There was a time in the distant past where zoom lenses used to be the poor second cousins to prime lenses. This was the case with same-make zooms, nevermind third-party offerings. Fast forward to today and the best third-party zoom lenses can easily match or even surpass same-brand offerings.
However, whittling down the best third-party zoom lenses covers a wide expanse of focal lengths. These can include lenses from the wide-angle to super-telephoto, with some zoom lenses covering an overlap of focal lengths.
With such a large amount to choose from, we have had to selectively pick from the wide-angle to medium telephoto range, covering the most useful of focal lengths, features same-make lenses can’t provide, and ideally, the most cost-effective.
As with any list of this type, which zoom is the most ideal for you will depend on what you need a particular lens for. You may need a wide angle lens for things like landscapes, while the a medium telephoto lens can cover things like, events and wildlife shots. Then again, you may simply need a general, all-round zoom lens for anything from street photography to portraits.
In the list below we will give you a selection from each of the above camps, their plus and negative points and and why they are a good option over same make brand versions.
1. Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art (Overall Winner)
Sigma is here again with one of their infamous Art series lenses, this time in the form of the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art. This lens works equally well on full-frame and crop sensor bodies, providing a 28.8-56mm equivalent focal length for the latter.
This lens covers a wide-angle view of the world on a full-frame camera, while on a crop sensor body, the range covers medium wide-angle to standard views. Five Special Low Dispersion (SLD elements), four aspherical elements, and a Super Multi-Layer Coating have been included to increase image definition, as well as reduce the effects of flaring and ghosting.
An Integrated Hyper Sonic Motor covers autofocusing with manual focus override and a rounded nine-blade diaphragm is employed for the best light-gathering abilities and smooth bokeh renditions.
One of the standout features of this lens is its wider-than-expected f/1.8 aperture which produces a wonderfully shallow depths of field. Image quality is also outstanding, with near-prime level optics and fine detail throughout the aperture range.
As with all Sigma Art series lenses, this lens is large and relatively heavy at 810g. This means it’s not the best solution for travel photography, but in all other areas, the Sigma provides excellent optics for a reasonable price point.
If you need to go as wide-angle as possible, then the Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM fits the bill. This lens covers 12-24mm on a DX-format Nikon F-mount and is arguably one of the widest angle lenses produced for APS-C sensors.
Optically, the Sigma encompasses four F Low Dispersion (FLD), one Special Low Dispersion (SLD), and one aspherical element, plus a Super Multi-Layer Coating for reducing the likes of lens flare and ghosting. A petal shaped lens hood is built into the front of the lens, which is much needed for such a wide-angle piece of glass.
Although the lens has a variable aperture, it still works extremely well in low light conditions, and the incredibly wide 121 degrees of view is about as wide as you can get without going into fisheye lens territory. Image quality is fantastic from the lens and considering the reasonable price point, it’s a healthy addition for those who want the widest angle views possible.
Turning to the medium telephoto side of things, the highly capable Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports covers everything you need for the likes of action, event, and wildlife photography.
Two F Low Dispersion (FLD) and one Special Low Dispersion (SLD) element have been included to reduce lens anomalies, as well as a Super Multi-Layer Coating that’s been applied to all lens elements to increase contrast and color. The optical stabilizer system works extremely well for handheld shots and is rounded out with a fast and efficient Hyper Sonic Motor, removable tripod collar, and a bright f/2.8 aperture.
This lens isn’t cheap by any means and it’s a heavyweight beast at 3390g. But, considering the focal lengths it covers and the wonderfully sharp image quality, it’s an excellent solution for anybody needing a long lens.
If you need a generic zoom lens, then you can’t do better than a 24-70mm. In this case, the recommendation is the Tamron SP 24-70mm F2.8 Di VC USD. While there are other third-party makers on the block offering 24-70mm zooms, the Tamron is a good choice as it doesn’t just have excellent optics, it also features image stabilization. This is a rarity for this type of zoom.
The lens is wrapped around two XR (extra refractive) and three LD (low dispersion) elements, plus three glass-molded aspherical and one hybrid aspherical element. It also features eBAND and BBAR coatings for reducing lens flare and ghosting.
The VC image stabilization offers an up-to-date five stops of compensation with two modes of use, a lens lock switch, and moisture-resistant construction.
Surprisingly, the Tamron almost matches same-brand offerings in the optical department. With the inclusion of the very useful stabilization system and solid build quality, the Tamron is a great alternative to the usual 24-70mm variety.
We could have easily picked Sigma’s own offering in the 70-200mm department, but the Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 offers slightly better value for money and is smaller and lighter.
The Tamron works equally well on full-frame and crop sensor cameras, providing a 105-300mm equivalent focal length for the latter. One XLD (extra-low dispersion) and five LD (low dispersion) elements, along with eBAND and BBAR coatings round off the optical arrangements, with the VC image stabilization system offering five stops of compensation and three modes of operation.
The lens barrel is dust and moisture resistant and as expected, and the f/2.8 aperture is wide and bright enough for all but the very lowest of light conditions. The lens is incredibly sharp at f/2.8 and considering the reasonable asking price for this type of zoom, it’s an excellent choice if you cannot stretch to the much higher costs of same-make versions.
6. Tokina AT-X 12-28 PRO DX (Budget Winner)
The usual path when choosing the best third-party zoom lenses is to first knock on the door of either Sigma or Tamron wide-angle lenses, then Tokina if you can’t find what you’re looking for. However, in the wide-angle zone, the Tokina AT-X 12-28 PRO DX zoom lens provides great value optics for the money.
On crop sensor camera bodies, the focal lengths come out at 18-42mm, venturing more into traditional lens territory. The lens utilizes a GMR (magnetic precision) sensor and Silent Drive-Module for autofocusing, plus Ultra-low dispersion glass and aspherical lens elements for the optical arrangements.
The ‘One-Touch Focus Clutch’ mechanism is a unique way of swapping to manual focus mode by simply pulling on the focus ring. But most importantly, this zoom provides reasonable optical qualities, as good low-light performance.
The Tokina may not be able to compete against more expensive zoom lenses as it has slightly softer edges at the widest apertures. However, if you consider the price point and the neutral image rendition, it’s a very good wide-angle lens for the money.
Finding the Best Third-Party Zoom Lenses
Third-party zoom lenses don’t just offer a viable alternative to same make brands, they also provide the best value for money with some features which you can’t find elsewhere. The zooms we have listed above cover wide-angle to telephoto lenses, covering the most used focal lengths.
As previously stated, the first objective is to define what the lens will be used for, then choose the glass which best fits this category. With any of the lenses listed above, they will supply great image and video quality, with plenty of low-light capabilities.