We Photographers sure love our lenses! So much so that the previous article of a rather similar name received so much love that I couldn't help but write a follow up. The world is filled with amazing glass that doesn't have to completely bust the bank. Sure we all want that new Nikon 105mm f/1.4 and certainly the enormously priced brand new Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E but do we really need them? I'd argue probably not, the market has an enormous selection of great lenses, many of which are cheaper and offer exactly what many photographers need.
Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8D AF-S
The 80-200mm range was the predecessor to the now coveted 70-200mm fast tele-zoom market. The 80-200mm lenses that Nikon offered were designed for pro shooters as they offered good optics and quality for a very reasonable price. Nikon even still makes one of them today; the 80-200mm f/2.8D AF-D, which, in my opinion, isn't such a great lens. I digress, however. First some history is in order.
In 1997 Nikon released the AF-D version of the lens which is still in production today. For its time the AF-D was a decent lens and offered a reasonable pro option in a time before the 70-200mm focal range was even around. In 1999 Nikon released an AF-S version of the lens. The 80-200mm AF-S was larger and heavier but it was a considerable jump in quality over the AF-D version of the lens. It offered far superior optics, especially wide open, and enjoyed a faster, more accurate autofocus system. The AF-S version was also noticeably more expensive. Nikon manufactured the AF-S until 2004 when it stopped making them leaving only the inferior AF-D model at its lower price point.
Why did Nikon make this choice to cut production on a superior product leaving only the cheaper 80-200mm? Because in 2003 the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR hit the market at a slightly higher price than the AF-S. That first 70-200mm had about the same optical quality as the 80-200mm AF-S and offered an upgrade in the form of VR. Presumably, Nikon felt that the products were too similar in terms of both quality and price so opted to discontinue the 80-200mm AF-S while still keeping its older, cheaper AF-D cousin.
Fortunately for savvy photographers, many copies of the 80-200mm AF-S were created and are available on the used market today. Given the buzz around 70-200mm lenses that never seems to slow, the 80-200mm AF-S was largely forgotten about which had a marvelous impact on its price on the used market. Depending on condition they range from about $550 to $900, offering pro quality performance at a budget price. Just be weary, if you are looking to purchase one they tend to be well loved and heavily used due to how good they were. Also make sure you are getting the correct lens, I've seen innumerable listings of AF-D lenses labeled as AF-S at AF-S prices. Make sure the lens has AF-S printed on it. I'd recommend first looking at a reputable used dealer such as B&H Photo before heading to Craigslist. Side note: You may notice that B&H Photo has slightly higher used prices than other dealers, this is because B&H takes the time to not only fully evaluated each lens to ensure it is in working order but also does an auto focus fine tune which no other dealer that I have spoken to includes by default.
Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 IF EX DG HSM
Both Nikon and Canon have had pretty impressive options in the 24-70mm zoom range for quite some time. They also come with some pretty impressive price tags, furthermore, they are also quite heavy lenses that tend become a burden through a long day of shooting. The most commonly recommended alternative usually comes in the form of the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC which is also a fantastic lens. Regardless, however, I have chosen the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 as the mid range zoom for my camera bag.
Why? It is even smaller and cheaper than the Tamron while offering comparable optics. In lab tests the Tamron would almost certainly win but in day to day shooting the difference in images between the two is nearly imperceptible. I'm the sort of shooter who is going to mount a fast prime as often as he can so, for me, a 24-70mm isn't a workhorse lens, rather, it is a backup lens that spends much of its time in my bag only coming out when I'm in need of the versatility of zoom or if the prime I wanted to use is at the repair shop. Size is a huge factor in this regard and the impressively light 790g weight of the Sigma 24-70mm (compared to say the 1070g of the Nikon 24-70mm) makes it the perfect lens for the work I do. Any photographer with similar needs would be very well served by this gem of a lens that has always delivered nice, sharp images any time I've used it.
Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS
I also wanted to include a budget option in this list which led me to no other lens than the Sigma 70-300mm OS. I've had this lens for years, though I don't really use it anymore as I've mostly worn out the autofocus mechanism and it doesn't open wide enough for the sort of shooting I'm mostly doing these days. I originally received this lens shortly after it first came out. I didn't buy it, rather, I had randomly entered into a photography competition and won the Sigma 70-300mm as a prize. For about a year the thing sat on a shelf. I figured a cheap super zoom was junk so I never really got around to using it. Until one day I needed 300mm of reach so decided to give it a whirl.
I was blown away by the optical quality of the lens. Sure it is slow but it is also very sharp. By far the sharpest super zoom I've ever used and with the help of quite impressive OS the Sigma 70-300mm is actually quite capable of creating magnificent images. For anyone looking to get into a telephoto zoom in the sub $500 price range this lens zips ahead of the competition. Note: I am considerably less impressed by the non-OS Sigma 70-300 that sells for under $200. Any images I've seen taken with it tend to live up to the more conventional wisdom suggesting super zooms generally do not perform well.
The best lens isn't always the one with the highest price tag and latest engineering. The best lens is the one that enables you to make the images you want to make without becoming too much of a burden on your wallet. Instead of emptying your bank account to chase the latest and most expensive super-lenses, explore a few less commonly considered lenses that offer great performance at a reasonable price.