After more than a dozen hours of new research and hands-on testing alongside expert interviews, we’ve updated our guide to the best lenses for new Sony E-mount camera owners. If you’re ready to move beyond the kit lens that came bundled with your camera, we have choices that will let you take sharper photos at night, shoot detailed close-ups of tiny objects, catch all the action of your weekend warrior, create professional-looking portraits, and capture dramatic landscapes.
Sony’s interchangeable-lens cameras come in two flavors: those with full-frame 35mm sensors and those with smaller but still great APS-C sensors. This guide is exclusively for owners of the latter class of camera—we’ll talk about Sony’s lens-mount system in a bit. For now, be assured that whether you own an older NEX-branded Sony camera or a newer a5000- or a6000-series model, these lenses will work just fine on them.
I’ve worked as a professional photographer and digital-imaging consultant for close to 15 years. I’m on the faculty of New York City’s International Center of Photography, and I lead photography workshops around the country. I’ve been covering cameras and photo gear here at The Wirecutter since 2013, getting to shoot with dozens of new cameras and lenses as they become available. I also shoot some of the lifestyle photography you see on our sister site The Sweethome. As a result, I’ve got a keen understanding of current camera technology as well as the features and performance that make a real difference when you’re out shooting.
In researching for the latest version of this guide, I pored over spec sheets for Sony’s entire E-mount lens lineup, read more than 50 reviews, and took our final picks out for some real-world shooting.
Again, while Sony used to market its APS-C mirrorless cameras under the NEX line, the company has since brought them all under the Alpha umbrella. The lenses in this guide will work on both older models like the now-discontinued Sony NEX 7 or the much more recent Sony a6300.
You’ll find any lens’s focal length expressed as a distance in millimeters. A bigger number means a closer, narrower view of the scene. It’s important to understand, though, that the size of the camera’s sensor determines how wide an area you actually see when you look through the lens. For any given lens focal length, a camera with an APS-C sensor shows a narrower view of a scene than a camera with a full-frame sensor.
To standardize this difference in scene coverage between camera sensors, we’ll refer to a lens’s true focal length (the one marked on the lens) as well as to its full-frame sensor equivalent. Listing both numbers gives you a way to accurately compare lenses made for either sensor format. If an APS-C format lens and a full-frame format lens each offer the full-frame equivalent of a 90mm focal length, for example, you’ll know that when you look through either of them on their respective cameras, your view of the scene will be the same.
Here’s a handy tip: Because APS-C sensors offer just two-thirds of the diagonal view of full-frame sensors, you can multiply the focal length of any lens you’d mount on an APS-C camera by 1.5 to get its full-frame equivalent.
The selection of lenses for Sony’s E-mount APS-C cameras is fairly limited compared with that for rival brands. But finding the right balance of price, features, and performance can still be a challenge. For this guide we concentrated largely on fixed-focal-length lenses, ones that don’t zoom. These optics, known to photographers as prime lenses, are typically smaller and lighter than comparably priced zoom lenses, yet they offer better image quality.
We’re assuming that you already own a “kit” lens that came bundled with your camera, something like Sony’s 16-50mm Power Zoom Lens. Our goal in this guide is to recommend lenses that offer significant advantages in focal length and/or light-gathering ability over what you’re currently using. And because this guide is aimed at beginning photographers who are just starting to invest in their gear, we have omitted pro-oriented lenses in the $800-plus price range.
We used a combination of research and expert interviews to create a short list of lenses that met our price and performance requirements, and then we did hands-on testing with them to make our final picks.
One of the best ways for any new photographer to hone their craft is to shoot with a prime lens whose field of view closely mimics that of human vision. Using a prime lens (one that doesn’t zoom), you’ll become much more adept at thinking about composition, actively moving yourself around the scene—zooming with your feet, as the saying goes. The prime lens we recommend as a first purchase for E-mount shooters is the Sony E 35mm f/1.8 OSS lens. While this 50mm-equivalent lens is one of our pricier recommendations, we think the high-quality images it delivers are worth the expense.
If you’re coming from a kit lens, you’ll immediately appreciate our pick’s wide f/1.8 maximum aperture—most kit zooms stop at f/3.5. An aperture this wide lets in a lot more light, allowing you to shoot in dim situations such as concerts, theaters, or birthday parties, as well as outdoors at night, and still use relatively fast shutter speeds to avoid blurry results. The use of short-duration shutter speeds is why photographers typically refer to wide-aperture optics as “fast” lenses. A wide aperture also lets you blur the background to produce a wonderful, creamy, out-of-focus area, referred to as bokeh, that helps to draw attention to your subject.
