Best lenses for mirrorless systems
June 19, 2020
If you’ve recently bought into a mirrorless system, or are perhaps on the verge of investing in your first mirrorless camera, you might find yourself in a quandary as to what lenses to buy and knowing where your money is best spent. There’s a lot to consider when it comes to building up a selection of lenses that are well suited to your style of photography, and if you happen to be a photographer making the switch from DSLR to mirrorless, it’s crucial you study your options carefully, as there’s often a lot of money at stake.
For many, the natural route into a new camera system is to sell or trade in any existing kit and start out by purchasing the zoom lens that’s sold as part of a bundle with the mirrorless camera you’ve chosen. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach, we are all likely at some stage to reach the limitations of working with a single lens. This can provoke us into looking at what other lenses are available.
To give you a better idea of the finest lenses that are currently available for each mirrorless system, we set about the task of identifying the top three lenses we’ve been most impressed with, and that would be high on our wish list if we were buying into a mirrorless system for the first time. It should be stressed that the recommendations we’ve made over the following pages are strictly subjective; alas, they won’t be the first choice for everyone, or meet all photographers’ budgets. That said, if you do choose to buy one or more lenses from those we endorse, we can confidently say you won’t be disappointed in your purchase and they will provide excellent service.
Best RF lenses for Canon mirrorless systems
Canon was a latecomer to the full-frame mirrorless market, but since the arrival of its first two full-frame cameras, we’ve seen the selection of RF-mount lenses for the EOS R system grow steadily beyond the four lenses that were initially announced alongside the Canon EOS R. It’ll take years, decades even, before the number of RF lenses exceeds the vast selection of EF-mount lenses Canon has produced for its DSLRs since 1987, but already we’ve seen some superb examples.
With the company’s most advanced mirrorless camera – the EOS R5 – apparently days away from its official release, Canon has clearly set its sights on making sure it has a strong lineup of fast, premium lenses waiting in the wings. Three of Canon’s finest RF lenses form what the manufacturer has branded its ‘trinity’ range, covering ultra-wide, standard and telephoto zoom ranges, for shooting in any situation from landscapes, portraits and sports, to interiors, fashion and cityscapes.
Photographers after a fast wideangle zoom are well served by the Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM (£2,299), which is a stunning example of its type. Filters and adapters are easy to attach via its 82mm thread and, like many of Canon’s RF lenses, it benefits from a near-silent Nano USM motor and control ring that lets you to take control of ISO, aperture or shutter speed on the fly directly from the lens.
The finest standard zoom in the RF lineup by our reckoning is the Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM (£2,229). This razor-sharp lens, with its professional L-series status, weather sealing and 5-stop image stabiliser is extremely versatile, is a delight to use in low light, and creates extremely attractive bokeh at wide apertures.
There’s only one lens in question when it comes to the best telephoto zoom for EOS R cameras and that’s the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM (£2,599). The sharpness it resolves into the corners when used wide open is exquisite. It’s smaller and more compact than EF-mount equivalents when the barrel isn’t extended and is currently the only RF lens to have a white heat shield coating. Dual Nano USM motors also guarantee an incredibly fast continuous-focusing response.
Canon’s lineup for its EOS M mirrorless cameras is limited to just eight lenses, along with only four third-party autofocus options. We’d be tempted to base a system around Canon’s versatile zoom, the EF-M 18-150mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM (£429) that’s equivalent to 29-240mm in 35mm terms, then complement it with two fast primes for low-light shooting, the sublime Sigma 16mm f1.4 DC DN (£389) wideangle and Canon’s EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM (£429).
Best Z lenses for Nikon mirrorless systems
Nikon hit the ground running with its entry into the mirrorless market, launching two fabulous full-frame cameras in 2018 with the Z 6 and Z 7, which both went on to pick
our coveted Gold Award in their respective reviews. In the space of two years, Nikon has broadened its lineup of Z-mount lenses beyond the two primes (Z 35mm f/1.8 S and Z 50mm f/1.8 S) and one standard zoom (Z 24-70mm f/4 S) it launched alongside its pair of Z-series cameras. While the Z mount is still in its infancy, with 11 full-frame lenses released thus far, Nikon has already created some remarkable optics for the serious enthusiast and professional alike.
One such lens that excelled on test was the Z 14-30mm f4 S. Wideangle zooms can be quite big and bulky items to cart about, but that’s not the case with this lens, which weighs under 500g. It’s 30% lighter than Nikon’s F-mount AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR and is remarkably compact thanks to its retractable design. The size of the lens complements Nikon Z-series cameras superbly, and with a detachable hood and 82mm filter thread, it allows users to attach filters, adapter rings and filter holders simply and more cheaply than buying an expensive filter system specially made for ultra-wideangle lenses.
Our second choice is the mighty Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S (£1,999). Nikon’s fast standard zoom for the Z series packs a serious punch when it comes to performance and, just as you’d expect from a lens with pro-spec status, employs advanced optics, fluid zoom ring and extensive weather sealing. Advanced features like the control ring, L-Fn button and information panel that can be set to display focal length, focus distance or aperture are the icing on the cake. It’s our favourite Z-mount zoom lens we’ve laid hands on thus far.
