Imaging Resource Lens of the Year 2018: Best Zoom Lenses

by IR Staff

posted Thursday, January 10, 2019 at 2:58 PM EDT


Zoom lenses represent convenience and versatility for those times when the ultimate in brightness is not needed from your aperture. And yet, as you can see from many of the excellent lenses below, manufacturers these days are really pushing the envelope and creating ever-brighter zoom lenses! And they're managing to do so while still offering impressive sharpness across the zoom range, which is not something zooms from years past were known for.

This is indeed a great thing for us photographers who crave versatility but who don't enjoy swapping out lenses in the field! Our Zoom Lens of the Year is a terrific example of this "best of all worlds" scenario, as it covers virtually the entire range of "standard" focal lengths, yet does so while maintaining its bright f/2 potential across the range, and delivering stellar IQ to boot!

Exciting times for photographers, so feast your eyes on the Best Zooms from all of 2018!


Best Overall Zoom Lens - Canon RF 28-70mm f/2L

As noted in its writeup as our pick for the most unusual lens of 2018, the Canon RF 28-70mm f/2 L USM zoom is a truly remarkable optic. We didn't feel it fit into the "standard zoom" category, because its design and characteristics suit it for a different set of use-cases than most would consider a "standard" zoom for. It's a bit longer at its wide end, and the size and weight that stem from its huge f/2 maximum aperture mean it's not a lens you'd idly stick on your camera for a day of casual walkaround shooting. Likewise, at a list price of $3,000, it's in an entirely different price category. Those factors, combined with its truly remarkable optical performance, really put it in a class of its own.


It's almost always the case that zooms trade off optical quality when compared to prime lenses, for the sake of gaining their focal length flexibility. And it's always been almost axiomatic that large-aperture lenses will suffer relative to smaller-aperture ones, or at least that you'll need to stop down to get the best performance.

The Canon RF 28-70mm f/2 L USM shatters all those expectations.

As Mizoguchi-san from Canon Incorporated explained to IR founder Dave Etchells in his recent interview with him, Canon chose the first lenses to be rolled out for the EOS R system as ones that would really showcase the kind of optical quality that's possible with the new RF mount. With the RF 28-70mm f/2 L USM, they did that in spades.

We were frankly astonished by the optical quality it delivered: Images are tack-sharp corner to corner, with very well controlled distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting. In fact, you can stack it up against most any prime lens of similar aperture within its focal length range and it'll give it a serious run for its money.

There's been a lot of debate recently about just how big a deal larger-diameter lens mounts like Canon's RF standard are when it comes to optical quality. It's by no means an either/or sort of proposition, given that optical design is always a matter of multiple interacting factors and complex tradeoffs.

That said, though, the RF 28-70mm f/2 L USM shows just what can be accomplished when modern lens design, advanced lens manufacturing technology and a large mount with shallow back-focus come together. It sets a whole new standard for optical quality in medium-length zooms, and emphatically demonstrates the promise of Canon's new RF mount.

Overall, it was an easy choice to make the Canon RF 28-70mm f/2 L USM our Zoom Lens of the Year for 2018; nothing else even came close.

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama



Best Ultra-Wide Zoom - Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM Art


Ultra-wide zoom lenses are highly-sought after by landscape, event and architectural photographers alike. They allow you to capture an expansive scene or make the viewer feel like they are right in the middle of the action. Their wide field of view offers unique artistic possibilities. In 2018, photographers were treated to the excellent Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM Art lens, a great example of what is possible given today's modern optical technologies.


The Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 Art is ruggedly built and delivers impressive optical performance, as we found in both our lab and real-world shooting experience. The lens continues Sigma's "Art" series tradition by blending high-end performance with a reasonable price point. Behind the good image quality are 17 elements across 11 groups, including three FLD, SLD and aspherical elements. All of this glass results in a pretty heavy lens, although not overly so considering its focal length and aperture.

Due to its very competitive price, high-end build quality and impressive optical performance, the Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM Art is our pick for the best ultra-wide zoom lens of 2018. It is an excellent addition to the lineup of Sigma Art lenses and a worthy addition to any photographer's kit.

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama



Best Standard Zoom - Canon RF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM


For many, the 24-70mm f/2.8 is the ideal "desert island" lens. You know, the lens you would pick if you had to choose only one lens for the rest of your life. For a while, this was what you would hear from the majority, but in recent years, more often you'll hear that same praise attributed to what was once the forgotten step-brother of the 24-70 f/2.8: the 24-105 f/4. Sure, though not as bright wide open, the 24-105 focal length has begun to shine brighter thanks to the expanded abilities of full-frame sensors in low light. With less pressure on the lens to be ideal for shooting in the dark, the 24-105mm has begun to show why it is in many ways superior to the 24-70. The perfect example of this is the Canon RF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, the latest in the 24-105 category from Canon and probably their best effort in this regard to date. Relatively light, functional, fast-focusing and extremely dynamic, the RF 24-105mm f/4L works wonders on the EOS R system, and is arguably the best overall lens for it so far.


