Last Updated on 11/22/2023 by Chris Gampat
Not so long ago, buying a third party Chinese lens from a relatively new brand was often fraught with risks. More often than not, you would receive a unit that would disappoint heavily. At many a time, you could even get a copy that was highly deviant from what you’d expect in terms of average performance. Those days are far behind us now, with many new yet refreshingly terrific companies from China giving photographers a much wider lens choice for their beloved cameras. And a lot of these come at great price points too.
While there was once a certain prestige associated with having a “Made In Japan” label on your camera lens, those days are behind us. The notion that sharpness, rapid autofocus, and durability are exclusive to Japanese-made lenses is outdated.
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The Erstwhile Stigma Of Third Party Chinese Lenses
For the longest time, I was a hardcore adherent to the policy of buying lenses only from my camera brand manufacturer. When I began to dip my toes into digital photography, I stuck with first party products — and that wasn’t because third party lens manufacturers weren’t around. They just didn’t produce quality glass, period. It didn’t matter whether they could bring an affordable lens to the market; the products were often shoddy. You had lenses that felt awful to hold and looked cheap to boot. There was either noisy autofocus, inaccurate AF, or both. Of course, this also came with the stigma that was attached to these lenses, of you not being able to pay top dollar to get the best lens for your expensive camera. This wasn’t the usual “Oh, you should really have paid extra for the f1.4 over the f1.8” type of jibe you’d get from some photography club peers. They would often just look at your lens pitifully, trying to gauge why you’d been miserly and bought a lens that would not give the sharpest results. Maybe all of these combined factors kept me away from third party lens manufacturers for over a decade.
What’s Changed Now
I think it was back in 2013 or 2014 when, after purchasing my Nikon D4, I was looking at longer telephoto lenses to go with it. Lenses that could offer me a more significant reach than 200mm to get tighter crops for my horse racing photography work. I definitely didn’t have the funds to get a Nikkor 300m or 400mm f2.8. And I didn’t want to look at any f4 lenses in those focal lengths either. Having seen the awful results that a friend’s Sigma 70-200 f2.8 had shown a year ago, I was averse to even looking in their direction. Until I realized that not long ago, Sigma had rebranded itself in a way. Gone were those lint and dust-attracting rubber rings on their chunky telephotos. They had just announced a new version of their 120-300 f2.8 lens in a Sports series. A lens whose finishing very closely resembled that of their Art series, which was making waves in the photograph world for its extreme sharpness and affordable price tags.
All of this coincided with several natural disasters that wiped out many manufacturing facilities.
This lens came at a price I could afford back then (around USD 3000), and it was also a focal range that Nikon didn’t have in their lineup back then. I took the plunge and bought it, my first telephoto lens purchase in over 5 years. Optically, I still maintain that this lens was brilliant, even if it didn’t have the autofocus speeds of Nikkor lenses. Even today, it would be an excellent choice for anyone looking for a professional variable focal length lens longer than 200mm. That purchase was probably the lens that started me on the path to gaining a better appreciation for third party manufacturers. While the likes of Tokina, Tamron, and others were still to catch up in terms of quality, the dawn of the mirrorless era sped things up for buyers.
We even noted this in an article three years ago, stressing the importance of third party lens manufacturers for keeping photography alive, kicking, and affordable. In this piece, we said:
“first party lens market is starting to get a little out of control when it comes to pricing. As much as I love the glass Sony, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pansonic, put out, it’s becoming harder and harder to swallow the prices they put on their lenses. Honestly, expecting the average photographer to drop more than $2,000 per lens, and, in some cases, $3,000 for a lens is quite ridiculous, and it needs to be addressed”
More Chinese Lens Brands Join The Party
When Sony announced the A7, many companies raced to create manual and autofocus adapters that would aid you in being able to utilize the lenses you already had in your kitty. Canon DSLR owners who had jumped ship could still use their existing EF lenses, without spending on newer Sony ones. But it seemed like not everyone was content with making adapters, and a flurry of third party Chinese lens manufacturers soon began popping up. Some of these were earlier players that had rebranded with a new identity. In contrast, others were new to the game but making headlines for their unconventional focal length options and pocket-friendly pricing. Almost all of them have been made by companies headquartered in China.
