When we’re talking about third-party zoom lenses in general, there is a dizzying array of options on the market. Once we cut down the criteria to the best third-party zoom lenses under $500, the options list becomes smaller, but it still includes some worthwhile candidates.
As the criteria here is for general zoom lenses, we will be featuring examples that cover wide-angle, standard viewpoints, and telephoto versions. All of these will have their own specific characteristics.
As they are third-party versions, these lenses will generally provide lots of optical quality for the money, along with some tasty features that may not be found on same-brand versions.
1. Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM (Overall Winner)
While the Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM can be found for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Sony camera mounts, its the Canon version for some reason that slips in under the $500 price bracket. This offering is a wide-angle zoom lens that provides great optical capabilities for a reasonable price.
Optically the lenses are made up of four F Low Dispersion (FLD), one Special Low Dispersion (SLD,) and one aspherical element, plus a Super Multi-Layer Coating for reducing lens anomalies. A Hyper Sonic Motor is also included to cover autofocusing, with manual focus override and a built-in lens hood to protect the delicate front element.
Although the aperture is variable, being a wide-angle lens, it can still achieve very low shutter speeds with a surprising amount of sharpness across the focal range. The lens may not be able to accept front filters, but in every other respect, it’s an extremely fine wide-angle zoom for its asking price.
2. Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II VC HLD
At just a touch under $500, the Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II VC HLD provides a lot of optics for the price and is useful on both full-frame and crop sensor camera bodies.
The optics in this wide-angle offering consist of one extra-low dispersion, one low dispersion, and a molded glass aspherical element, along with a Broad-Band Anti-Reflection coating for good measure.
While it’s not always needed on a wide-angle lens, image stabilization has been included with four stops of compensation for truly low shutter speeds. The lens barrel has been moisture sealed and a fluorine coating applied to the front element to protect it from the likes of dust and dirt.
This lens is extremely sharp throughout the aperture range and won’t disappoint landscape shooters who need exceptional detail throughout the frame. Colors and contrast are well regulated, without being overbearing, providing in most cases a picturesque rendition of a scene.
3. Tamron SP 28-75mm f/2.8 XR Di LD
The Tamron SP 28-75mm f/2.8 XR Di LD covers the most used focal lengths, generally from the realm of much higher price zooms such as the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM. Features on the Tamron above other offerings are image stabilization and a much more affordable price point.
The lens features a constant f/2.8 aperture, 16 elements in 14 groups, and a circular seven-blade diaphragm wrapped around a very solid outer shell. The lens is respectably sharp at f/2.8 while also providing beautiful bokeh. Images may not be as crisp as other 24-70mm contemporaries, but when the lens is stopped down to f/4, it soon catches up in the detail stakes.
Ultimately, if you cannot stretch to the cost of a same brand 24-70mm zoom, the Tamron SP 28-75mm is a worthy second choice.
4. Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD
To cover the medium telephoto side of things, we have gone with the Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD. It doesn’t just provide wonderful value for money, but it also offers a wide focal range and other goodies such as Vibration Compensation.
The Tamron lens is useful on full-frame and crop sensor camera bodies, having an optical make-up of a Low Dispersion and an Extra-Low Dispersion element, plus an Ultrasonic Silent Drive which also has manual focus override. The Vibration Compensation system offers an impressive four-stops of compensation and is very much needed when approaching the 300mm end of things.
A focal range of 70-300mm is quite a distance to cover for any lens, but the Tamron does this with aplomb, as long as the aperture is stopped down to f/5.6. Images are respectively sharp from this point onwards, meaning that if you want a low-cost super zoom lens for mostly outdoor work, the Tamron is a great choice.
5. Tokina AT-X 12-28mm f/4 PRO DX (Budget Winner)
For just a touch under $400, the Tokina AT-X 12-28mm f/4 PRO DX delivers high-quality, wide-angle viewpoints, with a nice wide and bright f/4 aperture.
The third-party zoom lens is useful on full-frame and crop sensor camera bodies, reaching more into standard viewpoints at the telephoto end. A Focus Clutch Mechanism has also been incorporated, which is simply a quick way to swap between manual and autofocusing.
Wide-angle lenses usually need detail and definition loaded throughout the depth of field, which this lens can easily accomplish. Infinity focus is very precise for this price point, which would make this lens a very good solution for night-time photography and landscape shots.
Narrowing in on the Best Third-Party Zoom Lenses Under $500
In many ways, it’s asking a lot of a lens manufacturer to produce the same levels of optical quality as the highest priced lenses in a $500 bundle. However, as shown above, if you don’t mind going with a slightly narrower aperture, plastic rather than all-metal lens construction, and none of the advanced weather-sealing, you can still buy into quality optics.
In the under $500 price range, wide-angle zooms are the most prevalent, with only a few offerings in the medium telephoto realm. This is mainly due to longer focal lengths needing more optical correction, thus fancier optics and a higher price point. This is evident when you check out 70-200mm zoom lenses or even some of the ultraexpensive 500 and 600mm primes.
As with most areas of photography, it’s generally down to the skill of the photographer, not just the kit for producing quality results. All the examples above are a big step up from regular kit zooms, providing plenty of scope for creativity in very affordable packages.