The Top 17 Most Outstanding Lenses on the Market

In Gear by Jim Harmer80 Comments

A side-view of many sports photographers with various lenses on their DSLR cameras.

DSLR lenses

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.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.


  1. Thanks for putting the Canon 50mm f/1.4 on this list. Don’t let the price fool you; this is one sharp lens. Especially so when you can get the aperture around f/7.1.

    1. Author

      Both! All of these lenses work on crop sensor cameras, but there are a few that will only fit crop sensor. I didn’t really take that into account in deciding which lenses to include. If it is an outstanding lens, it’s in the running–no matter what format lens it is designed for.

  2. Nice lenses, do you forget to mention canon EF-S 17-50mm f/2.8 lens, In my 7D I keep this lens all the time and what about Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens quickly became one of my favorite for my 5D mark II

  3. Bookmarked and will be returned to for reference and shared with friends near and far 😉 Thanks so much for compiling this list of awesome 😀

  4. I like the Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 2/100 ZF.2 (Nikon mount). Like all current Zeiss SLR lenses, it’s manual focus, but it is incredibly sharp, the colors are awesome, and it’s a joy to work with.

  5. Canon EF 70-200mm f4L is also outstanding lenses because of its price. I i’m not wrong this is the cheapest from L series, but IQ is still perfect

  6. Thank you so much for this informational post! I’m making the plunge to my first L series lens in the next couple of weeks and I’m very torn. I’d like the 70-200 2.8 but also shoot newborns in my home studio. It is quite large but Im worried I wont have the space…You said you use it for portraits, is that only outdoor? Would love your advice 🙂 Thanks!!!

  7. So you listed the Lens Trinity for Nikon.
    What’s your take on the 10-24mm for an amateur? The 14-24mm is quite out of my budget.

  8. Good list but where’s the Canon EF-S 17-55 f2.8? In my mind it’s the best travel photography lens you can buy (and mine’s been on many round the world adventures).

  9. Great article for Canon and Nikon users… but I’m disappointed to noticed that as everywhere else you forgot about 3rd camera and lens maker. What about Olympus 4/3 system. I know there is only around 10% pro users with OLY in their hands, but ZUIKO lenses are one of the best on the market and many photogs use converters to use them on their Nikon and Canon bodies due to incredible glass quality of many high and medium level lenses. example… when you buy Canon 70-200mm 2.8 lens on OLYMPUS you can get 35-100mm 2.0 that is far smaller, lighter and sharper than its counterparts. there are many more comparisons… but not needed. I think you should rename the article THE MOST OUTSTANDING LANSES ON THE MARKET FOR CANON AND NIKON and make a new article titled ZUIKO LENSES THAT BEAT THEM ALL… 🙂

    1. Roman, I agree about the title, however, I think the Fujifilm X-System’s Fujinon optics would give canon and Nikon a run for their money, especially in the sharpness department! (Just to cite one example, the Fujinon XF90 f/2 is insanely sharp, and has been named “the sharpness king” by at least one popular review site….And I’ve used Nikon, Pentax, as well.) Thank you.

  10. In reference to the Tamron 28-75, have you tried the Sigma 24-70? Just curious how those compare.

    1. Author

      @Tyler, I have not tried the Sigma 24-70. I would also be interested to see how they compare. I was EXTREMELY surprised at how well the Tamron performed. I had written off Tamron lenses before trying that one.

  11. The lenses seem well choosen for the current DSLR market. However, your selection also shows only a small portion of outstanding lenses. While this is highly subjective, quite some people might agree that lenses like Leica’s Noctilux 50 mm f/1.0 or f/0.95, Carl Zeiss Hasselblad 110 mm f/2.0 or 180 mm f/4 and Carl Zeiss Contax 80 mm f/2.0 are outstanding, to name a few. Same goes for Large Format lenses.
    There is a difference in the way the different lenses perform, some are ‘smoother’, others are sharper etc.
    Still, your post offers the ‘ever hungry for more gear DSLR’ group a lot.

  12. Great list of Canon. A couple of them are already in my shopping list. 24-70mm and 50mm. The list came out just in time…Cheers mate.
    Namaste from Kathmandu, Nepal

  13. I’ve got the sigma 24-70 2.8,sigma 24 1.8,and sigma 50 1.4, on my 550d (I like flashless closeups)
    I went all sigma because of price, as third party lenses I firmly believe these are absolutely great value and fantastic “bang” for bucks
    The 50 1.4 is actually slightly more than the canon but the boke is better
    the only canon I really want is the 70-200 IS, but sigma have a new one out too at half the price

  14. Sigma 30mm f/1.4 would be worth mentioning as well. It’s for APS-C DSLRs only but I’d say this was my best buy of my life! Also Canon 70-200 f/4 is great. Both lenses ‘do’ excellent images, thought the Sigma is a bit soft when stopped down to its maximum aperture…

  15. I switched from Nikon to Sony and have a Zeiss 24-70 on my A900, a fantastic lens but I have to agree with you about the Tamron. I have used that as well and it is hard to see why the Zeiss costs so much more, apart from the fact that it seems to be twice as heavy.

