When people buy a Canon or Nikon camera, they often assume that they can only buy Canon or Nikon lenses. But that isn’t true. While Nikon lenses won’t work on your Canon camera, there are third-party lens manufacturers—such as Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, Samyang (also sold as Rokinon), Opteka, Yongnuo and Zeiss—that make lenses for Canon, Nikon, and sometimes Sony and other cameras. But are they any good?
The short answer is that, yes, in some cases, third-party lenses are well worth buying. They can offer features that Canon or Nikon doesn’t offer, such as longer zoom lenses, faster apertures, or better bang for your buck. However, third-party lenses are not universally a good deal. Like most products, there are good ones, and incredibly cheap ones that we wouldn’t recommend.
Good Lenses Are Expensive, No Matter Who Makes Them
The unfortunate reality is that no matter what, good lenses aren’t cheap. There are a lot of incredibly finely made optical parts that go into a lens. There’s often a lot of manual work as well which pushes the cost up further. This is true whether you’re buying a lens from Canon or Tamron.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t price differences, though. For example, the 70-200mm f/2.8 is a very popular zoom lens. It’s perfect for a lot of different kinds of photography, from sports to portraiture. Canon’s own 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II retails for $1,949. Tamron offers a similar lens, the SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC for $1,299. Sigma also makes a 70-200 f/2.8 for the same price.
By going with the Tamron or Sigma, you’re saving $650, but you’re still spending a lot on the lens as a whole. You’re also giving up some image quality as you can see in the video review above. If you want the absolute best lens, you have to buy the Canon; but if price is more of an issue, then the third-party lenses start to look very tempting.
This is repeated across lots of different categories. Canon’s EF 85mm f/1.4L IS is $1,599 and Nikon’s AF-S FX NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G is $1,596, while the incredibly well regarded Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art is $1,199 for both Canon and Nikon. You’re not saving thousands of dollars, but you’re not saving an insignificant sum either.
The odds are if you’re looking for a common enough lens, there will be an original manufacturer option as well as a few third-party ones. The good third-party lenses will still be expensive (expect to pay somewhere north of two thirds of the price of the manufacturer’s offering), but are probably better value for money. Do a bit of research to check that you don’t lose too much image quality, but otherwise, you’re pretty safe with a good third-party lens.
Third Party Lenses Give You More Options
While Canon and Nikon both have very mature lens product lines, there are still a few gaps where, if you want a certain kind of lens, you need to go third-party. The case is even more obvious with Sony’s recent mirrorless camera range. While the cameras are awesome and incredibly popular, they just don’t have every lens you could possibly need. This means a lot of people turn to third-party manufactuers.
Let’s look at an example. For good astrophotography, you want a wide angle lens with a wide aperture. One thing you don’t need, however, is autofocus; it just doesn’t work at night.
For these reasons, Rokinon makes some of the most popular astrophotography lenses. Their 24mm f/1.4 is just $549.00. It doesn’t have autofocus, so it’s not great for anything other than astrophotography or landscape photography, but it’s a wide angle lens with a really wide aperture. Canon’s equivalent lens, the EF 24mm f/1.4L II, since it has autofocus, is a lot more versatile; but at $1,549 it’s almost three times the price for no real improvement in image quality. Sure, you can do some street photography, but if you’re just interested in shooting the Milky Way, that isn’t a selling point.
If you’re prepared to give up on certain features like autofocus or image stabilization, or buy a prime lens rather than a zoom lens, third-party manufacturers give you a lot more options. For astrophotographers, Rokinon has wide angle, wide aperture manual focus lenses available with focal lengths of 8mm, 14mm, 16mm, 24mm, and 35mm. You just can’t beat that kind of choice.
Watch Out for the Cheap Lenses
While so far, I’ve been focusing on the positive side of third-party lenses, there is also utter crap out there. Take this Opteka 500mm f/8 lens with a built in 2x teleconverter; it costs just $89.95. Crazy, right? What a deal!
Except…no. The reason the lens is so cheap is because Opteka cut some serious corners. Not only are the image and build quality poor, but the maximum aperture of f/8 just isn’t wide enough to get the sort of shutter speeds you need to use such a long telephoto lens. Also, since it’s a manual focus lens, you won’t be able to react quickly to any situations, which makes it useless for sports or wildlife photography—the two situations where photographers normally use long telephoto lenses. About the only thing this lens is good for is taking bad photos of the moon. Even at less than $90, it’s a ripoff.
Similarly, you can get a Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8 for $49.99. That’s super cheap and it’s not an awful lens, but a genuine Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 is only $125. And for the extra $75, you get much better build, optical, and autofocus quality.
When it comes down to it, good third-party lenses offer you more options at competitive (although still expensive) prices; bad third-party lenses aren’t worth the cost of shipping.
As long as you buy from a reputable third-party manufacturer like Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, Samyang/Rokinon, or Zeiss, you’re not likely to go too far wrong. On the other hand, if you buy from the likes of Opteka or Yongnuo, you’re probably going to be disappointed. In all cases, the best thing to do is research the lens you want to buy before spending any money.