Debate will always rage on about who makes the best mirrorless camera, but one thing that photographers can agree on is that it’s the lens that matters most to image quality. Even today’s entry-level cameras come with capable imaging sensors, and with the right glass attached, they can produce stunning images. Lens selection was once the biggest shortcoming of mirrorless systems, but the number of available lenses has skyrocketed as these systems have aged.
If your new mirrorless camera purchasing decision is based on the best lens, this guide is for you. Here are a few of our favorite mirrorless lenses that can dramatically improve image quality over a kit lens – all for under $500.
Panasonic G 20mm f/1.7 II
Why should you buy this: Ultra-compact, fast aperture.
Who’s it for: Anyone who wants better low light performance without adding weight
How much will it cost: $268
Why we picked the Panasonic G 20mm f/1.7 II:
The original 20mm f/1.7 “pancake” lens was the first Micro Four Thirds (MFT) lens that successfully drew enthusiast photographers to the platform. Beyond boosting Panasonic’s name in the photography world, it was one of the first lenses to illustrate the potential of mirrorless cameras as tools for serious photographers. For such a small piece, it played a pretty big role in the early days of the mirrorless camera market. The updated mark II version features a metal lens barrel but is optically identical to the original – and that’s not a bad thing.
The 40mm full-frame equivalent focal length and bright aperture make this a decent lens for casual portraiture, but its real strength is simply the compact design. Weighing just over three ounces and at 1 inch in length, the small lens is right at home on the smallest MFT camera bodies from Panasonic and Olympus. It’s a take-anywhere lens, great for all types of traveling, but equally useful for snapshots at your next birthday party or backyard barbecue.
If you’d rather go even smaller, Panasonic’s 14mm f/2.5 pancake lens can be found for the same price ($268). Its aperture is slower, but it weighs less than two ounces and the 28mm equivalent focal length matches that of most phone cameras for familiar framing.
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Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS
Why should you buy this: Image stabilization, fast aperture
Who’s it for: Portrait photographers and videographers.
How much will it cost: $248
Why we picked the Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS:
Sony’s 50mm f/1.8 for its APS-C mirrorless cameras is unique among the “nifty fifty” competition in that it offers Optical Steady Shot (OSS) image stabilization. This isn’t a feature typically found on lenses with such fast apertures, but it’s a fantastic addition for video shooters and users of Sony cameras without in-body stabilization, like the A6300.
With a 75mm full-frame equivalent focal length and bright, f/1.8 aperture, this lens is ideal for portraiture. Achieving a shallow depth of field is easy if desired, and the bright maximum aperture also makes this a good lens for low-light work, letting in significantly more light than any kit lens.
As this lens is designed for APS-C sensors only, it won’t work on Sony’s full-frame A7-series cameras, even though it uses the same mount system. However, full-frame shooters do have an option in the FE 50mm f/1.8. It doesn’t have OSS, but at just $248, it’s even more affordable, despite being full-frame compatible.
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Fujifilm XF 23mm f/2 R WR
Why should you buy this: Weatherproof, compact.
Who’s it for: Travel and street photographers
How much will it cost: $450
Why we picked the Fujifilm XF 23mm f/2 R WR:
Fujifilm knows its stuff when it comes to prime lenses, and most every model it puts out is squarely aimed at enthusiasts or professionals. The company’s older 23mm f/1.4 is an excellent lens, but at $900, it doesn’t make the cut here. Fortunately, the newer 23mm f/2 is half the price, more compact and lighter weight, takes great pictures, and only gives up one stop of maximum light gathering ability.
Unlike the 23mm f/1.4, the f/2 bears the WR designation, meaning it is weather resistant. This is great news for shooters of Fujifilm’s flagship X-Pro2 and X-T2 cameras, both of which are sealed against the elements.
Picking a favorite lens for any system involves a healthy dose of subjectivity, but it’s particularly hard with Fujifilm. We could have easily gone with the $400 35mm f/2 R WR, but we like the full-frame equivalent focal length (35mm) of the 23mm. It’s a go-to focal length for street photography, a discipline in which many of Fujifilm’s cameras are made to excel, namely the X-Pro series.
The best Canon EF-M lens under $500
Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 STM
Why should you buy this: Compact design, fast aperture
Who’s it for: EOS M shooters who want better low-light performance and portability.
How much will it cost: $250
Why we picked the Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 STM:
Canon’s EOS M mirrorless system may be a few years old, but its native lens collection definitely still looks to be in its infancy. Fortunately, there is at least one gem among the otherwise average offerings: the compact, affordable, and sharp 22mm f/2 STM.
Like the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, Canon’s 22mm is a pancake lens, measuring less than one inch in length and weighing just 3.7 ounces. It’s also the only EF-M lens with a maximum aperture larger than f/3.5, making it the only real option for EOS M shooters looking for a native lens that’s good in low light.
At a full-frame equivalent focal length of roughly 35mm, this is a great choice for street photography, casual snapshots, and small group portraits. The STM stepper motor, a feature standard on all Canon EF-M lenses, also makes the 22mm f/2 a good video lens.
How we chose these lenses
In selecting the above lenses, we looked for features that would provide a noticeable difference in image quality, design, and usability over basic kit lenses, while not breaking the bank. The lenses themselves have not been individually reviewed by Digital Trends, but our writers have used them as part of camera reviews. In addition to our own experience, we selected lenses that drew overly positive feedback from the general public based on customer reviews.
General buying advice
There’s a hard lesson to learn when it comes to shopping for lenses: you can’t have it all. You may have noticed all of the above options are prime lenses, meaning they do not zoom. Prime lenses make it possible to get sharp optics, bright apertures, and compact designs while keeping costs under control. If you want similar features in a zoom, you’ll typically be paying much more. There are zoom lenses available for under $500, but most act as extensions of kit lenses and have similarly slow apertures. While such lenses open up new focal lengths, few bring true image quality gains.
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