Has There Ever Been a Better Time to Buy Third Party Lenses?

Has There Ever Been a Better Time to Buy Third Party Lenses?

Sigma has recently announced that it will be releasing a brand new 24-70mm f/2.8 Art for Sony full-frame cameras, and the price is quite remarkable. Given the sudden shift from DSLR to mirrorless cameras, you’d think that lens manufacturers would be struggling to keep up, but despite that, there’s probably never been a better time to buy third party glass.

Canon and Sony’s lenses for their mirrorless cameras are far from cheap, and at just $1,099, the new Sigma lens makes this even more apparent. While Sony’s own 24-70mm f/2.8 lens will set you back more than two thousand dollars, Sigma has decided to carve that price in half. Many would have been expecting it to be a couple of hundred dollars more expensive to bring it in line with other 24-70mm Sigma glass, but instead, the Japanese manufacturer has opted to make the price as aggressive as possible. If the lens matches the performance of previous Art lenses, this will make it a very attractive option, despite being pretty much the same weight as the Sony.

The newly announced Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 Art for Sony

Mid-Range Glass for Mid-Range People

As someone who doesn’t command huge fees and for whom photography is only a part of what I do, having affordable glass available — especially lenses that have autofocus and are significantly smaller and lighter — is a great advantage. One of my reasons for moving to Sony was to get a full-frame camera that was lighter and more compact, but the glass available made that seem like something of a con. Fortunately, third party manufacturers have pulled their fingers out, filled the void, and I’m now spoiled for choice.

With Sigma having recently released the 14-24mm f/2.8 Art, Sony shooters across the range are now blessed with a plethora of autofocus options, quite a contrast to the situation just a few years ago. Tamron is in the process of completing its alternative Holy Trinity of lenses, and along with Samyang/Rokinon, the number of primes available is getting a little bit ridiculous, and that’s without considering the vast number of more niche, low-volume manual focus primes made by the likes of Voigtländer and Meike.

Sigma's newly announced prime lenses for Canon EF-M.

It’s not just Sony that is benefiting. Sigma just stepped up to pad out the range of Canon EF-M lenses, announcing 16mm, 30mm, and 54mm f/1.4 primes, immediately tripling the number of primes available from Canon. Elsewhere, Samyang/Rokinon has done a stellar job of designing affordable autofocus primes with solid performance, notably the 85mm f/1.4 for Sony, and continues to broaden its lineup by producing the first third party lens for Canon RF, the 14mm f/2.8 (pre-orders are $699).

What a Difference a Decade Makes

Ten years ago, things were a little different. Buying third party glass meant spending a lot less money for a lot less lens, and the compromises being made were not always great. Autofocus would struggle, corners might be soft, or, in my experience, the maximum aperture was pretty much unusable. With an event approaching and my Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II needing some serious TLC or perhaps even replacing, I opted to tide myself over with a secondhand, third party alternative. As if anyone needs reminding that you get what you pay for, the fringing wide open was so excessive in bright sunlight that I lost a number of shots from the event and vowed never to use the lens again.

Tamron kindly loaned me the 17-28mm f/2.8 lens for a few months over the summer and I took it on an adventure. In short, it's amazing.

Today, the compromises that third party lenses offer are somewhat different. Corner sharpness and maximum aperture performance might fall slightly short, but it’s not the chalk and cheese that we experienced in the not-too-distant past. Manufacturers such as Tamron have sought to find savings elsewhere, offering modified focal ranges (28-75mm, instead of the traditional 24-70mm, for example) that allow for smaller designs. Swapping out the metallic construction of high-end lenses, Samyang/Rokinon has deployed lightweight plastic and ditched AF/MF buttons where possible, creating lenses that are comparatively tiny, while still offering excellent autofocus performance and more than acceptable sharpness given the price.

Has Mirrorless Changed the Game?

With mirrorless, something else has changed: autofocus. Those with greater technological knowledge than me will be able to offer more thoughts (please leave a comment below!), but as I understand it, replicating the autofocus performance of a camera brand lens is significantly easier now that that everything happens on the sensor, rather than being redirected to a dedicated, separate autofocus sensor. Third party manufacturers have taken full advantage, suddenly producing a wealth of autofocus primes and zooms where performance is close or equal to that of camera brands.

The unbelievably compact Samyang/Rokinon 35mm and 24mm f/2.8 prime lenses for Sony full-frame cameras.

Canon, Nikon, and Sony are exploiting new lens mount designs to give us control rings and customizable buttons, and this is another area where third party manufacturers can save costs. Weather-sealing is a further compromise, though even this is beginning to change, as the likes of Tamron add gaskets and improved construction.

What Don't You Get?

So, these compromises aside, what aren’t you buying when you opt for a third party lens? Quality control still lags behind, and it’s not unusual to see one-star reviews punctuating the five-star reviews found on many online retailers as a result of customers receiving dodgy units that haven’t been checked before leaving the factory. What’s reassuring is that this is starting to change — at least on the surface — with Samyang/Rokinon including a quality assurance slip signed by the CEO in the box of every lens.

