In the past, third-party prime lenses used to be the definite second option to the same make variety, but not anymore. This is especially true as the third-party manufacturers slowly started to produce versions for the latest mirrorless camera platforms, taking advantage of faster autofocusing and newfangled features such as lens control rings.
At the moment, the bulk of the third-party prime lens offerings come in the DSLR format, but if you’ve already jumped ship to the mirrorless platform, the tried and tested DSLR versions can still be used with a high-quality adapter.
Third-party prime lenses are ideal for those wanting to squeeze out the most optical quality from one particular focal length. This means that you have far more walking backward and forwards to frame a shot than a zoom lens, but in exchange, you get far wider apertures, better low-light capabilities, and generally a more discreet looking lens.
1. Tokina opera 50mm f/1.4 FF (Overall Winner)
Firstly, we have to state some pre-requisites to our third-party prime lens criteria. We’ve excluded obscure, money-is-no-object versions, focusing more on those examples which are the most accessible and provide the best optics for the money. This is where the Tokina opera 50mm f/1.4 FF comes into play, providing excellent image rendition for the money.
The lens itself can be used on both full-frame and crop sensor bodies, providing an 80mm equivalent focal length on the latter. The Tokina also features a respectably wide f/1.4 aperture, along with Three Super-Low Dispersion and one aspherical element. The lens barrel is fully weather-sealed and weighs 950g.
The Tokina opera is worthy of our top spot as it’s wonderfully sharp with the aperture wide open, with very minimal amounts of lens anomalies. Images, on the whole, are crisp in detail with a neutral degree of color and saturation where it counts. In total, the Tokina is a wonderfully versatile lens for its asking price.
2. Sigma 28mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
For those who need a more wide-angle lens in their arsenal of optics, the Sigma AF 28mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art is a very accurate offering. The lens has a usable f/1.4 aperture, with a verging on a standard view of 44.8mm on crop sensor cameras.
Two F Low Dispersion, three Special Low Dispersion, and three aspherical elements are included in the optical arrangement. Plus a Super Multi-Layer Coating is applied to all lens elements to reduce the likes of ghosting and flares.
The Sigma may not have the full weather-proofing of the Tokina lens above, but like all the Arts series lenses, Sigma has poured all their efforts into the optical qualities. This aspect clearly stands out, with sharp detail from the center to the edges of the frame, even with the aperture set to f/1.4.
This lens may seem a little pricey at just over $1000, but if you need a dedicated prime lens that is verging on the wide-angle, the Sigma is a great choice.
3. ZEISS Milvus 18mm f/2.8
It would be almost rude to not include some sort of ZEISS lens in a third party prime lens line-up. This is why we went for the ZEISS Milvus 18mm f/2.8, which provides a still respectable f/2.8 aperture and the renowned ZEISS T* anti-reflective coating.
Four anomalous partial dispersion and two aspherical elements have been included in the optical arrangement. These are wrapped around a floating elements system that provides the best image definition throughout the focusing range.
This is a manual focusing only lens that features a manual aperture ring that can be de-clicked for video usage.
There is no faulting the optical definition of this lens, and the only reason why this third-party prime lens is lower on the list is simply because of its rather high price point and its manual-only workings. This is not so much a problem for those who are using a wide-angle lens for the likes of landscape photography, but for fast-paced work, autofocus is always nice.
4. Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art
For those who need a bit more reach from their lens for the likes of portrait work, the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art is a good third-party prime lens. Producing an equivalent focal length of 202.5mm on crop sensor bodies, the lens has a wide and bright f/1.8 aperture, with the usual rock-solid Art series build quality.
The optics comprise of two F Low Dispersion, two Special Low Dispersion elements, and a Super Multi-Layer coating. It also has a Hyper Sonic motor and rubber seals on the camera mount.
This lens is extremely sharp from the center to the edges at f/1.8, producing wonderful bokeh, which is just the ticket for great portrait work.
5. Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
As a dedicated portrait lens, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art provides not just great optics and a shallow depth of field, but also great low-light capabilities.
This may be a heavy lens, but in exchange, it’s very sharp at f/1.4 across the frame while also producing wonderfully creamy bokeh. The only real downside to this lens is that it can exhibit chromatic aberration at f/1.4, but this quickly goes away when the lens is stopped down to f/2.
6. Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8 Di VC USD (Budget Winner)
Ok, the Tamron SP 35mm prime lens may not exactly be classed as a budget-level lens, but if you compare it to the price point of the average ZEISS prime, it’s remarkably good value.
As with all good 35mm primes, the Tamron features a nice and bright f/1.8 aperture, with a useful minimum focusing distance of 20cm, and a respectable weight of 450.77g. The autofocus is extremely quick and quite, which means if you want a slightly wider angle of view than a standard 50mm, the Tamron stands out in this regard.
Rounding up the Best Third-Party Prime Lenses
No matter your chosen focal length, there should be a good third-party prime lens on the market to fit not just your photography needs, but also your budget.
As with all choices in the prime lens world, which one you choose will be down to your own personal circumstances. So, while one lens may fit the bill in a certain area, another subject or scene may need completely different capabilities.