Imaging Resource Lens of the Year 2018: Best Prime Lenses

by IR Staff

posted Thursday, January 10, 2019 at 2:00 PM EST


Where zoom lenses offer obvious focal length versatility, primes lenses are known for bringing the ultimate image quality to a desired focal length. They're also generally brighter in maximum aperture than comparable zooms, and often lighter as well (though certainly not always!).

From landscape work to architecture, and from portraiture to sports, good prime lenses can be found in any enthusiast or professional bag, and are often the mainstay or "go-to" lens for photographers in their chosen field. Zooms are catching up in some ways, but still can't match primes for the ultimate in IQ, brightness or portability.

And on the subject of portability, our Prime Lens of the Year from Nikon is a stunning example of how far technology has come in this regard, so dive in to find your perfect prime lens from 2018!


Best Overall Prime Lens - Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR


Telephoto and super telephoto prime lenses offer photographers a lot of reach, but they are generally heavy and expensive lenses. Nikon's latest 500mm f/4 lens, for example, costs over $10,000 USD and weighs nearly 7 pounds. For these reasons, among others, Nikon's new AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens is a highly-impressive feat of engineering. Leveraging Nikon's Phase Fresnel technology, which was last seen in their 300mm f/4 PF lens, the new 500mm f/5.6 PF weighs a mere 3.2 pounds (1,460 grams). Further, the lens costs under $3,600, which while still quite pricey, is vastly less expensive than the 500mm f/4 lens.


The Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF proved to be a sharp lens in our hands-on testing, even when shot wide open. Of course, there's more to a telephoto lens than sharpness, it must also deliver good autofocus performance. The Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF utilizes Nikon's Silent Wave Motor AF system, which delivered fast and decisive autofocus in a wide variety of shooting situations. Further, the lens' built-in vibration reduction performed very well, making the already easy to handhold lens an even better and more versatile option.

Therein lie the greatest strengths of the Nikkor 500mm f/5.6 PF lens; its lightweight design and great optical performance make it versatile, flexible and easy to use. There is immense value in being able to easily carry a super telephoto lens that can quickly capture an image. Action happens fast and the Nikkor 500mm f/5.6 is ready to capture it. For its versatility, usability and very impressive design and performance, the Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF VR lens is our pick for the best overall prime lens of 2018. 

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Best Wide-Angle Prime - Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM


Often the winner of a category either is just a little bit better overall than its competition, or perhaps it's slightly more versatile, or maybe it just has slightly better autofocus than the field. But with the Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM, it's not close. This was not a "photo finish" (ha, pun) because the Sony 24mm f/1.4 is one of the best wide-angle lenses ever made for modern digital cameras. It truly shines as an example of what can be accomplished with modern lens technology.


The Sony 24mm f/1.4 offers excellent sharpness across the frame, even wide open, as well as fantastic close-focusing, beautiful bokeh, and great distortion control despite its wide angle perspective. With those wins, the Sony 24mm f/1.4 is already king of the hill, but it's not done yet. The lens also manages to be one of, if not the best full-frame wide-angle lens on the market for astrophotography. Thanks to its unique XA (extreme aspherical) lens elements, the Sony 24mm GM lens does an outstanding job at eliminating sagittal flare, which is the stretching and flaring of pinpoint sources of light, especially near the edges of the frame.

Compared to the other 24mm full-frame lenses on the market, not only is this lens the best in several categories, it's smaller and lighter than any other full-frame lens on the market, and even less expensive than some of its competitors. When Sony made the FE 24mm f/1.4 GM, it was as if they took the challenge upon themselves to create a lens that was clearly as good or better than anything in its category. This lens should not exist given its price compared to its performance, and yet here it is, the best wide-angle prime of 2018.

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Lens of Distinction: Nikon Z 35mm f/1.8 S


Despite the rather understated and simplistic styling, the new Nikon 35mm f/1.8 S lens for the new Nikon Z-series cameras is one heck of a lens, offering both excellent optical performance and rugged build quality. Optically, the new Nikon 35mm f/1.8 S lens is fantastic, with our lab tests showing impressive sharpness from f/1.8 all the way down to f/16. Wide-open, the corners show some softness, which is characteristic of wide-angle fast-aperture lenses, but the centers are extremely crisp and stopped-down quality is wonderful. Similarly, CA and distortion are practically nonexistent, while vignetting is well-controlled.


