It's always fun to upgrade to the best digital camera on the market. Shiny, new hardware is exciting. The truth, though, is that you'll grow more as a photographer and at a faster rate when you invest in better lenses, not a newer camera body. Quality glass is what makes or breaks a shot, not your camera brand or model. If you shoot with a DSLR, listen up! I've combed through my list of favorites, checked them twice, and can't wait to share the best DSLR camera lenses with you.
Best basic full-frame lens
If you're looking for a do-anything lens for your Nikon DSLR, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm needs little introduction. With a constant f/4 aperture, this lens captures mountain vistas, open beaches, forests, architecture, and people in jaw-dropping detail. The autofocusing is fast and quiet, and Vibration Reduction steadies your shots up to four stops. This F mount lens is specifically designed for full-frame Nikons, but it also works well with DX bodies.
Best long-range zoom
The Canon EF 100-400mm is the lens featured in a bazillion movies because it just looks so darn sexy and professional. It's also one of the best DSLR camera lenses on the market. This high-performance model with a rotation zoom lets you get the most precise composition when handholding. It also comes with a collar for tripod-loving photographers. Covered with Air Sphere Coating, you'll enjoy less flaring and ghosting, which is a huge plus for those who shoot during daylight, sunrise, or golden hours. The Canon 100-400mm is built tough, too. It's resistant to dust and water, allowing you to shoot in the harshest of conditions.
Best portrait lens
If you're a portrait photographer, the Sigma 85mm Art lens has a wide and fast aperture that puts out the creamy backgrounds everyone is craving these days. Equipped with a hypersonic motor, autofocus is quiet and vastly superior to previous generations of this lens, and it far surpasses the competition. Focus is unbelievably precise with the Sigma, allowing you to pinpoint a pupil yet blur the eyelid. Now that's impressive! This Sigma is faster than alternatives and nails the right colors every single time. This bokeh monster is available for Canon, Nikon, and Sigma cameras.
I've owned this 50mm from independent lens maker YONGNUO for three years, and I love everything about it, including its low price. The f/1.8 aperture isolates your subject well while still getting a soft, blurry background. This is an excellent prime lens for autofocus or manual shooters, and it supports both full-frame and APS-C cameras. I used to carry this one around as a backup lens, but it has since earned a full-time place in my bag. YONGNUO's 50mm pulls out more details and brighter colors than Canon or Nikon's 50mm offerings, and it's less than a third of the price. Now that's a bargain! It's available for Nikon and Canon.
Best kits lens upgrade
The kit lenses that come with most APS-C cameras are OK. They're lightweight, but images are dull and usually soft. When I upgraded to the Sigma 17-50mm, my mind was blown. It has a consistent f/2.8 aperture, built-in stabilization, and hefty quality, usually only available in full-frame equipment. The Sigma is wide enough to use for landscape photography, and it can zoom in to capture crisp portraits, too. This Sigma Kit includes the lens, a heavy-duty padded lens case, and a petal hood. Grab this now for Canon, Nikon Pentax, Sigma, and Sony DSLRs. This lens is discontinued but still the best kit lens upgrade.
Best pancake lens
The Canon EF-S 24mm, better known as the best pancake lens ever made, fits all APS-C cameras in Canon's lineup. The slim profile lends itself well to street photography, travel photography, and even landscape work. Your camera will never feel so light and free! The seven blades that make up the circular aperture deliver soft backgrounds and crisp subjects and allow you to focus from a minimum distance of only 0.5 feet. If you hike, roam the streets searching for a photo opportunity, or need a light walkabout lens for travel, this is the one to get.
Best do everything zoom
If you can only take one lens with you, grab the Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-300mm. Second-generation vibration reduction enables you to get a clean handheld shot, while optimized ED glass gives you edge-to-edge sharpness. Technically, this can be used on both full-frame Nikon cameras and APS-C models, though obviously, the reach will be longer on crop sensor bodies. This NIKKOR covers a wide range of focal lengths, so it makes for a solid vacation choice.
Super zoom lens for Nikon DX
When you're traveling or even spending an afternoon hiking, you can't afford the extra weight and space of five lenses in a backpack or suitcase. That's where superzooms come in handy. This Tamron 16-300mm is for Nikon DX cameras. The expansive range makes it suitable for everything from landscapes to portraits to family photos and wildlife photography. There's vibration compensation built-in, so pictures are always blur-free, even when handholding. Piezo Drive autofocus on this Tamron is fast and spot-on, and this versatile model weighs only a tad over a pound. This kit comes with a lens hood.
Wide angle bargain
If you're a landscape photographer, the 14mm Rokinon is a lens that will knock your socks off. Complete with a petal-shaped lens hood, the Rokinon is an excellent choice for daylight shooting, sunsets and sunrises, and even astrophotography. Beginners should note that this is a manual focus lens, so you'll need to learn to shoot manually or set the lens to infinity. Doing the latter will make everything two to five feet away from the camera stay sharply in focus. Images are well worth the added effort. They come out razor sharp and bursting with color. The Rokinon 14mm works on both full-frame and crop sensor cameras in Canon's lineup, and you can also grab this for the Fujifilm and Olympus mounts.
My final thoughts
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DSLRs are not the clunky, antiquated tools that mirrorless camera makers would have you believe. For professional landscape photographers and hobbyists, DSLRs still offer the best waterproofing and build quality available. Investing in high-quality glass is the single best thing you can do for your photographer. It doesn't matter if you're an enthusiast, a beginner, or you make a living with your camera.
As a landscape photographer, I rely on the Nikkor AF-S FX NIKKOR 16-35mm to grab fine details from the environment. Sunsets and vistas never looked so good! If you have a full-frame Nikon and are searching for a lens with a little zoom room and a constant aperture, this is the one you want. Yep, it's pricey, but it's worth every cent.
If you're a sports shooter or love to hang out in the woods waiting for the perfect moment to capture an elk walking toward you or an eagle flying overhead, you need the Canon EF 100-400mm lens. It's compact, has an impressive zoom range, and is water and dustproof. And if you just need one lens in your bag of tricks that can do everything, invest in the Tamron 16-300mm for Nikon DX cameras. It's quiet, has incredible range, and comes with a lens hood.
If you're looking for a fun instant camera to add to your collection, see our review of the Fujifilm Instax Mini 9.
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Jodi Owan works behind a keyboard and a camera. She's a freelance writer for iMore, Android Central, and Windows Central.