And because this lens’s focal length nearly matches the natural magnification of the human eye, the images you capture will be a lot like what you see in your head. Even for many seasoned photographers, a “normal view” lens remains their go-to tool. So this is a lens that you’ll likely make good use of long after you’ve bought it.
With a price tag that usually hovers between $400 and $450, the Sony E 35mm f/1.8 OSS isn’t cheap, but it is a solid value for the quality it offers. DxOMark praised it as one of the best 50mm-equivalent prime lenses on any mirrorless camera at the time of its release. In DxOMark’s lab tests, the Sony lens compared very well against the fast-prime pick in our Nikon lens guide, delivering nearly identical sharpness.
Klaus Schroiff of Photozone writes, “At f/4, the lens is essentially as good as it gets on a 24 megapixel sensor. The center [sharpness] is nothing short of outstanding here and the outer image field reaches very good to excellent levels.” Photographer Jordan Steele, on his Admiring Light blog, writes that the lens “focuses quite quickly in almost any situation.” Steele goes on to say, “In dim light, focus definitely slows down, but even in these situations, it’s acceptable in speed and maintains high accuracy.”
And unlike most other standard-focal-length prime lenses, the Sony lens offers built-in image stabilization. This feature allows you to shoot at shutter speeds two to three times slower than normal without having to worry about camera shake; that means sharper images with less color noise, since you can also use a lower ISO setting than is possible with a nonstabilized lens. We talked to Chris Gampat of The Phoblographer about this lens, and while he wasn’t quite as blown away by the sharpness, he praised the combination of image stabilization and a wide f/1.8 aperture, saying, “We strongly recommend it for concert [photography] because of this.”
*At the time of publishing, the price was $170.
If our top pick is beyond your budget, we recommend the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 DN lens. It’s a much cheaper alternative that will still give you good results as long as you have sufficient light. While its image quality lags slightly behind that of our top pick according to DxOMark testing, the Sigma lens is still capable of producing sharp images with little distortion. This 45mm-equivalent lens offers a slightly wider field of view than our top pick, and the all-plastic exterior found on earlier versions of this lens (since upgraded to metal) is more prone to damage, but the most significant distinctions are a narrower f/2.8 maximum aperture and the lack of built-in image stabilization.
Because it lets in less than half the amount of light as our main pick, this Sigma lens will force you to use slower shutter speeds and/or higher ISO settings when you’re shooting indoors or at night. And since you also give up image stabilization, choosing a slower shutter speed may mean risking a blurry image due to camera shake. Its narrower f/2.8 aperture also means you won’t get quite as much soft, creamy, out-of-focus background as you can with the Sony.
For many people, however, those limitations won’t be dealbreakers, especially when the cost savings come into consideration: As of this writing the Sigma lens is priced comfortably under $200, well less than half the price of our top pick.
In this context, the take from professional reviewers has been quite positive. The consensus points to very good center sharpness and pleasing image contrast. Steve Huff writes, “Nope this is NOT your normal budget lens.” Later, Huff says, “I can not believe a lens this cheap can be so good. … From daily snapshots to shooting street scenes from a tour bus it has never caused me to miss a shot. … [At] this price it is hard to beat.” LensTip’s Szymon Starczewski concludes, “You can have some reservations in practically every [performance] category but its affordable price, good image quality, handy and well-done casing make me think I would still like to own it.” Photozone awarded the lens a five-star rating for price/performance, writing, “[It’s] obvious that you are getting lots of bangs for your bucks here.” If you won’t be shooting in low light very often and can live without image stabilization, the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 DN will deliver a lot of pleasing images for just a bit of money.
Several readers have asked about the well-regarded Sigma 30mm F1.4 Contemporary DC DN lens. Independent reviews do show it is significantly sharper than our main pick, suffering only from more noticeable distortion. We still stand by our main pick because it’s a bit faster to focus and has built-in image stabilization, two characteristics that we think will be noticed by most folks on a regular basis. But the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 is a great choice if ultimate image quality is your top priority.
The Sony E 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS is the telephoto zoom we recommend for most Sony shooters.