  16. I’m surprised you didn’t include the Canon 18 – 200 as all comparison tests I’ve read rate it with higher image quality than the Nikon counterpart.

  17. Hi. I just purchased the Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro usm, and it’s outstanding for bugs. In fact, that’s all I’ve shot with it. Put 65mm worth of extension tubes on it, and it’s even better.

  18. I went to my supplier site to buy one ..
    The Tamron AP 28-75mm f/2.8 XR ZL Di LD Aspherical Lens
    is reportedly NOT compatible with the Canon Full frame 1ds or 5d

  19. Canon 50 1.4, really? One of the worst fast 50’s on the market. How the heck is this an outstanding lens? Soft wide open, doesn’t have true USM, known for AF motor failure, poor build quality. Yes, outstanding indeed.

  20. How can you possibly include the Canon 50mm f/1.4 on this list?
    It’s probably the worst lens that Canon have ever made – build quality is poor, AF is very poor and it’s not critically sharp until you step it down which defeats the point of it being f/1.4.

    For 50mm lenses for Canon the only sensible options are Canon 50mm f/1.2L or Sigma 50mm f/1.4 (which is massively better in every respect than the Canon f/1.4)

    I own (and have owned) a lot of different lenses and the Canon 50mm f/1.4 is the only lens I regret buying.

    As for macro lenses, the Sigma 150mm with OS is amazing.

  21. That’s one good list! Since you have listed the Nikon 24-70/2.8, which for now is out of my price range! Due you think its predecessor the 28-70/2.8 second hand would still be a good buy?

  22. The Tamron 28-75 was the first lens I bought in 2006 with my Rebel XT. The lens developed sharp, colorful photos. It is a great buy for the money. HOWEVER, it did not work too well indoors. It would struggle to focus and I missed a lot of candid shots because of it. I also found the 28mm wide angle a bit limiting. I replaced it with the Canon 24-105. That’s a great lens and I wish it would’ve made your list.

  23. As a canon shooter for 20 years, the best (full frame) lenses in my opinion, in this order are (money no object):

    1. 200 f/2
    2. 135 f/2
    3. 85 f/1.2 II
    4. 35 f/1.4
    5. 100 f/2.8 Macro
    6. 24-105 f/4

    The first lens lens to buy would be the 35 1.4L. I don’t shoot lover than 200mm or wider than 24mm.

  24. Jim-
    I appreciate the time you spend reviewing and compiling these lists. It’s always good to have another perspective. I’m a Nikon shooter so I can’t speak to anything outside of this brand. I do own all of the Nikon lens you list except the used car (400mm f/2.8). I must say that the highest quality lens I have used is the Nikon 85mm 1.4D. Like I told my class, when I pull out that lens an Angelic Choir sings and pixie dust flys out the end. I understand the flexibility that both 24x70mm and the 70x200mm provide and I use them both extensively for portraits. But, when (like Eddie in Christmas Vacation)you want to get something real nice I go the 85mm first.

    1. That is like me and my 200 F2 VRII. When you want your best GF out she comes. 85 1.4d is next best GF. Both are fine fine fine. I fell upon the 200 f2 VRII had the money in my pocket and have been in LOVE every since.

  25. I’m a wedding/event photographer and my BEST lens is the Canon 24-105 f4.
    I use this lens for 95% of my pictures. It is sharp and well balanced.

    (I do have other lenses)

    I use the 16-35 f2.8 Canon lens for the other 5%

    I am supprised that this workhorse lens wasn’t mentioned.

  26. @royreddy I have the Tamron 28-75/2.8 and use it with my Canon 5DII…it is designed for full frame cameras.

    Which 100mm/2.8 Canon are you referring to, the USM or the pricier L version??

  27. I agree with all except the 28-300 mm. I bought it and returned after 48 hrs. It jumped to f/5.6 around 150mm. I would rather use my 70-200 with a 1.7 TC; sharper and faster.

  28. Just well not say about portrait photography, we change to all category of photography range, the much more suitable in the range , let say Canon, the choice like 17-40L, 16-35L, 24-70L, 70-200L and 50mm is likely to be the perfect combination on all round photography category.

    Probably there might be people who like me are lazy, you can try 28-300L plus a 400L for a complete range if you are more in extreme photography or sports. Guess so.

  29. Hi Jim, I am an amateur photographer and in search of a good all around lens to use for portraits (mainly family, babies and maternity). I have my nikkor 35mm 1.8g and been using it for babies. On a recent shoot (family group of 11), I tried using this lens and I wasn’t as comfortable as my 18-105mm f3.5 (kit lens with my D90). So, now, I am in search of a good zoom lens. Would you suggest the Tamron AF 28-75mm f/2.8 SP XR Di LD Aspherical (IF)? Will it work with my D90?

