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But the really powerful thing about them is that you can swap out lenses for tasks such as zooming in on your kid's soccer game or taking fish-eye shots. These lenses might have higher-quality glass and thus produce sharper photos. (The lenses that come with camera bodies as a part of a kit are often of so-so quality. In fact, they might perform worse than the lenses in advanced point-and-shoots.)
While you can easily spend thousands of dollars on a lens, you'll also find great lenses for less than $400.
Most of the lenses we’ve picked are specific to one camera maker, but you can find similar options for any brand.
Sony E 55-210 mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS, $350
The Sony E 55-210 mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS is a powerful lens that’s compatible with Sony’s mirrorless cameras, such as the Alpha a6500 and a6300. It’s a great complement to the 16-50 mm lens often bundled with these cameras.
This lens has the reach you want for shooting wildlife on a summertime swing through Yellowstone and other national parks or to capture the action at your kid’s softball game. At the other end of its range, 55 mm works for portraits.
Both kinds of shooting benefit from the optical image stabilization built into the lens. It helps counteract handshake, which can produce blurry photos or jittery video footage. That helps when you get up close and shoot portraits that focus entirely on your subject’s face. And it’s particularly important when you’re using a slow shutter speed indoors or at an outdoor evening event. That’s a lot of value for a lens that costs less than $400.
Canon EF 50 mm f/1.8 STM, $110
By definition, prime lenses don’t zoom. But although that would seem to limit their appeal, these simple lenses appear in the arsenal of every professional photographer—and they probably belong in yours, too.
Here’s why: Prime lenses are smaller and lighter than zooms, which make them great for traveling. They normally are less expensive. Primes also generally produce sharper, brighter images with better contrast, and suffer from fewer defects than zoom lenses—those benefits flow from them being optimized for a single focal length.
Those are all the benefits of prime lenses in general. The Canon EF 50 mm f/1.8 STM lens gives Canon owners one of the most popular focal lengths for professional photographers. (It’s known as a “normal” or “standard” lens.) The lens stops all the way down to f/1.8, letting in plenty of light when you’re shooting in dark situations. That also allows you to blur the background, isolating a portrait subject.
This Canon lens is a capable tool for almost any kind of photo—portraits, nature, action—in any kind of lighting, from the outdoors on a bright day to a dim interior.
Nikon AF-P DX Nikkor 10-20 mm f/4.5-5.6G VR, $310
When most photographers start to build their stable of lenses, they begin with telephoto and prime lenses. But for others it makes more sense to start with a super-wide-angle zoom. These can really make photography fun by exaggerating perspective—objects that are close to the lens will look much larger when you shoot a scene with a very wide-angle lens. A lot of fantastic photos of skateboarders and other athletes have been done with these lenses, too.
Or you can step back and simply capture a bigger scene—a long coastline or the sweep of a mountain ridge—while keeping just about everything in focus.
The Nikon AF-P DX Nikkor 10-20 mm f/4.5-5.6G VR lens will give you this capability, but what makes it really stand out is the price. Super-wide-angle Nikon lenses generally cost $1,000 to $2,000. This model delivers most of the same capability, if not quite the same performance, for just $310. And it is both compact and lightweight.
Sigma 18-300 mm f/3.5-6.3 DC Macro OS HSM, $400
Ultrazooms like the Sigma 18-300 mm f/3.5-6.3 DC Macro OS HSM have an extremely wide focal range, which makes them particularly useful for travel—it’s really the only lens you need to bring with you. Want to snap a sweeping prairie shot? No problem. Zoom in for a close-up of a grazing bison? Yep, it does that, too. And down at the macro end of the range you can shoot a close-up of a flower.
This lens generally won’t capture photos that are quite as crisp as those shot with a prime lens, and it’s built mostly of plastic, making it less rugged and weather-resistant than some other options. On the other hand, all that plastic makes it relatively lightweight, an advantage when you’re on the road. And it’s hard to beat the price for a lens with this range.
This Sigma lens comes with five manufacturer mounts, to work with major camera companies including Canon, Nikon, and Pentax. Just be sure to purchase the right one.
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