The Sony system is blessed with an abundance of thirdparty manufacturers making excellent glass. Many of them are available for a discount right now, so here’s a short roundup of the best autofocus prime lenses available on the FE mount, from wide to telephoto.
Third-party manufacturers make Sony’s mirrorless cameras an appealing system for photographers on a tight budget thanks to the wide variety of lenses available. Companies such as Sigma, Samyang, and Tamron have plugged a few of the gaps left in Sony’s own lineup, as well as producing a number of lenses that perform better than their expensive Sony counterparts. In addition, third-party lenses are often smaller and lighter, and with the Sony a7C about to hit the shelves, even more, customers will be looking for glass that matches the diminutive size of their body.
Here’s a list of my recommendations if you’re pondering a new prime lens but don’t want to spend a huge amount of money.
Until last year, there was a gaping chasm in Sony’s lens lineup: the system lacked a 35mm f/1.8. Sony finally pulled its finger out by releasing a lens that felt a touch high in price ($748), and now Samyang/Rokinon, has produced something that makes the Sony seem even more expensive.
It’s not clear when it will hit shelves (hopefully in the month or two), but the AF 35mm f/1.8 from Samyang is a stellar piece of glass and comes in at under $400. It's sharp, autofocus is excellent, and it is a significant upgrade over other "tiny" lenses from Samyang, as it has weather sealing. The one downside is that chromatic aberration can be a little heavy, but probably not enough to make you want to spend more on the Sony. You can check out my review here.
There are a number of options if you fancy something at 35mm that’s a little slower. There’s the tiny Samyang AF 35mm f/2.8 (reviewed here), which is surprisingly sharp given its price and pancake-esque design, and autofocus is snappy (currently $239, down from $399).
a7 fans had hoped that Tamron would provide the antidote to Sony’s 35mm f/1.8, but the Japanese manufacturer — part-owned by Sony — opted to produce something slightly odd, albeit original: a 35mm f/2.8 lens that offers a macro reproduction ratio of 1:2. At just $349 (and right now available for $299), it’s a stunningly sharp lens and has a moisture-resistant build, though the macro capabilities mean that autofocus is far from quick. Review here.
Sony’s nifty fifty has never compared particularly well to Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 STM, but at just $248 (currently available for $198) and regularly discounted, it’s Sony's most affordable full frame lens.
Sharpness is reasonable, but the autofocus is not quiet, nor is it quick, and you might find yourself fighting with some noticeable color fringing thanks to chromatic aberration.
Quite why there isn’t another fast f/1.8 fifty on the market is a bit of a mystery. Fortunately, the lens that comes closest — the Samyang AF 45mm f/1.8 — is widely regarded as being excellent. Sharp and with zippy autofocus, it seems to be a lot of lens for just $399 (currently discounted to $329). As with other glass in Samyang’s “tiny” series, it doesn’t feel solid, nor does the plastic finish feel refined (and let's not forget that Sony's nifty fifty feels even worse), but cramming that amount of sharpness into such a compact and affordable form — with autofocus — is impressive.
(For anyone pondering a 50mm, it’s worth noting that the Samyang AF 50mm f/1.4 is currently discounted to almost half of its regular price: $699 instead of $399. Bargain.)
Sony users are undeniably spoiled for choice when it comes to affordable 85mm lenses. Firstly, Sony’s own 85mm f/1.8 is a superb lens and priced at a very reasonable $598 (perhaps part of why Sony’s 35mm f/1.8 feels overpriced at $798).
If you want to save some money and don’t mind ditching the weather-sealing, there’s the Viltrox 85mm f/1.8 II at a mere $399. As detailed in my review, autofocus is solid, sharpness is excellent, and it’s potentially the most bokeh you can get for this amount of money without forgoing autofocus. The first version of this lens magically turned into an f/1.6 thanks to a firmware upgrade, and owners such as myself are waiting to see if this Mark II edition does the same.
The Sony/Viltrox conundrum is further complicated as a result of Samyang taking it upon themselves to make an 85mm f/1.4 that’s the same price as the Sony 85mm f/1.8, give or take a dollar ($599). There’s few who have anything bad to say about the Samyang, and while you don’t get the weather sealing, custom button, and overall build quality of Sony’s f/1.4 GM ($1,798) or Sigma's f/1.4 DG DN Art ($1,199) lenses, you do save yourself a serious amount of cash.
And if that’s not enough, don’t forget Samyang’s ludicrously small 75mm f/1.8. As detailed in this review, it’s not as sharp as many of Samyang’s other lenses, but the tradeoff in terms of price ($399) and convenience makes it very appealing to certain customers. I’m about to take my second trip where I’m packing as light as possible and taking only my 35mm and 75mm f/1.8 Samyang. For casual shooting, the 75mm is a great choice, and right now, you could argue that there's nothing else like it on the market.
24mm and 28mm
Going beyond 35mm is where the affordable autofocus glass starts to get a bit thin. Three lenses come in at under $500. The first is Sony's own 28mm FE 28mm f/2 at a respectable $448. For truly affordable options, you'll be looking at the Samyang AF 24mm f/2.8, currently available for $249 instead of $399, and the Tamron 24mm f/2.8 Di III OSD, which is a similar price with a similar discount — $249 instead of $349.
Perhaps being one of Samyang's earlier lenses, the 24mm f/2.8 isn't quite on par with the manufacturer's other lenses, but this thing is tiny. Not quite as pancake-y as the 35mm f/2.8, but still insanely light (4.23 oz / 120 g) and low profile to the point that it will turn an a7C into a point and shoot. You can read my review here.
The 24mm f/2.8 from Tamron is almost identical to its 35mm sibling, offering stunning sharpness and fantastic macro performance (1:2), but compromising significantly on autofocus speed. Check out my review here.
There are definitely a few lenses that I've missed on this list, so feel free to point out any glaring omissions in the comments below. I've tried to keep my suggestions under $400, so please keep that (and autofocus) in mind!
If you've got an urge for a new lens but can't justify spending a chunk of cash or perhaps you want something lightweight and compact, there's a veritable smorgasbord for Sony users. Will you be buying any of these?