3 Great Lenses That Aren't On Your Radar But Probably Should Be

3 Great Lenses That Aren't On Your Radar But Probably Should Be

As photographers, many of us are obsessive gear heads always on the hunt for the holy grail of glass. No lens is good enough, we have this mysterious idea of a perfect lens in our imagination that no company could possibly ever actually create. There are, however, a ton of fantastic lenses out there that many photographer would never give a second thought that are more than capable of bringing magic to your next shoot. In this post I'm going to cover three of my favorites.

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM

Whoa... hold on back up. He just wrote down the old Sigma 50mm and not the much coveted and renowned 50mm f/1.4 ART. He must be insane! Yup, I am, but there is method to my madness so hear me out. I adore my 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM. I've had this lens since before the new hotness (aka ART) hit the stage and have been very fond of it the whole time. I originally purchased it because I wanted a 50mm and had a fiery burning hatred for Nikon's fifties. Sorry Nikon, you have some great lenses but your fifties have always left me wanting more. After reading reviews and obsessing over sample images I opted to purchase the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM on eBay for all of $250. I figured the cost was low and even if it wasn't great it wasn't a huge loss. Turns out I love this lens because of the way it renders bokeh. Part of the reason I wasn't a fan of the Nikon fifties was because their bokeh always bugged me, it was distracting, this lens's bokeh is not. It has a subtle painterly feel and does a great job of transitioning from in focus to out of focus in a smooth, pleasing manner.

The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM isn't all peaches and cream though. As expected from an older Sigma that is pretty cheap sharpness is a concern. I don't think of this lens as a 50mm f/1.4, instead I think of it as a 50mm f/1.6. Wide open the images are just too fuzzy for me to ever consider using it. That said, f/1.6 is almost always more than enough for what I need to do so I'm quite happy with this lens. I like to think of this lens as a poor man's version of Nikon's 58mm f/1.4G that is known to be a bit soft wide open but also creates amazing bokeh. This lens isn't quite as nice as Nikon 58mm but at more than a thousand dollars cheaper I'm more than happy with using it instead.

Shot with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM at f/1.6

Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro

Those who have used this lens know just how amazing this hunk of glass truly is. I owe my entire career to this lens, in a sense. I started out as a landscape/nature photographer and bought this originally for shooting flowers. It turned out to be my main portrait lens for years as I transitioned to photographing people. I imagine their 100mm is a bit of irony for Tokina, at the time of this lens's launch it seemed Tokina was focused on defining themselves as the company who made great, fast, wide angle lenses as most of their offering were wide at the time. Then this lens arrives and was easily the best lens Tokina had ever made. Priced at half the cost of the Nikon and Canon equivalents the Tokina comes in with better optics, less weight, and innovative ergonomics in the form of its focus clutch mechanism that I adore. Whether you are a macro shooter or a portrait photographer the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro is an amazing deal that deserves a spot in your lens bag.

Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO Macro

Not quite as "budget" as the other two I have come to adore this lens for portraiture due to its unique focal length. I long for a modern 135mm on the Nikon mount, no one seems interested in making one so this lens is the next best thing. In my opinion between about 120mm and 160mm is the sweet spot for the perfect headshot lens and the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 sits comfortably within that zone. The OS is also pretty great for an older generation lens as I'm able to comfortably make sharp images handheld down to about 1/40th of a second with it. It is also wonderfully sharp, even towards the edges and the auto focus is fast, quiet, and accurate. The Sigma 150mm f/2.8 has quickly become my go to headshot lens and will remain so until someone finally gives me a 135mm that beats it.

Shot with the Sigma 150mm f/2.8

Conclusion

Finding the perfect lens for your workflow isn't always about finding some impossible holy grail or needing to trade a kidney in order to afford the lens. Instead, its about finding the lens that most matches your creative vision and your workflow. The lenses above all meet that criteria for me and I'm sure they also will for many others. I'd love to hear about a few more amazing gems, though. Head down to the comments and give me the run down on some of your unexpected favorite lenses.

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29 Comments

I have all three of these and love them! The old Sigma 50 is still my go-to even though I own a lot of more expensive glass. Everything about it is beautiful (except the size and weight).

