Buy any Nikon DSLR and you’re buying into a world-class camera system – and the key point of any ‘system’ camera is that you can swap lenses for all different kinds of photography. But where do you start, and which lenses do you put on your wish-list?
Most people start with a telephoto zoom. These are the obvious choice for sports and wildlife photography, or any other time when you can’t get close enough to your subject.
The top second choice is a wide-angle zoom, because this will enable you to squeeze big landscapes into the image frame, or capture cramped interiors, big landmarks or narrow city streets. The kit lenses that come with DSLRs give a fairly wide angle of view at their minimum zoom setting, but it’s often not wide enough. If you’re keen on travel and travel photography, a wide-angle zoom might eve be your best ‘first’ buy, ahead of a telephoto.
Your camera’s ‘kit lens’ is probably the next thing to look at. The ones you get with Nikon cameras are good all-rounders be designed to be compact and affordable before anything else. In time, you might decide you need a replacement that offers a longer focal range, a constant maximum aperture or just better all-round picture quality.
And talking of picture quality, prime (non-zoom) lenses are the ultimate choice for certain specialised interests. For example, a ‘macro’ lens enables you to shoot extreme close-ups, while a ‘portrait’ lens can give you tight depth of field, blurred backgrounds and flattering perspectives on people’s faces.
Lens compatibility: Nikon DX and FX cameras
Nikon makes smaller APS-C format (‘DX’) DSLRs and larger full frame (‘FX’) models. There are no limitations when using full-frame ‘FX’ compatible lenses on both FX and DX format DSLR Nikons, but it’s not so straightforward the other way round.
DX lenses are designed specifically for smaller format Nikon DX cameras, so they only cover that smaller sensor area. You can fit a DX lens to a full frame Nikon FX body, but it will have switch to ‘crop’ mode, which only uses the central section of the sensor, so you don’t get the camera’s full resolution.
So the rule of thumb is that full frame FX lenses are fine on both DX format and FX format Nikons, but DX lenses are best kept for Nikon DX format cameras.
Full-frame compatible lenses are classified as Nikon FX, Sigma DG and Tamron Di. APS-C format lenses are designated Nikon DX, Sigma DC and Tamron Di II.
Lastly, Nikon makes some superb lenses, but so do independent lens manufacturers, so we include both in our list. Let’s take a closer look at the best buys on the market right now.
What kind of lens are you looking for?
The lenses you’ll need depend on what you like to shoot. The most popular choices include a telephoto zoom for shooting sports and wildlife; and an ultra-wide-angle zoom for landscapes, cramped interiors and the wow-factor of exaggerating perspective. Another popular add-on is a ‘fast’ prime lens with a wide aperture rating – ideal for blurring the background in portraiture.
Opening image: MarioGuti for Getty Images
Once you’ve got a Nikon DSLR and a kit lens, a telephoto zoom is a good first additional purchase. These aren’t just for action, sports and wildlife photography, as they can also work well for portraits. Telephoto zooms can also give a different perspective in landscapes, compressing the distance between near and far areas of the scene.
With telephotos we’d always recommend getting a full frame (FX) lens even if you’ve got a smaller DX format Nikon DSLR. That’s because there’s no penalty in focal range and magnification – the ‘crop factor’ of the smaller sensor increases the effective focal length of the lens, which is just what you want from a telephoto! The other advantage is that if you do upgrade to a full frame Nikon in the future, you can carry on using your telephoto lens. So although the Nikon AF-S DX 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II is a good budget option for Nikon DX camera’s, we’d still recommend paying the extra for one of the lenses below.
