A Single Mirrorless Mount
Sony introduced its mirrorless E mount a decade ago, along with its first NEX series cameras. It’s gained a lot of traction in the market, with more recent full-frame entries outpacing similar cameras from industry stalwarts Canon and Nikon in sales.
Sony’s earned its perch. The a7 III is our top-rated full-frame model for most users, and it offers specialized models—the a7R IV for high-resolution capture, the a9 II for high-speed, blackout-free shooting, and the a7S II for video and photography in minimal light. They’re joined by a number of general-purpose APS-C models, ranging from the basic a6100 to the premium a6600.
The system has broad appeal, with entry-level models available to get you started down your journey as a visual artist, and more advanced options to meet the needs of demanding professionals.
Why Get a New Lens?
Assuming you have at least one lens for it already, your camera is able to make photos. But there are reasons to buy a new one. The most basic is to change your perspective. Ultra-wide lenses capture huge swaths of the world, and macro optics can hone in on the finest details.
Picking the type of lens you want to buy should be your first step—we’ll break down the differences between macro, telephoto, wide-angle, and other lenses in a bit. But there are some things to ask about with any lens you buy. (Feel free to skip ahead to the next section if you know your way around lenses.)
There are basics, like buying a lens that works with your camera, because systems are not generally cross-compatible. But also things like making sure you get one that provides proper coverage for your camera. You can always use a full-frame lens on an APS-C sensor model, but you’ll have a lot of limitations if you go the other way.
Autofocus is another. Sony doesn’t sell any manual focus lenses, but others do. Third parties like Venus and Voigtlander only sell manual focus glass, but others like Samyang, Rokinon, and Zeiss have both autofocus and manual focus lines.
Optical stabilization may be important, depending on your camera. Sony designates stabilized lenses by including OSS in the name. But most full-frame camera models offer in-body stabilization (IBIS), and some APS-C cameras do as well. If your camera has IBIS, looking for a stabilized lens isn’t quite as important, but you should still search out the feature when buying a telephoto lens.
The focal length and aperture are important numbers to look at too. Lower “mm” numbers mean a lens captures a wider angle of view, and the smaller the f-stop number is, the more light a lens can capture. Prime lenses often open to f/1.4 or f/2, and if you use them at those settings you’ll be able to capture images with blurred backgrounds.
If you’re a newbie, you will have to take a little care in choosing lenses. Sony still sells some for its all-but-discontinued A-mount SLR system. It’s been years since a new camera or A-mount lens was released, and we don’t recommend it to photographers starting fresh.
It’s the mirrorless system, which uses the E mount, that you’ll want to look at, and you want to make sure you get lenses that work with your camera. It is possible to adapt A-mount lenses if you already own some, but we don’t recommend investing in them today—E-mount options perform better, generally speaking.
Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS
Sony’s naming system is pretty straightforward. If a lens is called E, it works with its mirrorless cameras and covers the APS-C sensor area. You can still use these lenses with full-frame cameras with reduced resolution, but if you have a full-frame model, you’ll generally want a full-frame lens.
The full-frame line is designated as FE. These lenses project an image circle big enough to cover a 24-by-36mm image sensor, and offer some level of dust and splash protection, absent from E lenses. If you own an APS-C model with similar protection, you may want to keep an FE lens or two in your bag for use in inclement weather.
While it may lead to some confusion, there is a real practical benefit for two sensor sizes to share the same lens mount. It offers a more attractive upgrade path for APS-C owners mulling a full-frame upgrade. It’s also a plus for photographers who own multiple bodies with varying sensor sizes—there’s no need to buy two full sets of lenses.
Third parties also sell lenses for the Sony system. Sigma uses a DC designation for its APS-C lenses, and DG for full-frame models. Zeiss opts for Touit for APS-C, and Batis and Loxia lines for full-frame. To date, Tamron has only produced lenses for the full-frame system.
Some third parties aren’t as strict when it comes to naming lenses, so just take care to check and make sure you’re buying the right lens for your sensor size. Autofocus lenses from Rokinon (also sold under the Samyang banner) have all covered full-frame, but the company also sells manual focus glass with APS-C coverage only; the same is true for Venus Laowa.
Adapting lenses to the Sony system is also an option. If you’re happy with autofocus, you can mount pretty much any vintage lens, assuming someone has brought the right adapter to market. We tried a bunch of manual Leica and Pentax lenses with the original a7 back when it launched, and the experience is much the same today, though improved thanks to better EVFs and in-body stabilization.