I think almost every photographer has a 50mm lens and I have the Canon version of the Sigma 50 Art lens. I also have a 135 f/2.0 (Canon) and that thing is sharp as a tact. Would love a lens like that for my Nikon D810 too. Might have to try the Sigma 150 for Nikon.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Yup, that lens alone has made me consider swapping brands at times. Ultimately its still a very old lens though, I'd really love to see what Canon could do with a Mk II version of that 135.

As far as I know, the only 135mm not 15+ years old that has AF is Sony's.

Matt Rennells's picture

The Nikon 135mm f/2 DC, while being very old is still an outstanding portrait lens. I have the 105 version and I've debated on upgrading to the 135. Very sharp in the middle and amazing bokeh (especially if you learn how to use the DC controls properly). Yes, it does have some problem with chromatic aberrations, but those are easily correctable in lightroom. Autofocus isn't super fast, but there is just something magical about the way it renders skin tones. In addition if you do outdoor portraiture, this lens allows you to get a nice depth of field even shooting in bright sun with flash. You can shoot outdoors at f/5.6, 1/250th, ISO 50 (L1.0 on D800/810) -- which is pretty close to the sunny 16 rule. With the DC controls, you can dial in more bokeh in the background (5.6R setting) so that it looks more like it was shot at f/3.2-4). I've shot with 85s, 70-200s, and other "it" lenses, and I just keep going back to the DC.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I have used that lens but I personally strongly dislike it. I consider the CA far too extreme (remember that LR/PS CA fixing doesn't actually remove it, it just desaturates it so its harder to see) and found that unless I stop it down a fair bit I was unhappy with the sharpness at any DC setting.

Matt Rennells's picture

That might have been a bad copy. With the 105 version at least, I can count eyelashes on a full length shot. I only had the 135 for a bit when I was debating and the performance of the two was almost identical, I just like the 105 focal length better. I've attached a 100% crop and a full shot. These are unedited other than cropped in lightroom -- don't judge the photos, they are just what happens to be handy.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I'm assuming that is stopped down a bit? f/4.0 maybe? Even such, the sharpness on the lines of the dress in the 100% crop isn't great.

I own the Canon 135 and love the results, but don't use it too much. The problem I find is to take advantage of the sharpness you need a high shutter speed (for me 1/1000 for consistency) as 135mm without IS can be quite challenging. Maybe you have steadier hands than me though :).

The old Sigma 1.4 is fantastic; I prefer it to the art, but its AF is a little inconsistent (less so than the Canon 1.2), so for events I don't think it's necessarily the best choice - for personal use it's great (and much lighter).

I love to see these articles espousing he virtues of "whatever lens I have in my bag"... I think we as a collective photographic community need to come to the conclusion that Sheryl Crow did back in 1996, "If it makes you happy, It can't be that bad," but also embrace the next lyric , "If it makes you happy, Then why the hell are you so sad..." Seems we spend too much time arguing what is the best, crispest, sharpest, bokeeest (trademark pending) lens, when what we should be doing is looking at all of the amazing images and enjoying them. But this is not a comment bashing these articles. On the contrary, I love to hear about these lenses that are a little off the beaten path and what can be done with them, just about as much as I like to hear about the newest stuff out... Bravo Ryan!

Tomash Masojc's picture

Old Sigmas primes as always have soft creamy bokeh and so on...yes, maybe even quite sharp, but. Back in my beginning of photography i was buying my first 50mm on my Nikon D5100, i tried 3 or 4 different Sigma older 50mm, even in two different shops, 2 of them had terrible focus shifting, other two back/front focus, and as it was amateour camera, it diidn't have AF Tune, it all ended with buying Nikon 1.8G that worked perfect :)

Yeah, I love my old Sigma 50, but it did need adjustment to the AF.

Spy Black's picture

I agree about the Tokina 100, I was quite surprised by it as well. There's quite a number of lesser-known lenses that are quite good. I was reading an article on the new 105mm f/1.4 Nikkor, and the author was comparing it to various Nikkors and a Tamron 85mm f/1.8 that he owned, and the Tamron wound up looking better than all the Nikkors save for the 105. Who knew? Check it out:
http://nikonrumors.com/2016/12/25/nikon-af-s-nikkor-105mm-f1-4e-ed-lens-...