While there was once a certain prestige associated with having a “Made In Japan” label on your camera lens, those days are behind us. The notion that sharpness, rapid autofocus, and durability are exclusive to Japanese-made lenses is outdated. Chinese manufacturers are just as capable of creating unique lenses today. It’s not wrong to say that they are giving camera brands a run for their money with the kind of lenses they keep announcing frequently. You can now pick up great glass for a native Sony FE mount camera at a fraction of the cost of what a Sony G or G Master lens would cost you. This shift is not limited to Sony users. Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm, and even Leica owners now have a plethora of third-party lens options to explore.
Over the last 5 years, since I began using mirrorless cameras, I’ve tried several of these third party Chinese brands. Here are a few that you need to keep a close eye on. We’re specifically looking at newer Chinese manufacturers in this piece:
In terms of their amazing range, Venus Optics Laowa is one of the top third party Chinese lens manufacturers today. Catering to multiple lens mounts, in full-frame, crop sensor, and micro four-thirds, Laowa has an extensive selection of lenses for any discerning photographer to choose from today. They are manufactured by Chinese company Venus Optics (aka Anhui ChangGeng Optics Technology Co., Ltd.) You can find lenses as fast as f0.95 in their lineup. In our review of the Laowa 45mm F0.95 Argus lens, we wrote:
“As far as affordable yet high-quality lenses go, this Laowa 45mm f0.95 lens takes the cake. At just $799, it produces some delicious-looking, out-of-focus portions when shooting at its widest aperture of f0.95. Portraits look glorious, giving the kind of feel and character to your images that’s often seen with images from medium-format sensor cameras. The all-metal body feels fantastic to use, and the aperture dial can be de-clicked if you prefer. Sharpness isn’t terrible when wide open, but that’s hardly what you’d be buying such a lens for.”
Here are some of the things that are great about Laowa lenses:
- Super shallow depth-of-field options
- Often all metal bodies
- Affordable price point
- Creamy bokeh
- Beautiful lens flare
- Tilt-shift lenses available
- Versatile colors
The array of budget-friendly options Laowa offers can leave you spoiled for choice. However, it’s not all smooth sailing. Let’s address a couple of drawbacks. As of the time of writing this piece, Laowa still doesn’t offer autofocus lens options for photography, which could be a significant limitation for some users. Another notable downside is the absence of weather sealing, a potential deal-breaker for many photographers. Despite these concerns, the combination of high-quality results and affordable pricing makes Laowa lenses appealing to a diverse range of photographers.
We’ve tested and reviewed many of their lenses. You can find more of our Laowa lens reviews in this link. Some of our favorite lenses from them are:
- Laowa 90mm F2.8 2x Ultra Macro
- Laowa 25mm f0.95 CF APO
- Laowa 10mm f4 “Cookie” lens
- Laowa 15mm F4.5 Zero-D Shift Lens
- Laowa Argus 18mm f0.95 MFT APO
If you’re considering purchasing one of their lenses, head to Adorama now. Zoom, prime, macro, shift – whatever your preference may be, you’re bound to find something you’ll like in there. If you have to work on your manual focusing skills, look at one of our many articles about zone-focusing techniques.