For well under $400 as of this writing, this 83-315mm–equivalent zoom provides good—though not great—image quality in sufficient light. It’s a manageable size and relatively light for a telephoto zoom, and it makes for an obvious companion to the 18-55mm and 16-50mm kit lenses that ship with Sony cameras, picking up right where those zoom ranges end. As with all low-priced zooms, the lens has a narrow maximum aperture that only gets smaller as you zoom in. Sony partially addresses that lack of light-gathering ability, however, by including a built-in image stabilization system, which steadies the lens internally to counteract inadvertent motion caused by unsteady hands (more about that in a moment).
Reviewers are quick to acknowledge that such an inexpensive lens is bound to have its shortcomings. As Kevin Carter at DxOMark concludes, “Lenses are a mix of compromises and nowhere is that more obvious than with accessibly priced zooms.” Carter found the Sony lens to be “somewhat disappointing at the longer end of the zoom range, in terms of sharpness, but in every other respect the performance is well balanced.” Klaus Schroiff at Photozone found it to be a solidly constructed lens with silent autofocus that makes it well-suited to shooting video. And while Schroiff notes a moderate amount of distortion along with softness in the image corners, he writes that the lens is “capable of delivering decent results” overall. Jay at SonyAlphaLab, who also put the lens through its paces, concludes that it’s a “great value for the dollar.”
Owners seem happy with this lens’s price-performance blend, as well. At the time we checked, almost 70 percent of its Amazon user reviews had given it a five-star rating. Whether shooting a child’s dance performances, wildlife, or auto races, users have come away with pleasingly sharp, detailed images. As one user sums it up, “This is a great telephoto zoom lens for the price. I know people will say there are much better quality lenses out there, but for the price this does the job. Took some great shots … using this thing and hope to take many more.”
Users especially like how the lens’s built-in image stabilization allows them to get sharp photos when shooting handheld at the telephoto end of the zoom. In marketing this lens as part of its OSS (Optical SteadyShot) group, Sony claims that the image stabilization feature offers up to four stops of camera shake reduction, meaning you can shoot handheld at shutter speeds four stops slower than normal and still get sharp images. Theoretically, that means getting results as sharp as you would at 1/120 s while shooting as slowly as 1/6 s. You should take that claim with a bit of salt, but SonyAlphaLab did find success shooting at shutter speeds two to almost three stops slower than normal with good results.
If you have a larger budget, we recommend the Sony E 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS LE lens. It has the same optical stabilization system as our main pick and delivers similar image quality, but it offers a much wider zoom range and remains compact enough to handle fairly well on a camera like the Sony a6000 or a6300. With its 27-300mm–equivalent focal length range, this lens could easily be the only one you need to bring along on vacation. You’ll be able to capture landscapes, portraits, and close-ups of distant landmarks without swapping lenses.
Typically, extending a lens’s zoom range leads to a big drop-off in image quality. Maintaining good optical quality over such a wide zoom range without creating a lens that’s too unwieldy for a midrange mirrorless camera is not easy. In DxOMark’s detailed comparison, this Sony 18-200mm lens comes very close to the company’s 55-210mm lens in most objective measurements, suffering just slightly in overall resolution. The fact that our upgrade pick has a wider zoom range yet offers similar image quality helps to explain why it’s more than twice the price of our main pick as of this writing.
The late Michael Reichmann concluded in a 2012 Luminous Landscape review that the lens was “quite good, especially considering its size, weight and cost. This is the lens that goes on the camera 80% of the time in bright daylight, and unless I need a fast aperture lens it stays on the camera all day, mainly because of its versatility.”
The testers at Imaging Resource found that the lens delivered “very good” sharpness at its 100mm setting and “acceptable” results at 200mm. Reviewer Andrew Alexander writes that in contrast to Sony’s previous 18-200mm lens, this version “is much smaller in comparison, shaving over 60g off of the weight … and most notably reducing the ‘girth’ of the lens – instead of being almost 100mm in diameter, the EL lens is only 68mm in diameter, making it much more at home on a [Sony mirrorless] camera body.”
In addition to appreciating the lens’s versatility, reviewers like its built-in image stabilization, which partially compensates for the lens’s narrow maximum aperture of f/3.5 at the wide end and only f/6.3 at its longest zoom setting. In a discussion about testing this lens, Jay at SonyAlphaLab reports acceptably sharp images shot at shutter speeds three stops slower than normal.
Be aware that Sony sells two versions of this lens. Our pick has the LE designation at the end of its official product name, but Sony also offers the slightly older SEL18200 model, distinguishable by its silver finish. The price difference between the two is minimal. The non-LE model is slightly better optically and equipped with an image stabilization system that’s optimized for video shooting, but it’s substantially larger and heavier than our pick. The smaller your camera body, the more awkward a lens of this size and heft becomes. So while some people may opt for marginally better-looking images at any cost, we think most folks will be better served by a smaller lens when the quality difference is fairly minor. Your wrist and neck will thank you after a long day of shooting.
