Which Is the Most Underrated Lens?

Which Is the Most Underrated Lens?

The wisdom of crowds can sometimes provide valuable insight, so we want to know which lens you think is the most underrated. Here are a few of mine too.There are many lenses that everybody just accepts as amazing, or nearly everybody. Almost any decent brand 85mm f/1.8 and faster, several 70-200mm f/2.8, several 24-70mm f/2.8s, and so on. We also know lots of lenses you ought not to touch with a barge pole. For me it was a Canon 75-300mm f/4-5.6 that was the second lens I'd ever bought, and softer than a pile of tumbledried kittens. But an interesting question that often throws up unexpected answers is which is the most underrated lens?

That question can be answered in a number of ways. For one, it can be answered from the point of view of someone who likes a lens many others don't like or that has received negative press over the years. Alternatively, you could present an answer in the form of a hidden gem which just doesn't appear to get much publicity at all, positive or otherwise. To get things going, I'm going to present my 3 suggestions for this topic.

Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro (1990)

I wrote an article on this lens a while ago because I bought it by accident in my first year of photography. It's an old lens and not one of the modern iterations of the 100mm macro. It has a built-in lens hood and a rather unusual design, but it served me very well indeed. 95% of my macro work was completed with this cheap 1990s lens and while it might be hard to find, if you can locate one, it's a brilliant way to get in to macro photography without spending a fortune. As if that wasn't enough, 100mm f/2.8s are excellent for portraiture too. I used this lens on commercial work that ended up being printed billboard size and its quality was never once a problem. A brilliantly underrated lens, mostly due to its obscurity these days.

Zenit 85mm f/1.5 Manual

This lens, which I have sadly parted ways with now, was one I described in an article a few years ago as my "secret weapon". This lens is on this list by virtue of arguably gracing both categories; not always well received and obscure. However, it's a great prime focal length, it's a very fast lens, and if you can handle the manual focus, it's a hell of a lot of lens. It has a metal barrel, metal lens cap, and everything about it feels like it was designed to be an instrument in the Cold War. It's one of the few lenses that genuinely took time to learn and become skillful at using and that, perhaps through nothing more than an antiquated love of physical technique, is a real plus for me. While some with disregard it on its colossal weight or no autofocus, I suggest you capitalize on their loss. I'll end with my conclusion from my article 2 years ago:

...this lens is awkward, heavy, irritating, averse to bright lights, and erratic: 10/10, would buy it again.

Canon 17-40mm f/4.0

This I'll admit is more of a fringe entry to the list. I'll expand: the evidence I have for this lens not being as popular as it ought to be is that I've heard more than one photographer scoff at its widest aperture being f/4. I understand that worry, but I wouldn't discount it. I bought this lens as it was relatively cheap for a wide angled lens, and I don't do a great deal of landscape photography, but was going on a trip. It ended up being a staple in my camera bag for years and used for a multitude of applications outside of landscape. There are a few things I don't like about the lens, primarily surrounding its build quality, but for the price and the sharpness of the results with little vignetting, I'd say it shouldn't be disregarded just because it's not as fast as its more expensive competitors.

So what are lenses do you believe are the most underrated? Share them in the comment section below.

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42 Comments

Wade Shanley's picture

I carried the 24-105 F4 L for many years. Great all around lens. Reasonable weight, reach and quality. Not the sharpest but versatile. I also have the 17-40 and the 100mm macro. I like the 17-40 because im not pro so couldn’t justify the 16-35 2.8 cost. My all time favorite is the 70-200 2.8. Id say most of my best shots are on this lens. While I splurged for the 70-200, F4 lenses have been fine for my needs in recent years.

Ronnie Dai's picture

my 24-105 sits on my Canon 90% of the time, its just a really good package, the weight and price despite being not sharp.