1. Nikon AF-P 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR
An ideal 70-300mm telephoto zoom that’s just the best in its class
Mount: Nikon FX | Elements/groups: 16/11 | Diaphragm blades: 8 | Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: 4-stops | Minimum focus distance: 1.2m | Maximum magnification: 0.21x | Filter thread: 67mm | Dimensions (WxL): 89x143mm | Weight: 1,050g
This is the ideal focal range for a telephoto zoom, and there are some other high-performance yet reasonably priced 70-300mm lenses on the market. But although this Nikon lens cost more, it’s well worth the extra outlay. It has an AF-P (Pulse motor) autofocus system that’s super-fast and basically inaudible in operation, along with an electromagnetically controlled diaphragm. New-generation VR (Vibration Reduction) gives enhanced 4.5-stop performance and adds a ‘Sport VR’ mode. This enables easier tracking of erratically moving objects in the viewfinder, as well as avoiding any slowdown in rapid continuous shooting. The lens has a tough, weather-resistant build although, as with the vast majority of stepping-motor lenses, there’s no focus distance scale. All-round performance is excellent and image quality is absolutely top-drawer. It might seem overkill right now, but this lens will prove it’s worth in the future.
2. Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM | S
A great lens for enthusiasts and experts who want to take a step up
Mount: Nikon FX | Elements/groups: 24/22 | Diaphragm blades: 11 | Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: 4-stops | Minimum focus distance: 1.2m | Maximum magnification: 0.21x | Filter thread: 82mm | Dimensions (WxL): 94x203mm | Weight: 1,805g
Nikon’s own AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR is a great lens, but his recently-launched Sigma Sports lens matches it at pretty much every step of features and performance – and it’s much less expensive. Its pro-grade features include autofocus-hold/on buttons around the mid-section of the lens, the ability to switch autofocus to either auto-priority or manual-priority mode, and two switchable custom modes. You can assign these with Sigma’s optional USB Dock, for example to increase or decrease the effect of stabilization in the viewfinder image. You can also tailor the autofocus speed and change the autofocus range limiter distance. The only minus points is that the Sigma is a little bigger and heavier than most 70-200mm lenses, and its tripod ring can’t be fully removed to save space.
3. Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | C
If you need to shoot at REALLY long range, this is the lens for the job
Mount: Nikon FX | Elements/groups: 20/14 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: 4-stops | Minimum focus distance: 2.8m | Maximum magnification: 0.2x | Filter thread: 95mm | Dimensions (WxL): 105x260mm | Weight: 1,930g
For outright image quality, the more expensive Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Sports lens is our top choice, but the ‘C’ lens offers a better cost and weight compromise for most people, while covering the same focal range. It’s designed for full frame FX Nikons, and on a DX format Nikon with the 1.5x ‘crop factor, it gives an amazing 225-900mm effective focal range. This ‘C’ (Contemporary) lens is much less expensive to buy, more compact, and almost a full kilogram lighter in weight than Sigma’s ’S’ (Sports) version. It’s not quite as extensively weather-sealed but still very well made, almost as sharp, and has the same range of up-market features and controls. Overall, it’s the more sensible buy if you need a lens like this occasionally rather than all the time.
For everyday photography a standard zoom (or ‘kit’) lens offers excellent versatility, but won’t go ultra-wide for shoehorning more into the image frame. For this, you’ll need a wide-angle zoom, typically kicking off with a 10mm focal length for DX format lenses, or 14-16mm in the FX camp. Naturally, a wider viewing angle enables you get more into the frame. There’s a creative bonus – if you get in close to the main object in a scene and you can make it really stand out against an rapidly receding background.
But with wide-angle zooms you have to get the right one for your camera’s sensor size. For DX format Nikons you need wide-angles designers specifically for these cameras, and the same applies to FX format Nikon’s. You CAN fit full frame wide-angles on a DX format Nikon, but the 1.5x crop factor means you lose much of that wider angle of view, so it’s just not worth doing.
4. Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II VC HLD
An up-market DX format wide-angle with stabilization and weather-seals
Mount: Nikon DX | Elements/groups: 15/12 | Diaphragm blades: 7 | Autofocus: HLD (High/Low toque-modulated Drive) | Stabilizer: 4-stops | Minimum focus distance: 0.24m | Maximum magnification: 0.19x | Filter thread: 77mm | Dimensions (WxL): 84x85mm | Weight: 440g
A major upgrade over Tamron’s original 10-24mm ultra-wide zoom for APS-C format cameras, this one has improved optics, 4-stop VC (Vibration Compensation) stabilization, and a new HLD (High/Low toque-modulated Drive) autofocus system. Weather-seals are also added, plus a fluorine coating on the front element to repel moisture and aid cleaning. Image quality is very good and, overall, it’s simply the best choice for a DX format ultra-wide zoom. It beats Nikon’s long-standing AF-S DX 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED lens for performance and image quality, and is much less expensive to buy, although it’s twice the price of Nikon’s budget 10-20mm VR zoom (which you also might like to consider if you’re on a budget).
5. Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM | A
An ultra-wide full frame (FX) zoom with incredible image quality
Mount: Nikon FX | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: None | Minimum focus distance: 0.26m | Maximum magnification: 0.19x | Filter thread: None | Dimensions (WxL): 96x135mm | Weight: 1,150g
Nikon’s own-brand AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED is somewhat legendary as a pro-grade ultra-wide zoom for FX format cameras, but the Sigma 14-24mm delivers equally stellar sharpness and contrast. Better still, it beats the Nikon for control over colour fringing and distortions, both being incredibly minimal for an ultra-wide zoom. The top-performance optics are wrapped up in a superbly well-engineered and fully weather-sealed barrel. The maximum viewing angle isn’t quite as extreme as in Sigma’s 12-24mm Art lens but, all in all, the new 14-24mm out-performs the equivalent Nikon lens and is less expensive to buy.
Standard zoom upgrades
Nikon’s ‘kit’ zooms supplied with its DX and FX format DSLR bodies offer pretty good performance and image quality, along with big savings when you buy the camera and lens as a complete package. However, they have limitations in zoom range, maximum aperture and overall quality, and since this is lens you’ll be using for much of your everyday photography, you might want to think about getting a better one.
More up-market standard zooms may have a faster, constant aperture of f/2.8 to enable faster shutter speeds in poor light, ideal for freezing motion without bumping up your ISO setting too far, and more background blur. Alternatively you might want a standard zoom with a longer focal range than your kit lens, just to give yourself a bit more versatility in different shooting situations.
This is another time when you have to get a lens to match your camera’s sensor size – so get a DX size standard zoom if you have a DX format Nikon, or FX for a full frame Nikon. If you use a full frame standard zoom on a DX Nikon, the effective focal length will be too long and you won’t get a wide enough angle of view.
6. Nikon AF-S DX 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR
It’s Nikon’s latest and all-time greatest DX format standard zoom
Mount: Nikon DX | Elements/groups: 17/13 | Diaphragm blades: 7 | Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: 4-stops | Minimum focus distance: 0.35m | Maximum magnification: 0.22x | Filter thread: 72mm | Dimensions (WxL): 80x86mm | Weight: 480g
With class-leading wide-angle coverage and a generous zoom range, this lens is equivalent to using a 24-120mm lens in 35mm camera terms. The widest available aperture shrinks from f/2.8 to f/4 at longer zoom settings but the upside is that the lens is smaller and lighter than constant-aperture f/2.8 zooms and has a longer zoom range. High-tech attractions include an electromagnetically controlled diaphragm, ring-type ultrasonic autofocus, a focus distance scale beneath a viewing panel, four ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements and Nano Crystal Coat. Keep-clean fluorine coatings are also applied to the front and rear elements. We think this is a better choice than Nikon’s old and unstabilized 17-55mm f/2.8 zoom.
7. Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM | A
Sigma’s top-drawer FX format standard zoom ticks all the boxes
Mount: Nikon FX | Elements/groups: 19/14 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: 4-stops | Minimum focus distance: 0.37m | Maximum magnification: 0.21x | Filter thread: 82mm | Dimensions (WxL): 88x108mm | Weight: 1,020g
Nikon’s latest AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR might look like a top choice for full frame Nikon DSLRs, but it’s a beast of a lens and hugely expensive to buy. This Sigma lens isn’t as fully weather-sealed as the Nikon, but it’s still immaculately well-engineered. It’s physically shorter and marginally lighter, but matches the Nikon for all-round performance and image quality. Sharpness and contrast are spectacular, while bokeh is lusciously smooth. Colour fringing, distortions and vignetting are very well controlled. Autofocus is very quick and extremely quiet, while the 4-stop stabilizer is equally effective as the Nikon lens’s VR system. At around half the price of the Nikon lens, the Sigma is vastly better value.
8. Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm 3.5-5.6G ED VR II
Its massive zoom range makes this DX format lens handy for travel
Mount: Nikon DX | Elements/groups: 16/12 | Diaphragm blades: 7 | Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: 3.5-stops | Minimum focus distance: 0.5m | Maximum magnification: 0.22x | Filter thread: 72mm | Dimensions (WxL): 77x97mm | Weight: 565g
When it comes to the actual zoom range of a ‘superzoom’ lens, it’s only natural to feel that bigger is better. However, stretching the envelope in both wide-angle coverage and telephoto reach can degrade image quality, with a lack of sharpness at full zoom, and heavy barrel distortion at the wide-angle end. Although the Nikon 18-200mm is beaten for zoom range by the Sigma 18-300mm and Tamron’s 16-300mm and 18-400mm lenses, as well as Nikon’s own 18-300mm zooms, it’s still our favourite. Three ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements help to boost sharpness and contrast, while reducing colour fringing. The VR system has switchable Normal and Active modes and, unlike in competing Sigma and Tamron lenses, autofocus is based on a ring-type ultrasonic system. It’s quick and quiet, and enables the focus ring to remain stationery during autofocus, as well as offering full-time manual override. What this lens lacks in outright zoom range, it makes up for in handling and image quality.
The ‘macro’ badge is plastered over many zoom lenses but they only tend to offer a maximum magnification ratio of 0.5x at best which isn’t ‘real’ macro photography. Most dedicated macro prime lenses, however, deliver a full 1.0x magnification. Basically, an object will be reproduced at full life size on the camera’s image sensor so, on a DX format body, a standard postage stamp would fill the entire frame.
Just like with telephoto lenses, it can pay to buy an FX format macro lens, even if you’re shooting with a DX format body. The 1.5x crop factor won’t hurt, and you’ll have a lens that will work on a full frame camera too if you decide to upgrade in the future.
9. Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Macro
More advanced and cheaper than Nikon’s own 105mm VR macro lens
Mount: Nikon FX | Elements/groups: 14/11 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: 4-stops | Minimum focus distance: 0.3m | Maximum magnification: 1.0x | Filter thread: 62mm | Dimensions (WxL): 79x117mm | Weight: 610g
Like Tamron’s other recent ‘G2’ lenses, this is the second generation of the company’s 90mm VC USD macro lens. As such, it features a host of upgrades including improved optical performance, nano-structure coatings, weather-seals and a fluorine coating on the front element. It also adds a new ‘hybrid’ image stabilizer that counteracts horizontal and vertical shift, as well as the more usual angular vibration or ‘wobble’. This makes stabilization much more effective in close-up shooting, especially compared with the regular stabilizer in Nikon’s competing 105mm VR macro lens. It matches the Nikon for build quality and image quality as well, making the Tamron a better value buy.
10. Nikon AF-S DX 40mm f/2.8G Micro
A small but mighty lens for Nikon DX cameras
Mount: Nikon DX | Elements/groups: 9/7 | Diaphragm blades: 7 | Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: None | Minimum focus distance: 0.16m | Maximum magnification: 1.0x | Filter thread: 52mm | Dimensions (WxL): 69x65mm | Weight: 235g
This little lens is only about half the length and a third of the weight of Nikon’s 105mm macro lens for FX format cameras, so it’s easy to squeeze into a spare corner of your camera bag. With an ‘effective’ focal length of 60mm, it’s ideal as a standard prime lens for general shooting too, combining a fairly fast aperture rating with excellent optical performance. Sharpness is excellent across the entire image frame, from f/2.8 all the way to f/16. Colour fringing is absolutely negligible and there’s virtually zero distortion. The only catch is that, for full 1.0x magnification, the minimum focus distance from the focal plane is a mere 16cm and, because the inner barrel extends, the working distance from the front of the lens to the subject shrinks to just 35mm, which is a bit close for comfort.