Repairs and servicing can be more complex. With countless professionals and agencies relying on the peak performance of every lens, finding a service center to tweak the alignment and swap out any parts is rarely a problem. When a lens can cost more than a car, this is to be expected, but don’t expect to find the same level of support or a similar number of centers for your third party glass.

Adapt or Die — or Don't

Photographers such as myself have been able to soften the financial blow of transitioning from one system to another by using adapters, but the shift has been made even easier by the emergence of so much third party glass. I now have the choice of using my old glass with an adapter or trading it in for a third party lens with far superior autofocus performance, with lenses that are often significantly lighter and don’t have the added weight of the Sigma MC-11.

Shot a few days ago on my Sony a7 III using my Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 Mark II, adapted with the Sigma MC-11. I can't wait to swap this for something lighter, such as the Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8.

Looking to the Future

The future holds further promise: Sigma is slated to release a rash of fast lenses for Canon RF; Tamron is about to put a trio of small Sony primes in the hands of reviewers; and you can be sure that Samyang/Rokinon is working as hard as Sigma to roll out more glass for the RF mount. Nikon’s Z mount will take a little longer, and given its recent sales figures, Nikon itself might want to consider opening up its protocols to give third party manufacturers an incentive and make its Z 6, Z 7, and now Z 50 cameras more attractive. This might seem like a fine idea on the surface, but camera manufacturers tend to draw a lot of their profits from lens sales rather than body sales, so there might be good reason to hold back.

My "let's go climbing" lens: the Samyang 35mm f/2.8 AF for Sony FE.

While Canon, Sony, Nikon (eventually), and L-mount camera owners have reason to be excited, Fujifilm fans do not. Fuji has never made its protocols available and has no plans to, much to Sigma’s frustration. Fuji has a decent range of X-Mount glass and no immediate desire to reveal how its autofocus functions, and it also has complete control over its market, so don’t expect this to change anytime soon.

With so many great offers on this November, now is probably a fantastic time to invest in some third party glass, and with Black Friday looming, there might be some amazing deals to pick up. What will you be buying? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Andy Day's picture

Andy Day is a British photographer and writer living in France. He began photographing parkour in 2003 and has been doing weird things in the city and elsewhere ever since. He's addicted to climbing and owns a fairly useless dog. He has an MA in Sociology & Photography which often makes him ponder what all of this really means.

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Wait... Are you calling Sigma Art lenses "midrange glass"? Those lenses are often of higher optical quality than what you get from the native camera manufacturer's options.

Sigma owns their reputation. They were sometimes borderline poor quality in the past. New lenses are greatly improved (global vision lenses - Art series especially) but some still have issues. When they are great they are truly first class, but I've had (and gotten rid of) some "mid-range" stuff. Tamron too, but lately they are very impressive. Good time to have this many great options, and for alot less than native glass.

That's a fair point and the article could have explored that further, but in terms of price, yes. Sigma glass is typically around two-thirds to three-quarters the price of Canon or Sony glass.

I clearly remember the days when buying a Sigma or Tamron lens instead of the manufacturer's glass meant you were an amateur. Pros wouldn't be caught dead with third party glass.

I really appreciate the options we get from the new attitude.

The Sigma Art series as a whole are far from midrange in terms of image quality. They are a steal for the price. Simply because something is (in)expensive should not dictate it's worth.

Previously posted a poll in fb groups. Always 8-10 score from art owners. Never read anything but respect and praise for sigma art lenses. Not often, but ALWAYS, outperforming the oem lens. Thats been shown to be the case with all reviews. Well built. Big and heavy (which I prefer the feel in my hand. To each his own)

Not 10 years back. 7 years back. They released the 35 art and things jumped from there. Never heard or know of any pro photpgrapher I work with who had issues with af with any art lens. Reviews take with a grain of salt and only from "verified buyer". They do have a problem with 3d tracking with my d4. Cicala from lens rentals has dismissed af accuracy issues with art lenses. Oem has variances just as much

Before 2012, if you bought sigma it wasnt the standard of oem. Not build or iq. It was good enough quality not the best. Today, I have no interest in any oem lens. I only look to sigma/tamron for any lens I need

I started weddings with sigma ex lenses years back. Wasnt going to pay nikon prices when the sigma was good enoigh I had that mindset till I purchased a beat up 85 1.4 ais that was so beat up. I printed them 13x18. I quickly realized the iq the ex sigma wasnt giving me. I moved to all nikon glass and would not buy sigma if I wanted the best. Today ita back like I started. Oem glass is too expensive and 3rd party offers better performance.

Im happy we have amazing options that exceed oem levels. Weird how things flipped

To me it seems that it is good that 3rd parties are making better glass. But they seem to be focused only on their top tier. Go below that and the still deserve their well earned reputation . Not to say Nikon/Canon, et al haven't made some bad glass they have. But will the construction of cheaper materials hold up day in and out. That is still unanswered. And where the cost savings come in. As for Sigma, the only thing sigma I will ever own is the lens cap on my Ziess Planer 50mm 1.4.

your loss. mainly in your pocket. haha