Choosing the right lens is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a photographer. While it’s great to have options, the variety of lenses available can make it difficult to decide which one is best. In particular, photographers and videographers that use a Sony camera have a wide range of high quality Sony lenses to choose from. This Sony lens buying guide seeks to help you identify which lens is best for you based on what you like to shoot.
Lens Mount & Sensor Size
Sony makes lenses for two different lens mount systems, A-mount and E-mount. The A-mount is standard on Sony’s Translucent Mirror cameras, while the E-mount is used by their range of mirrorless camera systems. Both A-mount and E-mount cameras use full frame and APS-C sensors, and there are lenses available for both formats. Generally you can use an APS-C-format lens on a full frame camera, although the resulting imagery will be cropped. Full-frame lenses should not be used on APS-C cameras.
Prime vs Zoom Lenses
Every camera lens is either a prime or a zoom. A prime lens has a fixed focal length (e.g. 50mm), while a zoom lens offers a focal length range (e.g. 24-70mm). Because prime lenses are optimized for a specific focal length, they are capable of capturing sharper, better quality imagery. They’re also lighter and typically more expensive. A zoom lens is more versatile, allowing the photographer to use different focal lengths without having to carry around multiple lenses. The compromise is a heavier build and slight decline in image quality.
Professional photographers tend to prefer prime lenses. They generally have a good idea of what focal length they need, so it makes sense to prioritize image quality over focal length flexibility. Similarly, zoom lenses are great for beginners as they allow them to experiment with different focal lengths and are usually more affordable. However, most photographers and videographers have at least one lens of each type. Sony manufactures both zoom and prime lenses.
Most portrait photographers use a telephoto or long-focus prime lens with a wide aperture. A longer focal length, between 80-200mm, is ideal for portrait photography as it more realistically represents your subject, and allows you to stand at an appropriate distance from your subject, even when capturing a close-up shot.
While you can use a wider focal length, proceed with caution. Anything wider than 50mm may result in distortion, which is not ideal when you’re photographing someone’s face. A longer focal length is more flattering, making your subject look thinner.
You should also use a lens with a wide aperture. A wide aperture will let more light into the shot and can add some visually pleasing bokeh to the background. Check out our post about the basics of portrait photography for more tips about this style.
If you’re shooting on a full frame, E-mount camera such as the a7S III, a7 III, or a7R IV, the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 G Master prime lens is a great choice. 85mm is an excellent focal length for portraits, accurately capturing your subject while allowing you to take close-up photos without standing too close. The wide aperture also enables a very shallow, visually pleasing depth of field. The lens produces vivid, sharp imagery that will make your subject look great.
The 85mm f/1.4 lens is currently priced $1,798, but don’t fret if this is out of your budget. Sony makes another 85mm E-mount lens with a f/1.8 aperture and a more affordable $568 price tag. Weighing 13.1 oz (371g), it’s less than half the weight of the 29 oz (820g) G Master lens. The 85mm f/1.8 lens also has a faster autofocus. However, the G Master lens outputs a slightly better image quality. The lens’ wider, f/1.4 max aperture enables it to perform better in low-light and produces a creamier bokeh.
Another alternative is the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS lens. The best thing about this lens is that it gives you the focal length flexibility of a zoom lens, yet still manages to produce incredibly sharp imagery throughout the focal range. However, at 52.21 oz (1.48kg), it’s also considerably heavier than the 85mm prime lenses.
If you’re using an APS-C E-mount camera like the Sony a6000, you can still use either of the above lenses, though they will be subject to a 1.5x crop. If you use an A-mount camera, the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens is a powerful zoom lens that works great for portrait photography.
A wide focal length is much better suited to landscape photography. Wide angle lenses allow you to capture a large field of view, producing imagery with a longer depth of field. As a result, when photographing a picturesque landscape you’ll be able to include more scenery in your frame while also maintaining focus.
One downside of a wide focal length is distortion. The field of view of the human eye is generally considered to be consistent with a 50mm focal length. Therefore, anything wider will produce imagery that looks slightly unnatural to the human eye. However, it’s relatively negligible in landscape photography until you go lower than 20mm. Distortion is also not always bad, and can be used to capture visually interesting photographs.
You can also use a telephoto lens to great effect in landscape photography. A telephoto lens is defined by having a focal length that’s longer than its physical length. Therefore, they typically have focal lengths of 70mm or higher. The benefit of using a telephoto lens in landscape photography is that you can photograph a large, faraway subject in intricate detail. It’s better suited to photos focused on a specific landmark rather than a vast landscape.