Tony Tumminello's picture

I'll preface this with the fact that I haven't used one yet, but I'd vote for the EF 100mm f2 USM. The 85mm f1.8 seems to get all of the attention but according to tests the 100mm has less vignetting, better corner sharpness, a bit less distortion, the longer focal length gives a touch more background blur, and it uses the same fast USM focus motor as the 85. All at a similar price.

According to DxO Mark the 100mm f2 compared favorably to the Zeiss Makro-Planar 100mm f2 ZE!

It's a lens that I bring up every now and then, and I'm always surprised with how many people have never even heard of it.

+1 totally agree with you

focus is off......

Matt Williams's picture

Certainly does not appear to be to me, at all, when enlarged and zoomed

I think Bhupesh is suggesting that the focal point in the photo is not her face... ;-)

I have a Canon crop-sensor, so I'll talk about lenses that work on a 1.6 crop.

My workhorse is the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f2.8. Not exactly underrated by the industry, but I have a really good copy of the lens, and I love it.

My underdog is the EF 28mm f1.8. This is a 45mm equivalent on my camera, and it's my ultralight walk-around lens on vacation. I know that some people say it's soft, but my copy is pleasantly sharp, and it has great autofocus. I also really like it for indoor holiday shooting with or without a speedlite.

Also, you dissed the EF 75-300 f4-5.6, but I also have a copy of that lens and I really like it for reaching out with my crop camera. I'm guessing that some of the overall dissatisfaction on that lens might be build quality, and a lack of consistency in the manufacturing. My own copy is closer to "puppy teeth" than "a pile of kittens" for sharpness.

And I also have an EF 50mm f1.4 for a portrait lens, but that one has _never_ been underrated...

As far as the classics, my favorite telephoto of all time is the EF 70-200 f2.8 IS II; HOWEVER, if I were going to buy a 70-200, it would be one of the f4 IS variants. I rented that for a trip to Maine and had the best time ever. f4 for the win!

Andrew Lodge's picture

The EF-S 18-135 IS STM I think is pretty underrated, here's some pics that I got today on a shoot with my friend with the lens.

Camera: Canon Rebel T6 because I have no money

Truly underrated? My Tamron 18-400 for my crop sensor camera. It's pretty damn sharp at all focal lengths and you can't beat it for outdoor sufficient-light work, particularly for travel & tourism work where you have a list of 110 places to shoot and one week to get them all. Zooming beats walking any time when time is at a premium.

All the other lenses mentioned so far are indeed terrific, but I consider them all pretty universally admired, and as such not really underrated. Still, it's great to read the reasons people love them.

This is going to be controversial, but as a Sony A7 user, I’m going to say the Sony FE 50mm 1.8. In a world of expensive Sony FF lenses, this lens is cheap, fairly versatile at 50mm, and decently large aperture. Definitely not the sharpest, definitely not the best AF performance, but sits on my lens a lot more than I’d like to admit!

michaeljin's picture

Bought this lens. Returned it. Ended up shelling out for the 55mm f/1.8. :/

Gion-Andri Derungs's picture

I'm not happy with that lens either. Actually it's the AF performance and this thing is loud too.

It's supposed to be a lot better since the firmware update, also better on A7 III, A7R3 & A9

Gion-Andri Derungs's picture

To be honest, I havn't have used the lens much on the a7RIII, because I wasn't very happy with it on the a6300. Maybe I have to give it a try again. I have the latest firmware (version 03) on it.

michaeljin's picture

It's definitely possible that it could have improved. I just remember the AF performance being an absolute mess. For me, I can take slower and possibly more inaccurate AF performance if it's a trade-off for better IQ like with the Sigma ART series, but the optical performance wasn't exactly anything to write home about either (not that one should expect it to be at that price point). It seemed like the only redeeming aspect of the lens was its price.

It's really about time for Sony to refresh their 50mm and 35mm options now that they're done with the whole Zeiss thing.

Francisco Mendoza's picture

1989 Canon 80-200 f/2.8 L

michaeljin's picture

The most underrated lenses are the kit lenses that are packed with entry level cameras. No, they're not the best glass (or glass at all in many cases) in the world, but people disparage them like they're complete trash. If you can't take a good photo with one of those lenses, it's not the lens that's trash. It's you.