When it comes to adapting with autofocus, Canon EF SLR lenses are the most popular choices. You can get an adapter from Fotodiox, Metabones, or Sigma, which makes the transition from a Canon to Sony system a bit more pleasant on the wallet. Performance can be compromised—you should definitely use native lenses when autofocus speed matters.
Where to Start?
Now that you have an idea of what lenses will work with your Sony mirrorless camera, it’s time to figure out what type of lens you’re looking to buy. Most photographers start with a standard zoom.
If you use an APS-C model, it will come bundled with the small 16-50mm, a retractable power zoom, or the more premium 18-135mm, which offers a longer zoom ratio. Sony used to sell an 18-55mm kit zoom, but it’s no longer on the market.
If you still use an 18-55mm, or are looking for a zoom with slightly better image quality, there are options. Sony sells a Zeiss-branded 16-70mm F4, and there is also an 18-200mm available for superzoom fans.
You can check out reviews of many of the available standard zoom lenses below. Our current favorites include the E 16-55mm F2.8 G and E 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 OSS, both of which earned our Editors’ Choice award.
The Best Standard Zoom Lenses (APS-C)
You’ll notice that APS-C zooms have wider focal lengths than full-frame models. That’s due to the difference in sensor size. The 16-50mm lens attached to an APS-C body mirrors the view of a 24-75mm lens for a full-frame system. So, when we talk standard zooms for full-frame models, we start around 24mm.
Sony bundles the basic FE 28-70mm zoom with some entry-level full-frame models, but most of its a7 and a9 cameras are sold without a bundled lens. That leaves it up to you to choose the starter. Sony’s high-end option is the FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM, and is likely the go-to option for pros.
But there are other good ways to go for less money. Tamron’s budget-friendly 28-75mm F2.8 has won accolades from many, including PCMag, and Sony’s FE 24-105mm F4 OSS is a solid choice for travel thanks to a bit more zoom power. Both earned our Editors’ Choice, as did the Sigma 24-70mm F2.8.
The Best Standard Zoom Lenses (Full Frame)
Get a Big, Wide-Angle View
Photographers love to reach for a wide-angle lens to capture a vast landscape view, or to get really close to a subject, while still giving context to the surroundings. They’re useful tools, and one should be in the bag of every serious shooter.
There are a few wide-angle options for APS-C owners. Sony has its 10-18mm zoom, and third parties like Venus and Zeiss offer wide-angle prime lenses for the sensor format.
If you’re willing to delve into manual focus lenses, there are many other unique ultra-wide options available, from makers like Rokinon and 7artisans. We hope to review more of those soon, and we’ll add them here when we do.
The Best Wide Angle Lenses (APS-C)
For full-frame users, Sony offers the FE 12-24mm, which is not only dramatically wide, but also quite compact. If you’re willing to go manual focus, you can get even more dramatic views with the Voigtlander 10.5mm F5.6 prime, and Sony offers a pair of autofocusing 16-35mm zooms for photographers who want a bit more midrange coverage from an ultra-wide zoom.
The Best Wide Angle Lenses (Full Frame)
Go Long With Telephoto
Telephoto lenses perform the opposite function of wide angles. They offer narrow angles of view, perfect for capturing distant subjects. Sony only offers two dedicated APS-C telezooms, the budget-friendly E 55-210mm and premium E 70-350mm G.
The Best Telephoto Lenses (APS-C)
If you want more zoom power, there’s no reason not to pair a full-frame telephoto lens with an APS-C camera. Many telephotos don’t really benefit from a cost or size savings by restricting coverage to the APS-C sensor area, and are pricey prospects to begin with.
There are a lot more choices when it comes to full-frame telephotos as well. Pros will love an F2.8 model, like the Sony 70-200mm GM or Tamron 70-180mm, while sports and wildlife specialists will likely look to something longer, like the FE 100-400mm or 200-600mm.
The Best Telephoto Lenses (Full Frame)
Some of these lenses can be extended further using a teleconverter; when it’s possible, it’s noted in the review. One lens we’ve not yet reviewed or formally previewed is the high-end FE 400mm F2.8, but you can read our report of shooting a rugby match with it.
Fix Your View With a Standard Prime
The traditional definition of a standard angle, roughly 40-60mm in full-frame terms, is a bit restrictive. We classify standard primes starting at 24mm, and ranging up to around 75mm. Longer focal lengths are classified as portrait lenses—though certainly not limited to that purpose.
In APS-C terms, that anything between 16mm and 45mm, and there are several options from both Sony and third parties covering the range. We really like Sigma’s line of F1.4 primes for value and quality, and the Sony E 20mm for its slim form factor.
