portraits, this lens is the obvious choice.
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM – For professional portrait photographers, this is probably the most popular portrait lens on the planet. I personally don't own this lens because I feel more comfortable shooting portraits with a longer focal length, but I am in the minority on this point. This list would be incomplete without this lens.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 II USM Lens – This is one of the most coveted lenses for Canon portrait photographers. While I personally prefer the convenience of a zoom lens for portraits, there can be no argument that this lens is anything other than outstanding.
Canon EF 100mm Macro Lens – This is truly a fantastic macro lens. Perhaps its greatest feature is the silent-wave motor. The only negative to this lens is that I generally prefer to shoot at a slightly longer focal length than 100mm for macro shots, but this is perfect for any subject that won't move away from the lens (i.e. no bugs). Canon offers a 180mm macro lens, but it is so expensive that there is nothing “outstanding” about it at the price of $1,800.
Canon 135mm f/2 Lens – As I mentioned previously, I tend to prefer zoom lenses for portraiture, but most pros LOVE this lens for portraits. It's screaming fast and has a very convenient focal length.
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM Lens – Many portrait photographers prefer shorter focal lengths for most portraits, but this lens is my go-to choice for portraits. I would feel quite comfortable shooting almost an entire wedding using only this lens.
Best Third-Party Lenses (Usually available for Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Pentax DSLR Cameras)
Tamron AP 28-75mm f/2.8 XR ZL Di LD Aspherical Lens – The good folks at Tamron let me test out this lens a few weeks ago. This specific lens was INCREDIBLE!!! It only costs around $500 and is sharp, fast-focusing, and is a remarkably good macro lens to boot. I was focusing to within 6 inches! Seriously, this lens is a truly outstanding alternative to the Canon and Nikon 24-70mm lenses that cost FOUR TIMES more than this lens. I have no problem saying that this is the most outstanding third-party lens ever made. Here's a link to the Nikon version of this lens. Here's a link to the Canon version of this lens. Here's a link to the Pentax version of this lens. Here's a link to the Sony version of this lens.
Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens – This lens makes the list for being the cheapest high-quality wide-angle lens available. Its fast aperture and advanced optics set it apart from the competition at this price point. This lens is made to fit both Canon, Nikon, and Sony DSLRs. Here's a link to the Canon version. Or here is a link to the Nikon version. Or here is a link to the Sony version.
Sigma 50-500mm Lens – This is the only lens being included on this list that does not have drop dead amazing optics. This lens produces acceptably sharp, but not ridiculously sharp, images. It has a good autofocus and a convenient focal range, but what makes this lens outstanding is that it allows tens of thousands of hobbyist photographers to shoot wildlife and sports who otherwise would not be able to afford a true telephoto lens. Generally, wildlife/sports lenses cost well over $6,000; therefore, the availability of this lens has broken down barriers in the industry and created opportunities for photographers. Here is a link to the Canon version of this lens. Here is a link to the Nikon version of this lens. Here is a link to the Sony version of this lens.