From a construction standpoint, the 35mm f/1.8 S lens is compact and lightweight, while still being fully dust- and moisture-resistant -- including a gasket around the mount. Autofocus performance is great, as well, with fast and extremely quiet focusing. All in all, the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 S is an excellent wide-angle lens for general shooting, landscapes, travel and low-light work. At $850, it's hitting up into the pricier range, but it's a high-end lens with excellent optical performance and build quality -- a solid first-round lens for Nikon's all-new Z-mount family.

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama



Best Standard Prime - Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM


The Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens is one of the extraordinary optics that the company released as part of the initial rollout of their R series full-frame mirrorless system, designed to show the sort of optical quality they could achieve with their new RF mount.


The 50mm f/1.2 delivered on that in spades; it's a simply remarkable optic, amazingly sharp from corner to corner, even when shooting wide open. We've been all too accustomed to expecting very little from f/1.2 lenses at maximum aperture. Sure, they’re great at blurring the background, but they usually do the same for the corners, even in the plane of focus. Even center sharpness can be hit or miss. The Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM blows away those expectations, though. It delivers fantastic performance at f/1.2, improving only slightly as you stop down.

Canon wanted to make a statement about the kind of image quality they could achieve with their new RF mount, and the RF 50mm f/1.2L USM did that and then some. It's simply one of the best 50mm lenses we’ve ever tested, period. If it's any indication of what’s to come, Canon's EOS R series has some serious delights in store in the future!

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

Lens of Distinction: Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 S


Nikon's new 50mm f/1.8 S lens for their new full-frame Z-mount cameras offers a lot of bang for the buck. Granted, it's a bit more pricey than the typical "nifty fifty," but the 50mm F1.8 S is extremely sharp and very well built. In both real-world shooting and lab testing, the Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.8 S displays fantastic sharpness across its aperture range. Wide open, the lens is still extremely sharp, with only minor softness in the corners. Stopping down, we see tack-sharp performance across the frame.


Much like the other two Nikkor Z-mount lenses on the market at this time, the 35mm f/1.8 S and 24-70mm f/4 S (the recently announced 14-30mm f/4 S isn't shipping yet), the 50mm prime has a sleek, simplistic design yet includes high-end amenities such as weather-sealed construction and Nano-Crystal Coat on its lens elements. The STM-powered AF system offers both fast, nimble AF speeds as well as really quiet focusing. Overall, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 S is a top-notch prime for Nikon's new Z-mount cameras. Offering that classic 50mm perspective for general shooting and portraiture plus a fast f/1.8 aperture for pleasing subject isolation and dreamy background blurring as well as great low-light performance, the new Z-mount 50mm f/1.8 prime is a solid optic for Nikon full-frame mirrorless shooters.

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama



Best Portrait Prime - Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art


It's a tall order for a lens to capture tack-sharp in-focus areas while delivering smooth and soft bokeh. However, that is precisely what the Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens offers. Even at f/1.4, the lens is very sharp, and its bokeh is some of the best we have seen.


The lens is fairly large and heavy with its 105mm front element and weight of over 3.6 pounds (1.6 kilograms), but its performance is stellar. If you are paying the premium for an f/1.4 lens, you will likely spend much of your time shooting at f/1.4. This is where the lens shines, and its performance at its maximum aperture is precisely what makes it such a special lens.

While not ideal for every photographer or portrait situation, for those who want a lens which combines a telephoto focal length and a very fast maximum aperture, the Sigma 105mm f/1.4 Art is excellent. 2018 offered numerous very good fast lenses, but the Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art stood out. Its combination of focal plane sharpness and buttery-smooth bokeh is outstanding and why the Sigma 105mm f/1.4 Art is our choice as the best portrait prime of 2018.