Ryan Cooper's picture

It does make amazing images. All of Tamron's VC primes have been spectacular for what they are. Makes me wonder if they are harbingers of a pro line of VC primes that Tamron is working on (f/1.4 with even better VC and AF). If I didn't already have two 85mm lenses I'd have bought the Tamron in a heartbeat.

Carl Harper's picture

An amazing article. I love my old Sigma 50. I cannot complain with my results. I love my bokeh from this lens.

"Instead, its about finding the lens that most matches your creative vision and your workflow. " Couldn't agree more. I use old glass, lots of manual focus Nikon lenses going back to the 1950s because I like the look and really don't care about maximizing corner sharpness or some other quality that the perfection seekers fixate upon. Each to his or her own, though, of course.

Spy Black's picture

I used modern and legacy lenses. My older lenses, most of which I've own since the 70s, have a particular look, a rendering, if you will, that I'm very used to. In that sense I rely on them when I want a particular look to my images. I've even installed split-image/microprism focusing screens in my bodies for them.

That said, there is so much to appreciate from modern lenses, and lenses even a few years back. There have been so many great advances that it would foolish not to make use of them.

I won't argue with that - I have plenty of modern lenses too. :)

Phil Newton's picture

I have the 30mm sigma 1.4 non-art on a crop sensor body and I like the combo. Again only $250 on eBay. Fills the gap between the sigma 10-20mm wide and the Canon nifty fifty

David Bengtsson's picture

I'm really tempted to get that one for Sony E mount. I have tried it in a store and was so close to just buying it on the spot. I already have their 60 2.8 I just bought it as a cheap lens and didn't expect to much but it is so sharp. I also loved that focal range on a cropped body.

Great article!
There are a lot of superb lenses out there at great prices.
So many people do not bother to look beyond a few rock star lenses to find and use some real gems.

nice lenses

I believe you will find the Zeiss 2/135 APO Sonnar a pretty good lens, albeit manual focus and no stabilization. The Zeiss 2/100 Makro Planar is no slouch either.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I imagine it is word class optically, unfortunately, for me, manual focus only is a mega deal breaker.

Chris Rogers's picture

This is a good post. you don't need the HIGHEST end lenses to do great work. I bought the old 50mm.f1.8D over the G version because it saved me $200 and i still get amazing portraits with it. I used a sigma 70-200mm for a looong time until I had to sell it because life like to throw jabs at you sometimes. That lenses was amazing for it's price. I did some pretty decent work with it too. The 50 1.8D is STILL a really good lens that can be used professionally.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I wonder if you got a really good version of the 50 1.8D, personally I define that particular lens as the worst lens I've ever used on any camera and I've used several different copies of it.

I've heard the old 85 D series were pretty good but have never had the chance to shoot with them.

Chris Rogers's picture

Really? I have had nothing but good luck with them. I have owned 2 of the d versions one G version. All three were really good to me. The G is a much better than the D for sure. The build of the g version is questionable there is some movement where there should not be but the glass is not too shabby. Yeah if you can ever get your hands on the 85 1.8D you wont regret it.

Tony Carter's picture

Yep, I have the old Sigma 50, the Tokina 100, and just picked up the old Sigma 85mm 1.4. Bought them all quite cheap cheap as they were used lenses, but the images from them are incredible on my Nikon D500! I have noticed that there is quite a bit of difference between the f1.4 and f1.8 lens versions. The f1.4 lenses give better results in terms of sharpness and clarity, so if you're deciding between the two versions, definitely save up and get the f1.4's. The trick to f1.4's though is that you have to be extra careful to nail the focus to exactly where you want it to land, conversely, f1.8's give you a little more leeway. I never thought to use the Tokina as a portrait lens though.

I exclusively used the 50mm on these shots:

https://www.instagram.com/p/BOZ8kn_ju-q/?taken-by=tfizzlephotography

Daniel Lee's picture

I 100% agree with the Sigma 50mm EX lens. Stupidly I sold mine and regret it so much. I find there was quite a lot of variation with this lens. The original one I had was useless and I would consider DOA, the second one was tack sharp wide open and it was my most used lens for years.

I still have the Sigma 85mm f1.4 EX and I plan to never let this lens go!