For portrait lovers and Z-series users after a fast telephoto prime, the Z 85mm f1.8 S (£709) is a standout candidate. During our testing we found it combines brilliantly with Nikon’s highly effective Eye Detection AF to capture flattering portraits and striking documentary images. Better still, it’s a match to the demanding high-resolution of Nikon’s Z 7 and rests comfortably in your palm when it’s supported handheld. In short, it’s sublime.
At present, Nikon has released two DX-format lenses for its only APS-C mirrorless camera, the Z 50. These include the DX 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR and DX 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR. What with the Z 50 being extremely well received by critics, it’ll be interesting to see how Nikon plans to develop and expand its lineup of DX lenses. We’d like to see Nikon make a smaller, more affordable version of its Z 35mm f/1.8 for its DX cameras.
Best E Mount lenses for Sony mirrorless systems
Sony has been building its full-frame mirrorless system for longer than any other manufacturer, and its considerable head start over the likes of Canon and Nikon translates to a much wider lens range. Not only does it offer 30 full-frame lenses of its own, but its early decision to open up the E mount to third-party manufacturers means that plenty of excellent alternatives are available from the likes of Tamron, Samyang, Sigma, Voigtländer and Zeiss. Overall, there’s such an embarrassment of riches that narrowing it down to three lenses has been particularly difficult.
This is especially the case when it comes to picking a standard zoom, where Sigma’s 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN Art looks like a strong contender, while the Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM is superb, but huge and very expensive. But we’ve chosen the Sony FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS (£999), whose relatively compact size balances better on Sony’s small full-frame bodies. Its useful zoom range, effective optical stabilisation and fine optics round off a particularly versatile general-purpose lens.
There’s an equally strong set of options when picking a wide zoom. But we were really impressed by Tamron’s lightweight 17-28mm F2.8 Di III RXD, which offers a winning combination of portability and excellent sharpness from corner to corner. Its sub-£800 street price also counts strongly in its favour.
The third choice on our list is something of a luxury option, given its £1,199 price. But the Zeiss Batis 40mm F2 CF is an absolutely sublime lens that ticks all of the boxes, with weatherproof build, speedy AF, and superlative image quality. Its handy 1/3 lifesize close focusing is the icing on the cake.
Perhaps surprisingly, Sony’s APS-C lens lineup is nowhere near as inspiring as its full-frame range, despite originating three years earlier. But last year the firm revived it by adding two premium zooms, which immediately become our top recommendations.
The E 16-55mm F2.8 G is a surprisingly compact weather-sealed fast zoom with stellar optics, although its £1,079 price tag may be hard to swallow. It’s complemented perfectly by the E 70-350mm F4.5-6.3 G OSS telezoom, which offers an unusually long 105-525mm-equivalent range for £799.
Finally, we’d add a fast prime, with Sigma’s wonderful 56mm F1.4 DC DN getting the nod as a great portrait lens that works well with Sony’s class-leading Eye AF technology.
Best X Mount lenses for Fujifilm mirrorless systems
Fast primes are Fujifilm’s forte. We’d complement a couple with the 16-80mm f/4 standard zoom.
With a good head start on some of the latecomers to the mirrorless market, Fujifilm isn’t short of lenses for its popular X series. If you head to Fujifilm’s website and study the range of X-mount lenses, you’ll find no fewer than 17 primes covering focal lengths between 14mm and 200mm, with 12 zooms covering a range of 8mm to 400mm. The number of third-party options is somewhat limited due to Fujifilm’s hesitancy to share how its sensor and AF systems work with the likes of Tamron and Sigma, but manufacturers like Samyang produce excellent manual-focus lenses for Fuji X-series cameras and Zeiss Touit lenses have an advantage in that they support autofocus.
Picking three lenses wasn’t an easy task, but if we had to head out with any we’d include the XF 16-80mm F4 R OIS WR (£659) in our kitbag. It’s a great general-purpose companion when you’re travelling and want to shoot wide one minute and longer the next, but don’t have time or inclination to swap lenses. Its 6-stop optical stabilisation, fast and silent autofocus, weather-resistant build quality and a strong optical performance are reasons to choose it.
To complement our choice of standard zoom, we’d pack a couple of primes – the XF 23mm f2 R WR (£429) and XF 56mm f1.2R (£799) being two of our favourites. The former is a compact, weather-resistant lens that has a 35mm-equivalent focal length, accepts small 43mm filters and pairs up just as well with smaller camera bodies such as the X-T30 as it does with Fujifilm’s premium X-T4 and X-Pro3. As for the XF 56mm f1.2R, this is capable of producing mesmerising results. Equivalent to 84mm, it’s a must-have for anyone specialising in portraiture. Every time we use it, we’re left astounded by the bokeh and unique look it creates when used wide open.