Also note that the Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 Di III VC lens is nearly identical in both features and performance to our upgrade pick. We still recommend sticking with the Sony lens, though: When Sony added phase detection autofocus to its cameras, it released firmware for its lenses to take advantage of the faster AF option. To date, as far as we can tell, Tamron has not made its own version of the lens similarly compatible.
For great image quality at a low price, we like the Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 NCS CS lens. Although it’s a manual-focus-only model—no electronic autofocus communication occurs between it and the camera—it offers a wider field of view than all but one of Sony’s E-Mount APS-C lenses and costs less than half the price of that lens. Normally we wouldn’t recommend giving up autofocus regardless of the savings, but when you’re shooting with an ultrawide 18mm-equivalent focal length, you’re not adjusting focus a lot in the first place. On such a wide-angle lens, manual focus isn’t much of a hassle, since anything from about 3 feet to infinity is in focus simultaneously. You’ll be focusing the lens only when shooting things at very close distances.
This 18mm-equivalent lens is not just significantly wider than Sony’s 24mm-equivalent f/2.8 lens; with a fast f/2.0 aperture, it lets in twice as much light, as well. The Phoblographer’s Chris Gampat, an admitted manual-focus lover, told me that given the choice between the Rokinon and a slower autofocus lens, he’d prefer to have the extra stop of light. And the image quality is great, too: As Philip Ryan of Popular Photography pointed out when I asked him about this lens, “The price is phenomenal for what you get, which will likely be sharper than you’d expect.”
Reviewers are universally impressed with this lens’s image quality. Gary Wolstenholme at ePhotozine describes this lens (under the Samyang brand) as “an excellent optic that produces images with excellent sharpness, low distortion and low CA [chromatic aberration].” Jordan Steele of Admiring Light writes, “The center is blisteringly sharp, and even the edges produce excellent resolution when stopped down.” Steele later says, “It renders scenes with excellent contrast and color.” Ian Norman of PetaPixel writes that while the depth of field markings on his unit were inaccurate (a problem he’s had with other Rokinon lenses), “the Rokinon 12mm has excellent sharpness” and “delivers photos that don’t disappoint.”
If you just can’t live without autofocus, the Sony E 10-18mm f/4 OSS offers a nominally wider field of view than our pick and has built-in image stabilization. But it’s a full two stops slower than the Rokinon, it delivers good rather than outstanding results, and as of this writing it costs more than twice as much. We think most folks will be better served by adjusting the manual focus of our pick and taking advantage of its excellent image quality and additional light-gathering capability.
If you’re interested in devoting some quality time to shooting portraits of your family and friends, we like the Sigma 60mm f/2.8 DN lens. It’s an impressively sharp, fast prime lens with a 90mm-equivalent field of view, the classic focal length for head-and-shoulder portraits.
One of the reasons this medium telephoto focal length works so well for portraits is that you can get a nice, tight head-and-shoulder composition without putting yourself and the lens right in your subject’s face, and a more relaxed subject means a better portrait. Stand a comfortable distance of 4 to 6 feet away, and you’ll fill the frame with enough detail to make your subject’s eyes and facial expression grab all the attention. Using a wide aperture lets you create a shallow depth of field to blur the background. The f/2.8 maximum aperture of this Sigma lens, while not as wide as that of some other portrait lenses, is still easily capable of turning a distracting background into a complementary blur of color. And like all Sigma lenses, this 60mm f/2.8 lens is backed by an impressive four-year warranty in the US, four times longer than Sony’s coverage for non-pro lenses.
Reviewers have been impressed by the lens’s performance and value. Jordan Steele of Admiring Light writes that it is “well-built, focuses quickly and has absolutely stunning optics, at an astoundingly low price.” Steele continues, “The Sigma 60mm f/2.8 is among the sharpest lenses I’ve ever used on a mirrorless camera.” Gary Wolstenholme at ePhotozine concurs that for a lens that often sells for about $200, “Sigma haven’t skimped on build or optical quality. It is capable of delivering pin-sharp results from maximum aperture and it is built well enough to be a worthy investment for many years to come.”