I think I agree. Not only aren't these lenses always utterly unusable as some suggest but it is also illogical to expect high-grade glass to be bundled with a camera.

It might even be an interesting challenge to force yourself to go back to that first lens and see what you can do with it now that you couldn't when you first got it.

The early versions of nikons 18-55 were complete garbage. the newer one is actually pretty decent for being a kit lens. they are sharp enough for some pretty good photos.

michaeljin's picture

The first paid headshots I did were with the old 18-55mm. Good times. :D

Nice! I had two of them and I couldn't get a usable image out of either of them D: I ended up buying that sigma 70-300mm lens. the $150 dollar one. That is one of my favorite beginner lenses! I got some AWESOME photo with that lens! Maybe that should be on this list? I thought it was pretty dang good for $150.

michaeljin's picture

Yeah, it would be a lie to say that they were particularly good performers even for kit lenses. LOL! Fortunately, I wasn't delivering particular high resolution files and the headshots I did were all like f/8 and f/11 since they needed to knock the background out to replace it with their corporate ones.

It would be interesting to go back and pick up one to play around with it today, but switching camera systems twice within 6 months (my own stupidity) has taken a pretty bad toll on my finances. Maybe I'll put it on the bucket list. :P

Hey as long as they get the job done! I agree on the switching brands thing. I was mainly a Nikon shooter in my early years but as time went on I succumbed to G.A.S. lol. I ended up buying a bunch more Nikon stuff I didn't need stupidly focusing on camera bodies instead of lenses. I started noticing my work was not getting any better so I decided to try out Canon and stupidly focused on getting camera bodies. I finally got it trough my thick skull lenses and lighting are where it's at after i bought my canon 85mmf1.8 and a yongnuo speed light. After that all i bought was lenses and lighting from then on. I stuck with my D700 and got 3 sharp lenses and sold everything else. Now i have all the lenses, lighting and cameras i need but i also wasted LOADS of cash figuring it out. And now I'm working on paying off all that debt lol. I'm almost done but I will never do that again lmao. lesson learned!

I must say for me the most under-rated lens is my Canon F2.8 20mm EF lens. I have never been happy with ultra wide angle zooms, Nikon or Canon. The 20mm EF is as wide as I ever want, is arguably in the same league regarding sharpness as the big zooms, weighs significantly less, costs a lot less, has hyperlocal distance markings, and gets you the speed of a 2.8 if that's what you want. What's not to like. The canon 20mm EF has a distortion designed into the lens intended to give you more depth of field at wider apertures (see Ken Rockwell's review - he explains it better than I can). I find this feature works well, whilst giving me what I think are very natural looking images. It's a great landscape lens on a full frame camera and a useful travelling companion that won't weigh you down.

Eric Salas's picture

The Sony 85mm 1.8 is absolutely fantastic for 1200 bucks less than its Gmaster brother.

I agree on the 17-40mm L because I’ve been adapting that lens since I left Canon bodies and shoot it for 90% of my landscapes.

Gary Pardy's picture

Underrated, under-reviewed - my pick would be the Tokina Firin 20mm f2.0 FE. There is a still lack of autofocus capable, fast, affordable, third-party glass in the Sony camp, particularly on the wide end. It's super sharp for stills, fast enough for night sky shots, APS-C capture makes for a great 30mm video lens. My only complaint would be less than G/Zeiss level autofocus in terms of speed and silence.

Adriano Brigante's picture

One of the best and most underrated vintage lens out there is the Konica Hexanon AR 50mm f/1.7.

Any LensBaby Lens. All are great fun, test your creative and technical abilities, and are cheap. Underrated doesn't only mean it is really sharp and not many people have it...

michaeljin's picture

I wouldn't really call the Velvet lenses or the Burnside "cheap"... at least not for what they are.

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