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama



Best Macro Lens - Sigma 70mm f/2.8 DG Macro Art


The original Sigma 70mm f/2.8 macro lens was legendary for its sharpness and exceptional optical quality. For years, it was the sharpest lens we'd tested, and was the lens we chose to standardize on for our DSLR testing for many years. Alas, as time went on, more modern bodies no longer supported its focus and aperture system, and it eventually went out of production, because its design relied upon a special formulation of optical glass that was no longer available.


Now, years later, Sigma has finally produced another 70mm macro lens, one that actually bests its legendary predecessor.

Sigma's Art lens line has made a very well-deserved name for itself for exceptional optical performance, and the new Sigma 70mm f/2.8 Art does so at an amazingly affordable price given the optical quality it delivers.

This is an exceptional example of the lens designer's craft, a truly remarkable lens that almost anyone seriously interested in macro photography can afford. (And 70mm is a great focal length to work with as well; providing good working distances with relatively minimal bulk.) If you're looking to get into macro photography, or just to up your optical game, the Sigma 70mm f/2.8 DG Macro Art is calling your name if you're a Canon, Sigma or Sony shooter. (Sadly, it doesn't come in Nikon or Pentax mount versions.)

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama



Best Sports Lens - Fuji XF 200mm f/2 R LM OIS WR


Fujifilm won our highest honor in 2018 - Best Overall Camera - with the excellent and refined X-T3. Improved C-AF was among the more important reasons for our decision, in addition to the growing arsenal of superb Fujinon glass available, so what better than to add to that arsenal with a high-end sports prime? And with a 305mm eq. focal length at the incredibly bright f/2, we do indeed mean high end!


We have simply loved the Fujinon XF 200mm f/2 lens along with its (supplied) 1.4x teleconverter. Whether shooting at 305mm eq. f/2 or 427mm eq. f/2.8 (with the 1.4x TC), we have experienced excellent results in the field with this power-packed lens, and have found it excellent not only for sports but for wildlife as well. In addition, our preliminary lab analysis shows terrific results for sharpness, even wide open, so your distant subjects will be in good hands. We also found the bokeh to be quite nice from the generously bright aperture.

While certainly not lightweight, the Fuji XF 200mm f/2 is still hand-holdable in the field, and the weather- and dust-resistance allows you the freedom to roam without concern over a minor passing shower. And while not priced for budget shoppers, it is a one-of-a-kind offering for Fujifilm shooters looking for a terrific sports or wildlife lens!

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Best Wildlife Lens - Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR


When selecting a wildlife lens, there are many considerations. You want something with a long focal length to be able to capture distant subjects. Ideally, the lens will be light enough to be handheld and carried on hikes and treks. The lens must also be able to focus quickly and accurately, as you don't want to miss a shot because the lens wasn't up to the challenge. The new Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens ticks all these boxes and more.


Thanks to its Phase Fresnel optical technology, the 500mm f/5.6 PF only weighs a mere 3.2 pounds (1,460 grams) and delivers sharp photos with fast autofocus performance. Put another way, the Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF is a wildlife photographer's dream come true. With a price of $3,600 USD, it is also much more accessible than Nikon's 500mm f/4 lens, which costs over $10,000.

While there were telephoto lenses released in 2018 that offered faster maximum apertures and the ability to zoom, none topped the Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF in terms of overall utility, performance and value for wildlife photography. These qualities combine to make the Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF our selection as the best wildlife lens of 2018.

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama



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So there's a look at our Best Prime Lenses of 2018! We hope you found something to your liking, as there are certainly a wealth of terrific prime options from this past year. Special mention to the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM! We were able to shoot briefly with this lens in the field, but were never treated to a sample for our lab and therefore aren't able to consider it officially for an award. Still, based on our shots from the real world, it sure does look like an appealing piece of glass!



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Imaging Resource Camera of the Year Awards 2018

Best Enthusiast Cameras & Best Cameras for Video

Best Premium Compact, Superzoom, Intermediate & Entry-Level

Best Overall & Professional Cameras

Best Prime Lenses of the Year (current page)

Best Zoom Lenses of the Year