The Best Standard Prime Lenses (APS-C)
The standard prime should have an angle of view that’s versatile enough to replace a zoom as an everyday lens for the right photographer. Not everyone has the same eye, or preference for angle of view, so think about one that’s a bit wider if you skew toward the wide-angle look, but don’t quite want to go all in. Others may prefer the classic standard angle, closer to 50mm.
You don’t have to restrict yourself to a single option, though. We do recommend that your first prime is one that’s close to your favorite setting on your main zoom lens. There are loads from which to choose.
The Best Standard Prime Lenses (Full Frame)
Sigma’s Art SLR Lenses for Sony Mirrorless
While many full-frame prime lenses are built for Sony from the ground up, Sigma does sell several of its Art series lenses, designed for SLRs, in versions for Sony mirrorless cameras. They’re all excellent optical performers, with strong value pricing, but they’re also a bit bulkier and heavier than native mirrorless designs.
We’ve broken them out here in a separate list:
Get Bokeh With Portrait Specialists
When a photographer shops for a portrait lens, it’s typically for one with a short telephoto focal length. These lenses marry a tight angle of view with a bright aperture. You get the right amount of working distance to snap head or head-and-shoulder shots with a smooth, blurred background.
Of course, you can make portraits with other types of lenses, and use short telephoto lenses for other types of photos, just as you can make a wonderful landscape image with a long telephoto lens.
There aren’t too many dedicated options for APS-C cameras. Sony’s E 50mm F1.8 OSS and Sigma’s 56mm F1.4 DC DN Contemporary are pretty much it.
You can always use a full-frame lens. If you prefer to stay around the 50mm focal length there are several options, and one like the FE 55mm F1.8 ZA would do nice double duty as a short telephoto for APS-C and a standard angle for a full-frame camera.
There are more choices with coverage for a full-frame sensor. If you use an APS-C camera and prefer a longer lens for portraits, there’s no reason not to opt for a full-frame lens. One standout of note, the FE 100mm F2.8 STF GM OSS, is worth special attention. It offers both autofocus and an apodization element to smooth defocused highlights, a rare combination, and the FE 135mm is one of the sharpest lenses we’ve ever tested.
The Best Portrait Lenses (Full Frame)
Magnify the World With Macro
Macro lenses are able to focus very close, so you can bring smaller subjects into clearer view. They’re popular choices for shots of flowers, insects, or the rusty textures that draw in urban explorers and street photographers alike.
There are a pair of dedicated options for APS-C systems—one from Sony and one from Zeiss. But most of the macro lenses sold for Sony cameras are designed for full-frame.
The Best Macro Lenses (APS-C)
When shopping for a macro lens, you should take some things into consideration. The magnification ratio is one. It tells you how much macro power the lens has at its closest distance. A rating of 1:1 means that subjects are projected onto the image sensor at life-size, while a lens with 1:2 macro captures them at half life-size.
Focal length is another. Most 1:1 macro lenses are longer focal lengths. The E 30mm F3.5 Macro, an APS-C lens, is a rare standard-angle 1:1 option, but it means the working distance is very short. To net full magnification, the front element of the lens is only centimeters from the subject. Longer focal lengths offer more working distance, which helps you avoid casting shadows.
The Best Macro Lenses (Full Frame)
Glass for Artists
Modern lenses are great. They’re sharp, with fast apertures, quick autofocus, resistance to flares—the whole nine yards. But sometimes it’s the imperfect image that gets the most Instagram likes or helps sell a wedding package.
Boutique makers like Lensbaby and Lomography offer fully manual lenses with a variety of interesting designs. You can find lenses with optical designs dating back to the 19th century, others with a soft focus effect, and some with a unique selective focus capability.
We’ve highlighted our favorites, all manual focus and all with unique character, here.
The Best Artistic Manual Focus Lenses (Full Frame)
Get the Right Add-Ons for Your Camera
You should now have a better idea of what types of lenses you can add to your Sony mirrorless camera, but you shouldn’t buy a lens without direction or intent. Buy a lens because it fits a need or want in your work, not just to have another thing on the shelf.
There are other add-ons to think about. External lighting is one—an on-camera flash, off-camera strobes, or even a collapsible reflector will help you take control of lighting. And a good tripod is something every photographer should own. Video specialists should think about getting a gimbal for stabilization and a microphone. Creatives can also look at lens filters and add-ons, like the Lensbaby Omni system.
If you’re still getting started on your photographic journey, be sure to check out our tips for making better images. We’ve also put together a guide for enthusiasts, and offer a list of tools to consider if you’re interested in vlogging.