Fujifilm’s medium-format GFX mirrorless system has only been in existence for three years, yet already it’s supported by seven primes and three zooms. We’ve used many of these while testing the GFX 50S, GFX 50R and GFX 100, with the GF 32-64mm f4 R LM WR (£2149) demonstrating that it’s quite a remarkable standard zoom that can happily cope with resolutions up to 100MP. The best medium-telephoto lens for portraiture is the GF 110mm f2 R LM WR (£2,599), which is equivalent to 87mm.
We’re also hugely fond of the GF50mm F3.5 R LM WR (£949) – the smallest GF lens for the GFX system to date that feels right at home on the smallest and lightest GFX camera, the GFX 50R.
Best M43 lenses for Olympus mirrorless systems
Olympus has been building up its Micro Four Thirds range for well over a decade, and it now offers a decent selection of 24 lenses, including 10 in the premium Pro line. It also makes a couple of inexpensive ‘body cap’ lenses, a set of adapter optics for its 14-42mm kit zoom, and a pair of teleconverters for its high-end telephotos. Naturally, Olympus camera owners can also use Panasonic lenses, along with third-party options from the likes of Sigma, Tamron, Samyang and Laowa.
While the relatively small Four Thirds sensor brings some disadvantages with respect to image quality, in return it provides real benefits in terms of optical design. Most obviously, lenses can be made extremely small and light. But it’s also possible to build larger lenses with truly superb optical quality, which Olympus has fully exploited in its Pro-series offerings. Our selection accordingly includes one large but exceptional zoom, complemented by two tiny fast primes.
First is the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4 IS Pro, a weather-sealed superzoom that provides a 24-200mm equivalent range.
Such lenses are more familiarly found in the middle of manufacturers’ ranges, aimed at photographers who value convenience over sharpness. But Olympus has made an unashamedly high-end optic that packs all kinds of exotic glass to deliver impressive image quality. It’s also one of only two Olympus lenses to include optical stabilisation, which works together with the camera’s in-body stabilisation to unmatched effect. It’s an expensive lens for sure, at around £1,000, but this reflects the fact that it’s probably the best of its type on the market. Users on a tighter budget could consider the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-200mm F3.5-6.3, which costs around £729, but isn’t quite as stellar in optical terms.
Compact prime lenses
The 12-100mm is a relatively bulky beast, so we’d complement it with a couple of lenses at the other end of the Micro Four Thirds spectrum. Olympus makes a fine set of small, lightweight and relatively affordable primes with apertures in the f/1.8-f/2.8 range, which we think provide a better value proposition for most users than the firm’s pricey f/1.2 offerings. It’s possible to make a case for any of them, but we’ve plumped for the M.Zuiko Digital 17mm F1.8 (£399), which is a great little general-purpose lens. We also recommend the M.Zuiko Digital 45mm F1.8, which is perfect for portraits and boasts a bargain street price of around £169.
Best M43 lenses for Panasonic mirrorless systems
It’s tempting to view the entire Micro Four Thirds lens range as one homogenous whole, but while you can happily use Olympus lenses on Panasonic cameras and vice versa, you’ll often get the best performance by sticking with one brand. This is especially true with Panasonic, as its Depth from Defocus autofocus technology works most reliably with its home-grown lenses. Many of its lenses also boast optical stabilisation, which works in concert with the in-body stabilisation found in its more recent cameras for enhanced effect.
Panasonic offers an even wider choice than Olympus, with 30 different lenses. The set we’ve chosen showcases Micro Four Thirds’ ability to offer a vast focal-length range with high image quality, via three superb zooms. Together, they cover a staggering 16-800mm equivalent range, while weighing in at a grand total of 1,620g, which is comparable to a full-frame 100-400mm zoom on its own.
Our standard and wideangle choices are the Leica DG 12-60mm F2.8-4 OIS and Leica DG 8-18mm F2.8-4, which cost £799 and £899 respectively. Both feature top-quality optics that deliver impressive corner-to-corner sharpness, along with robust weather-sealed build and fast, silent autofocus. The latter in particular is a standout option for Micro Four Thirds users, with its ability to employ 67mm screw-in filters making it a fine choice for landscape photographers.
Joining them on our list is the Leica DG 100-400mm F4-6.3 OIS (£1,199), which provides a vast 200-800mm-equivalent zoom, while still being sufficiently small and light to shoot handheld with ease. The major downside is its slow maximum aperture, which requires the ISO to be pushed up in even moderately poor light. Even so, it’s a unique option for wildlife and action photography.
Full-frame: the L-Mount alliance
This is the second longest-running full-frame mirrorless mount, and with the support of Sigma and Panasonic as well as Leica, it’s starting to build up into a really interesting system that’s packed full of superlative optics. We’re huge fans of Sigma’s little 45mm F2.8 DC DN (£499), thanks to its fine optics, robust build, and traditional aperture ring. Naturally, Leica also makes a range of fabulous lenses, with the APO-Summicron-SL 35mm F2 ASPH being a standout performer, but with a £3,900 price tag to match. Finally, for Panasonic S1R users, the Lumix S Pro 24-70mm F2.8 (£2,199) is the ideal match for the sensor’s stunning 47.3MP resolution.