For landscape photography, a high quality zoom lens is recommended over a prime. In portrait photography, a prime lens makes sense because it’s easy to adjust the distance between you and your subject. That’s not so simple when your subject is a mountain range or a sunset. It’s not very convenient to carry multiple lenses if you’re hiking to a scenic viewpoint. Worse, if you only have a single prime lens and the focal length isn’t right, you may need to walk a long distance to make it work. A versatile zoom lens is far more convenient.
The Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM is an exceptional E-mount, full frame lens for landscape photography. The wide-angle zoom lens captures beautiful, sharp imagery throughout its focal range, while its f/2.8 aperture allows it to work well in low-light and produce decent bokeh. If you use an A-mount camera, the Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II Vario Sonnar T* lens is an equally strong choice.
The 16-35mm is a full-frame lens, and while you can technically use it on an APS-C camera, it’s not recommended. Sony G Master lenses are a premium range, and the lenses have price tags that match their high quality build. Using the lens on an APS-C camera means cropping the lens to the equivalent of a 24-52mm focal length. You may as well invest in an APS-C lens that better suits your camera, like the Sony 16-55mm f/2.8 G lens.
If you’re more interested in capturing faraway subjects in close detail, a telephoto zoom lens is more appropriate. The Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS lens we recommended above for portraits is a telephoto lens, and can also be used for landscape photography. If you’re using an A-mount camera, the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens is another powerful, telephoto zoom lens.
Still Life Photography
Still life photography is the art of photographing an inanimate subject. For example, photographing a clock on the wall of your house, or a potted plant that sits on your desk. Product photography and food photography are sub-genres of still life photography.
Compared to landscape and portrait photography, still life photography is the easiest style to get creative with your composition. Because your subject is an inanimate object instead of a person or a scenic vista, it’s easier to adjust everything in your frame to produce a pleasing image. Still life photography is all about the mise-en-scène, a french cinematography term that essentially refers to everything that’s in frame.
A wide-angle lens is not ideal for still life photography as per the risk of distortion. Sometimes you may have a lot to capture in frame, but it’s advised you don’t go any wider than 35mm. Often, you’re photographing a small, inanimate subject in close proximity, so a longer focal length makes sense. A longer focal length means a larger working distance, i.e. the distance between your lens and your subject, so you don’t have to stand too close.
Macro photography is technically a different style, however a macro lens can still be used effectively in still life photography. Macro lenses have a 1:1 magnification ratio, and are designed to capture sharp, detailed photographs of small subjects.
The Sony 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS is a full-frame Sony E-mount lens that works great for macro and still life photography. As a prime, the lens is designed to capture ultra sharp imagery at the 90mm focal length, and it does. The narrow field of view and wide aperture mean you can capture some really nice imagery using this lens. It’s perfect for the shots where you want to be up close and personal with your subject.
If you want something wider, the Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA is an incredibly versatile full-frame E-mount lens. Yes it’s wide, but not so wide that it will add unnatural distortion to your imagery. It’s a great lens to use if you need to capture multiple objects together in a single frame. The remarkably wide aperture means it also works great in low-light, and generates superb bokeh. However, the best thing about this lens is that you can use it effectively in a studio product shoot then immediately take it outside and use it to capture a great photo of the sunset. It’s a great all-rounder lens.
Other Lens Recommendations
Ask any professional photographer what their first lens was and they’ll probably say a ‘nifty-fifty’. That is, a 50mm prime lens with a wide aperture. It’s a great lens for finessing your photography skills for multiple reasons. Firstly, as we mentioned earlier, the 50mm focal length produces imagery that most closely resembles the field of view of the human eye. Additionally, a wide aperture creates a shallow depth of field, resulting in a creamy, bokeh-filled background that makes your subject stand out. It’s a great lens to use for a variety of styles.
Another benefit of a nifty-fifty is that there is a wide spectrum of options, stretching from budget-friendly to high-end. Sony alone makes multiple 50mm lenses. There’s the $1,498 Sony Planar T* FE 50mm f/1.4 ZA lens or the more affordable $248 Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 lens for full-frame, E-mount cameras. There’s also a $348 Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 lens for APS-C E-mount cameras.
The purpose of this Sony lens buying guide was to highlight some of the best Sony lenses currently available, and to help explain how different lens specifications can have an impact on your photos. Understanding how focal length, aperture, and other specs impact your photos will ultimately help you become a better photographer. Lens consideration is a critical component of planning a shoot, and whether you’re taking a portrait, landscape, or still life photograph, there’s a Sony lens available that’s right for the occasion.