For portraiture, you’ll often want to make people stand out from their surroundings, so that they’re the centre of attention. A cluttered or highly detailed background can be a nuisance but, with a long focal length and ‘fast’ aperture of around f/1.4 to f/1.8, you can solve the problem. The resulting tight depth of field will effectively throw the background out of focus, and make the person you’re photographing the centre of attention. The longer focal length of ‘portrait’ lenses also helps render faces more naturally, as you shoot from further away.
Like with a macro lens, there can be advantages in shooting with an FX format lens on a DX format body. Again, the focal length is a more critical factor. An 85mm focal length is usually regarded as ideal for portraiture with an FX camera. You’ll be close enough to engage with and give directions to the portrait sitter, without invading their personal space. On a DX format camera, a 50mm lens gives a similar ‘effective’ focal length and the same benefits, once you take the crop factor into account – but you can use a full frame 85mm lens here too.
11. Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM | A
It edges ahead of Nikon’s own 85mm f/1.4 for image quality and value
Mount: Nikon FX | Elements/groups: 14/12 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: None | Minimum focus distance: 0.85m | Maximum magnification: 0.12x | Filter thread: 86mm | Dimensions (WxL): 95x126mm | Weight: 1,130g
The combination of an 85mm focal length and f/1.4 aperture is perfect for portraiture on a full-frame camera. It enables a comfortable shooting distance and a tight depth of field, so you can make the main subject really stand out against a blurred background. Typical of Sigma’s ‘Art’ line of prime lenses, this one has a relatively large build with a complex optical design. Indeed, it’s about 50 per cent longer than the competing Nikon lens and nearly twice the weight. The pro-grade construction includes weather-seals and the overall finish is immaculate. Sharpness is exceptional across the entire image frame, even at the widest aperture of f/1.4. It outperforms the pricier Nikon 85mm f/1.4G lens in this respect, while also beating it for minimizing colour fringing and distortion. It’s the best portrait lens for full-frame portraiture on Nikon DSLRs – if you can live with the weight!
12. Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM | A
This FX format lens is great for portraits on DX format bodies!
Mount: Nikon FX | Elements/groups: 13/8 | Diaphragm blades: 9 | Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: None | Minimum focus distance: 0.4m | Maximum magnification: 0.18x | Filter thread: 77mm | Dimensions (WxL): 85x100mm | Weight: 815g
So sometimes you can use the crop factor of Nikon DX cameras to your advantage! On a full frame Nikon, this would count as a ‘standard’ lens, but on a DX body it has an effective focal length of 75mm – which is near the ideal focal length for portraits. This Sigma Art lens dwarfs Nikon’s own 50mm f/1.4 lens and tips the scales at a weighty 815g, compared with just 280g for the Nikon. But the Sigma’s ring-type ultrasonic autofocus is super-fast and whisper-quiet, sharpness and contrast are simply superb, even when shooting wide-open, while bokeh (the quality of defocused areas) remains pleasantly smooth even when stopping down a little. Colour fringing, and distortion and vignetting are minimal.
13. Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G
This low-cost Nikon lens is great for low-cost portraits on a DX camera
Mount: Nikon FX | Elements/groups: 7/6 | Diaphragm blades: 7 | Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: None | Minimum focus distance: 0.45m | Maximum magnification: 0.15x | Filter thread: 58mm | Dimensions (WxL): 72x52mm | Weight: 185g
For budget portraiture on a DX format body, look no further than this Nikon lens. It’s two-thirds of a stop slower than Nikon’s pricier 50mm f/1.4 lens but performs almost as well, and only costs about half as much to buy. Considering the downmarket price, build quality feels pretty good, right down to the weather-sealed metal mounting plate. The lens comes complete with a hood, despite the front element being deeply recessed within the barrel. You get ring-type ultrasonic autofocus complete with full-time manual override and a focus distance scale positioned beneath a viewing panel. Edge sharpness is a little lacklustre on FX format bodies but this isn’t an issue on DX cameras, which only utilise the central region of the image circle – and this also helps to avoid lateral chromatic aberrations towards the edges and corners of the frame. Result!