Unlike Sony’s E 50mm f/1.8 OSS lens, our pick lacks built-in image stabilization and as of this writing doesn’t take full advantage of the hybrid phase detect autofocus system found on recent Sony cameras. Neither of those limitations is a dealbreaker for portrait work, however. Although image stabilization minimizes camera shake when you’re using slow shutter speeds, it does nothing to counteract the inevitable movement of your subject during a long exposure. The benefit of hybrid autofocus is in tracking fast-moving subjects while you’re shooting bursts in continuous autofocus mode, and that isn’t how you’ll be working in a portrait session.
If keeping your kit as small as possible is a top priority, consider getting a pancake lens. Small and flat (hence their name), pancake lenses add minimal bulk to your camera and weigh just a couple of ounces. The Sony E 20mm f/2.8 is the pancake lens we recommend. With its ultraslim profile, throwing this 30mm-equivalent lens on a camera such as the Sony a6300 creates a package compact enough to slip into a coat pocket, making it easy to carry with you everywhere. Using such a small, unobtrusive lens also helps you take photographs without drawing undue attention to yourself, a priority for street photographers.
You do make some compromises in exchange for the size reduction, however. This pancake lens gathers less than half as much light as our fast-prime pick, the Sony E 35mm f/1.8 OSS. It isn’t exactly a stellar performer in the optical department, either, with noticeably less-sharp images that are more prone to chromatic aberration (false colors along high-contrast edges). Don’t write this lens off, however. Our pancake-lens choice is a perfectly acceptable performer—and focusing exclusively on image quality ignores the whole point of a pancake lens in the first place. You’re buying it to have the most compact camera-and-lens combination possible. And if having a compact kit means bringing it along more often and shooting more regularly, the image-quality trade-off is one that many photographers are happy to accept.
ePhotozine’s Gary Wolstenholme, acknowledging the lens’s inevitable optical limitations, found its sharpness to be very good with the lens stopped down to f/5.6; although noticeable distortion does appear, he notes, it’s easily corrected in image-editing software. Wolstenholme concludes, “This lens provides reasonably good performance, but that certainly isn’t its main selling point. As it is currently the most compact lens for Sony [E-mount] cameras, it is perfect for those who want to keep the system as pocket friendly as possible.”
The Phoblographer’s Chris Gampat recommends the lens. Gampat told us that it can “be the lens that you bring with you everywhere because of the compact size and the 30mm (equivalent) field of view, which proves to be useful for closeups and anything in your immediate line of sight.”
Shooting with a macro lens is just plain fun. It turns your camera into a high-resolution magnifying glass, revealing intricate details in even the smallest objects. Super-closeups of flowers and insects are standard fare, but food, jewelry, or anything small with detail work automatically becomes more dramatic when you shoot it with a macro lens.
The pickings are slim for E-mount macro shooters, however, with just three macro lenses to choose from. The inexpensive Sony E 30mm f/3.5 Macro is the only APS-C–size macro priced under $1,000, making it an easy choice for this guide. This 45mm-equivalent lens can focus while as close as 4 inches (more about that in a moment) and yield a 1-to-1 magnification ratio. Here’s a great article if you’d like to understand the details about magnification and focus distances in macro photography. All you really need to know is that with our pick, you can easily fill the frame with a Hot Wheels car.
Our pick is priced around $250 at this writing, so it’s no surprise that this lens won’t win any optical awards. Andrew Alexander at Imaging Resource describes it as delivering “good results for sharpness, though it doesn’t get to tack-sharp results no matter how far you stop it down.” Overall, Alexander concludes that it offers “about as much bang as you would expect for its price tag.”
TJ Donegan of Reviewed.com summarized the lens’s strengths in an interview with us, saying, “It’s small, cheap, light, gives you the 1:1, and the relatively slow max aperture isn’t really a big deal with macro photography because your depth of field is naturally shallow at those distances.” And Sony’s well-implemented manual-focus system for its E-mount cameras is very useful for macro work: Turning the focus ring can automatically call up a highly magnified view on the rear screen to aid focus.
The Sony E 30mm f/3.5 Macro is rather wide for a macro lens—they’re typically in the 50-100mm range. And its focus distance for 1-to-1 magnification is just 4 inches, measured from the camera sensor, not the lens. That means you’ll have to get this Sony lens extremely close to your subject—within an inch—to achieve maximum magnification. Photographing insects and other tiny critters without scaring them off will be tricky as a result.
While not perfect, this Sony macro lens is the only real option for most E-mount shooters. It delivers dramatic images and costs so little that we think most beginning photographers will happily accept its drawbacks.
(Photos by Amadou Diallo.)