    1. Author

      @Carol, yes the Tamron 28-75 will work with your D90 and yes I would definitely recommend it. It’s a very nice lens for a very nice price.

  30. Thank you for including both Cannon and Nikon in this lens review. I have a Nikon, and do get tired of people being so vocal in one court or the other. And thanks for the info – I have put a few of these on my Amazon wish list!

  31. Jim, have you had a chance to try the Canon 24 to 105 f4 L. ?

    I have been using it for a couple of years and find that range is perfect for events like weddings. While I would not choose to do so, if I had to I would feel confident in shooting an entire wedding with just this lens on the 5D.

    Thanks for the extensive list. It is most helpful.

  32. Jim,
    I just bought the Nikon D5100. I am an amateur and I am just learning and I would like a recommendation a wide range lens. I would love to be able take great shots of my ten grandchildren.

    1. Author

      @CHeryl – I’d probably choose the Nikon 10-24mm for a wide angle lens, but it really isn’t a great portrait lens…

  33. After reading about your top lens recommendations, I’m ready to rent a few before I purchase. I have the basic Canon EF 85mm f/1:1.8…28-135mm f/1.6…EFS18-200mm f/1.5 lenses for my Canon 60D camera. I’m an intermediate portrait photographer…what 2 lenses will make the biggest difference in my photography…which ones should I try renting first?

  34. What would you recommend for shooting indoor basketball in gyms (with terrible lighting)? 70-200 doesn’t get wide enough for courtside shots.

  35. Most of your list is pretty accurate.
    The Nikkor 28-300 however is a handy lens because of the large focal range, but is optically far from outstanding and just average at best.

  36. I wonder how come you have missed Carl Zeiss 135mm 1.8 lens for Sony dSLR/SLT which is one of the top three lenses of any brands you name it.

    Also, Sony 100mm 2.8 macro is amongst the best macro lenses currently available in the market.

  37. Thanks so much for your list of lenses… and all the other great info on your website (which I just discovered)!!
    I’m interested in the Canon 100mm macro lens, but in your lens lists and associated links… sometimes it references the older/less expensive lens, and sometimes the higher priced L series image stabilized lens… which one do you actually recommend? And is there a better lens for bugs?

  38. thank you for providing us detailed professional view of all best lenses.
    this helps amatuers like me to purchase lenses with confidence.
    i have had the opportunity to buy some stupid lenses due to my ignorance and impulsive buying.

    huge thanks

  39. Hi, I have a nikon d5100 and I’m planning to get a 55-200mm since I already have the kit lens, but I saw this tamron 18-200mm, which do you think is better?

    thank you.

  40. Excellent guide for lenses,could be better if commented on the advantages of newly introduced technology like VR etc.

    1. I own it and it will be the last thing I ever sell. Probably be buried with it. LOL she is by best GF. Never leave home without her.

  41. Thanks for providing this list! I can’t help but get so irritated at the nasty comments. The wonderful art of blogging is sharing our experience and the advice we would give. As for the 50mm 1.4 (canon), I didn’t see it on the list. Am I blind? I saw the 1.8. I agree that the 1.8 is an excellent value. I mean, obviously if you spend more money, you are going to get even better stuff, but for that price, the quality is unbelievable! I actually upgraded to a 1.4. To be honest, I am not sure that it was worth the additional $300. I am really interested in the 35mm L series 1.4. I felt like it would be good for groups up to 4. What do you think? Right now I only have my 50 1.4 and sigma 18-35 1.8. I am really looking for a sharper lens that can go wider than the 50 because I have the 7d mark 11 (crop sensor). Any suggestions? I’m also interested in 14mm 2.8, 85 1.2, 50 1.2 and 70-200 2.8. I’m trying to move towards the L series. What do you think? Is there a lot to be said about this popular L series? Thank you so much! God bless!

  42. What lens would recommend for around 500 dollars that has very good image quality and is around 20-100mm.

  43. Nest time you get to talk with Tokina have them throw in a 100 macro. Little know fact under $400. and very good. Couple other Nikon lens worth a mention. 200-400 F4 VRII & 200F2 VRII. I own both and are fine as frog hair. Yes a little high end. But high end was when I bought the 300-800 f5.6 Sigma Monster and it is as fine as frog hair. All the way across it’s spectrum.

  44. Having experience with both Nikon and Pentax, my current system of choice is the Fujifilm X-System. While all of the above brands make fine lenses, I have been more consistently impressed by the build quality, WR, and, specifically, the sharpness, of Fujinon XF lenses, particularly the XF90 f/2. It’s insanely sharp, fast AF, and built solid as well! Thank you.

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