With its Nano USM autofocus system, the 24-105mm f/4L features fast, accurate focusing and truly excellent continuous autofocus performance. Sure, the other lenses released for the R format are optically very good, but only the 24-105mm f/4L is that while also meeting the demands of video shooters thanks to solid C-AF and image stabilization. While sharpness, bokeh, distortion control and the like generally steal the show for lenses, the design and performance of a continuous autofocus system optimized for a mirrorless camera tends to be underappreciated. Because the 24-105mm is a full package, with excellent image quality as well as performance while shooting, it's hard to argue with its place at the top of the best standard zooms released in 2018. It's one of Canon's best multipurpose lenses. With the RF 24-105mm on the EOS R, this burgeoning system feels the most complete among any other of its possible configurations to date. This is a glimpse of what Canon wants to show is possible with their new system, and from what we can see today, it's already stellar.

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

Lens of Distinction: Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S


For a one-lens-carry setup, a 24-70mm lens is a very popular, very versatile option. Offering a range from a wide-angle, landscape-friendly 24mm to a medium-telephoto, portrait-appropriate 70mm, a 24-70 zoom serves a very useful lens for a wide variety of subject matter. Keeping the max aperture smaller to a constant f/4 compared to the ever-popular f/2.8 keeps the size, weight and price down, and that's especially the case here with the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S lens. With a retractable zooming design, the Nikon 24-70mm f/4 S is both lightweight and extremely portable, yet Nikon still manages to build-in robust features such as weather sealing, all for under $1000.


Optically, the Nikon 24-70mm f/4 S is a solid performer across its zoom range. Sharpness is very good across the zoom range, especially in the center. Corner sharpness is also very good, with only minor corner softness towards the longer end of the zoom. Vignetting, distortion and CA are all very well corrected, though much of it in software which helps keep the lens compact and lightweight. Overall, the Nikon 24-70mm f/4 S is versatile, compact, offers fast AF performance and is built to withstand harsh conditions -- it's a fantastic zoom lens for Nikon Z owners.

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama



Best Telephoto Zoom - Panasonic 50-200mm f/2.8-4.0


The most coveted long lenses are generally either bright primes or somewhat bright zoom lenses. The Panasonic 50-200mm f/2.8-4.0 begins to blur that distinction and gives MFT photographers a very versatile offering for sports and wildlife shooting. As the third installment in Panasonic's Leica-branded f/2.8-4 zoom series, this 50-200mm (100-400mm eq.) lens gives you versatility not yet seen in the MFT world for reach and brightness in a portable package.


We found this lens to excel both in critical lab testing as well as with a variety of subjects in the field, and we very much enjoyed our time with it. Shooting mostly on the capable and award-winning Panasonic GX9, the lens performed admirably and solidly for both image quality and focus accuracy. In addition, the lens supports both Dual IS and Dual IS II functionality, making it a terrific choice for handheld shooting on-the-go.

The Panasonic 50-200mm features a high-speed 240fps sensor drive AF system that provides super-quick AF performance, and is also weather-resistant, making this lens an obvious choice for photographers in the field. It also offers compatibility with both the 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters for extended versatility.

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama



Best Value Lens - Tamron 28-75mm F2.8 Di III RXD


Slightly longer than the standard 24-70mm medium-zoom, Tamron's 28-75mm f/2.8 Di III RXD covers a very useful range of focal lengths, with excellent optical quality and a surprisingly affordable price compared to the manufacturer's competing model. 


We say "manufacturer's" in the singular, since this new model is made specifically for Sony's full-frame mirrorless FE mount. It's the first third-party lens in its focal length/aperture range, and provides a very worthy alternative to Sony's own competing optic.

It may seem odd to name a lens selling for more than $900 as our "Best Value" lens of 2019, but that price is only a bit over 40-percent that of Sony's version.

We wouldn't put the Tamron's optical performance quite in the same category as that of the Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8, but it doesn't fall all that far short, and for the price, it's a simply unbeatable value.

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama



Most Unique - Canon RF 28-70mm f/2L


When Canon announced their EOS R, they knew they had to also release a lens that showed off the possibilities given to them by the new camera design, especially after stating strongly that their new mirrorless system offered them many opportunities they did not have with the traditional DSLR. It had to stand out, it had to be special, and most of all it had to be optically excellent. They succeeded with the RF 28-70mm f/2L, one of the fastest full-frame zoom lenses ever built.


The RF 28-70 f/2L is not only unique in its focal length and aperture, but its design is wholly different than what Canon had been able to do before. First and foremost, it's massive. In order to offer a constant f/2 aperture, Canon had to make the physical size of the glass elements significantly larger than you would perhaps expect. It's heavy, it has no image stabilization, but it is an absolutely astounding piece of technology. The 28-70mm f/2 is consistently sharp across the aperture range both at its widest and most zoomed focal lengths, even wide open. The bokeh is smooth and exceptional, and this lens excels in the studio. Though a bit heavy and without stabilization of any kind it's not the best as a walk-around lens like 24-70mm lenses tend to be, it's still an outstanding performer from an optical perspective, and easily the most unusual lens produced in 2018. It's good to be unique, but the Canon RF 28-70mm f/2L is that and a great performer.

Buy Now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama



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And that wraps up the best of the best zoom lenses of 2018! We'd like to make special mention here as well of the superb Nikon 180-400mm f/4E ED VR! We loved our time with this lens in the field but didn't get the chance to lab-test the lens, having never received a review sample, and therefore are not able to award it anything officially. But based on our field experience, it's very much a lens that warrants your due attention!

• • •

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

Best Zoom Lenses of the Year (current page)