Photography / Buying Guide

Zoom Lenses to Replace your Primes

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I love my primes, but some days I just want to go out with a camera and one lens slung over my shoulder and have nothing else to worry about. I’m going to ignore the obvious differences between zooms and primes for the sake of this piece, since that is a whole other argument in which I don’t want to get bogged down. So, here is a list of some solid zooms that you should consider adding to your kit.

The Classics: 24-70mm and 24-105mm Lenses

If you want one lens to cover all the basics, a 24-70mm or 24-105mm is the one for the job. These are a staple of many photographers’ bags because they cover wide-angle to short telephoto, and usually do quite well at both ends. There are usually a few options for aperture, such as constant f/2.8 or f/4 and even some variable versions, meaning that no matter what your level of experience or personal needs may be, you will be able to find something that fits your budget.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens

Professional Favorite: the 70-200mm

Over the years, manufacturers have spent a great deal of time and energy perfecting the 70-200mm zoom, and they pack it with nearly every new technology they can get their hands on, making practically every modern option an impressive feat of optical design and engineering. It is a practical choice, since most shooters don’t need an array of telephoto primes, but do occasionally want to reach out past the range of their 85mm lenses. Also, if you can splurge for the f/2.8 model, you can be sure that images will have shallow depth of field and smooth bokeh that will make them a wonderful tool for portraits, as well as being fast enough to work for sports and action.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens

Going Up! Super Telephoto Zooms

For many of us, the only way to justify the purchase of a super telephoto is if we get a more affordable zoom like the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR, which has an impressive range, considering the size and price. There are some more pro-oriented offerings here, as well, with more modest ranges and improved IQ, such as the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM and Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS, and all of these are compatible with teleconverters to get even more reach out of them. You could also go even further with something like the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2. Basically, don’t worry—there is something here for you.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Lens

And Now, for the Ultra Wides

Let’s hit the other end of the spectrum now and go for the ultra-wide zooms. It was tough not to go for the staple 16-35mm, but recently there has been a serious influx of even wider zoom lenses. Looking to the past couple of years, we saw the Sony FE 12-24mm f/4 G, Sigma 12-24mm f/4 DG HSM Art, and Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM, all impressively wide full-frame offerings that claim some serious image quality. Ultra-wide zooms are even easier to justify than telephotos in many cases, especially if you are usually shooting landscapes on a tripod where a fast aperture and wide-open abilities aren’t as critical. You can even now get a fisheye zoom like the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED, which quickly transforms from providing a circular image to full coverage of the frame for two very distinct shooting styles.

Sony FE 12-24mm f/4 G Lens

The Ultra-Fast Zoom

It used to be that if you wanted a lens to be faster than f/2.8, your only choice was a prime. These days that is far from the case, because more fast zooms are popping up, and I’m assuming many more are on the horizon. A majority of these lenses are for APS-C format, but there is one for full-frame sensors: the Sigma 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM Art. Sigma says this zoom can replace multiple primes and I must agree—the modest zoom range ensures greater optical quality while the fast aperture delivers performance normally reserved for primes. If you shoot APS-C there are a few more options, such as the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art and 50-100mm f/1.8 DC HSM, which are a beautiful pairing, and then the wider Tokina AT-X 14-20mm f/2 PRO DX. This is an exciting category to watch going forward.

Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art Lens for Canon EF

Capture Everything Under the Sun with an All-in-One

And finally, if you want just one lens to do everything you can possibly dream of, you are going to want to look at some all-in-ones. The lens currently at the top for this is the Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD, which is an APS-C option for Canon EF and Nikon F, featuring an astounding 27-600mm equivalent zoom range. Unmatched by any of its contemporaries, this is an obvious choice if you are working with APS-C, but if you aren’t, those 28-300s, 24-240s, 18-200s, and 12-100s are plentiful.

Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM Lens

What are some of your favorite zooms? Tell us about it in the Comments section, below!

11 Comments

i read what you said about 70-200 lenses, actually im thinking on buy one, but could you tell me the real differences between canon 70-200 2.8L usm and canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS II.

And if u can tell me why sigma 70-200 cost the same as canon 70-200 I

Hi Leonardo,

This is a great question. The 70-200mm f/2.8L USM is an older design and has been dramatically improved with the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II.The version II upgrades include image stabilization, a closer minimum focus distance, improved optics, and general improvements all around. The version II is the easy recommendation if you can afford it. Now, the Sigma likely is close to the older Canon 70-200 because the Canon has come down in price over the years. A direct comparison of these would be interesting but I don't have any experience with the Sigma to make a decision here.

My (old vers) 70-200 f1.8 has IS.

# f2.8 sorry

Hi Carol,

You are correct in pointing out that there is a version I of the 70-200mm f/2.8 with IS. However, Leonardo appears to be looking at currently available f/2.8 models, of which only the non-IS version I and the IS version II are available as new, which is why I stated these differences in my answer.

I bought years ago the Nikon 16-85 zoom. It's a "B" optically, to me, and the worst case f/6.3 is not a deal breaker, as I use a flash indoors and don't usually need flash outdoors. I find that it's my lens of choice 90% of the time! It's not too big and it's a great compromise, do-almost-everything lens for my D90 and D7100.

Hello,

Glad you like your 16-85. If you were looking to upgrade to a lens that is better optically but still fills that role the Nikon DX 16-80mm f/2.8-4 is a great choice. We even have a hands-on review to check out.

Hi. Seen you related to hiking with zoom lens weght and size. This is a pro remark, that thru hikers who shoots nature know...thank u for that.
Nedd a bit of edvice. I use a sony nex 6 in 2-7 dayes throu hikes. I use the 16-55 kit lens which is horrible in view and landscape and useble in close range or big animals and preety good in macro, if it have enough light. I would like a good quality, well build yet light zoom that covers view, and go up to 135 or higher for animals macro. Sony's emount lens offer is too narrow. What do u recvomend?
Another isdue: u mentioned the nikon 200-500 that a few of my friends have. I use the g2 tamaron 150-600 on 810 body for heavy duty nature photos. They r very close opticly and its also an affordable price. The other player is the sigma 150-600 sport, but up to day, in this price level, my canon 5.6 400 was the best followed buy the 200-400, that its new version is remarkble. Maybe a long range lens article will be also usefull.

Hi tzur,

This is a tough question to answer, but my initial recommendation is the Sony E 16-70mm since it balances optical quality with a decent range. If you want more range the next recommendation would be the E PZ 18-105mm. Both are constant f/4 zooms as well. Beyond that, larger zoom ranges tend to impact quality a bit too much for my liking, so I would want to pick up a second zoom for telephoto.

If you are a Micro 4/3 user, I own the Lumix 12-35mm and 35-100mm zooms. Both have constant f2.8 apertures, solid build with weathersealing and are easy to carry. One on camera body and other in lens case looped on my belt. The Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 is an excellent lens also (just a little heftier than the Lumix)

Hi BillNBPT,

Those are all excellent suggestions and great examples of versatile zooms that can fill the role of multiple primes. Thanks for sharing!

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