Formerly known as Rockstar (which is probably why there’s an R on the front of their lenses), Astrhori has proven that they can make a good-looking lens that performs better than expected. Quite a few of their lenses have exciting designs and concepts. Such as the AstrHori 85mm f2.8 lens. It’s both a macro and tilt lens at the same time. Regular macro lenses can’t move the focal plane of the lens, and this is where the AstrHori 85mm f2.8 lens stands out. It doesn’t just allow you to get a 1:1 magnification ratio as close as 0.25m/9.8in to your subject. Using its tilt capabilities, you can adjust what’s in focus and what isn’t without moving your camera around. In our review, we noted:
“As far as I know, only Canon has had such lenses in its arsenal until now. This lens has got very capable macro capabilities. The tilt capability is the first that I’ve seen in a macro lens at this price point. It can also be used as a handy portrait lens if you’re willing to work with the very slow manual focus throw. But the tilt feature comes with some heavy vignetting beyond the halfway point, which is why AstrHori clearly labels that feature as an APS-C option. Still, having a tilt feature on a macro lens is probably better than not having one at all. Sharpness is very impressive, even at f2.8, when you’re photographing subjects up close”
At around USD 329, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a macro-tilt lens like this might not have sharpness worth writing about. But that’s where AstrHori will prove you wrong. Even at f2.8, sharpness jumps out of the screen at you. This quality wasn’t limited to just this particular lens, as I found while testing their 12mm f2.8 fisheye model.
One common trait across all AstrHori lenses we’ve reviewed is their solid build quality. These lenses are mostly made of an all-metal exterior that really makes your heart sing when you hold them. Those large throw manual focus rings aren’t just lovely to touch. They are so smooth to use that they make you really want to fine-tune your focus.
Alas, like Laowa, the lenses on AstrHori have no mention of weather sealing. At least not the ones we’ve tested so far. Still, besides sharpness and build quality, there is a lot to like about these lenses. You can read about our experiences with AstrHori lenses using the links below.
If you’re looking for a really inexpensive lens brand that can provide you with above-average results, then TTArtisan might be a good starting point for you. They started out with smaller, manual focus lenses like their 50mm F2 lens. But small doesn’t mean cheap quality, as we observed in our review of their 28mm f5.6 lens L mount lens:
“when I actually held it (and dropped the lens cap) I realized something more. The TTArtisan 28mm f5.6 lens is built significantly more solid but has similar image quality. And one of the coolest things about this lens is that you’ll want to use it in black and white mode all the time. Most importantly, I don’t think anyone should hold this lens to insanely high standards. It’s only $300, and it’s not designed to please the MTF chart lovers and pixel peepers.”
That’s a fair point to note and one that I think we all beat ourselves up over often. We often crave the sharpest lens with the least chromatic aberrations. So much so that we end up buying clinically similar glass across various focal lengths. And then the images they create, while stunning on various levels no doubt, often lack character. As Editor-in-Chief Chris Gampat often says, third party Chinese lenses are often more fun to use and give you a great experience of enjoyment of the art of photography. Unless you dramatically pixel-peep, many of them can even give results that rival the top-tier lens brands. TTArtisan kind of surprised me when I tested out their APS-C AF 27mm f2.8 lens recently. The full-frame purist that I was for over a decade, it really opened my eyes to the advancements in crop-sensor cameras in recent years.
Drawn in by its good looks and budget-friendly price tag, I tried this lens, not thinking it could compete with Nikon lenses. Surprisingly, after testing it out, I can confidently say that TTArtisan has some lenses worth watching. Here are a couple that caught my attention
They have a huge selection of manual and autofocus (yes, they do make these now) lenses for various lens mounts. Visit Adorama to see which one is perfect for you.
When I first took the Viltrox 35mm f1.8 lens out of the box, I was startled by how similar it looked to the Nikon Z version. From a distance, the untrained eye couldn’t tell them apart. My review of this lens began with this:
“Nikon users will testify that the 35mm f1.8 S Z-mount lens is probably the top of the pack. As stellar as the results from this lens are, at nearly USD 700, it’s not a lens that everyone would part their hard-earned money for immediately. Here’s where the Viltrox 35mm f1.8 lens steps in as a promising option. It offers a combination of quality and affordability that’s hard to ignore. There’s quick autofocus and no noticeable focus breathing. Bokeh lovers have nothing to complain, and the lens gives you considerably sharp results too. At first glance, you might even think it looks like its Nikon counterpart.”
Around town here, I’ve seen Viltrox become a popular choice for photographers just starting out. Their lenses give users great results, often at half the price they’d have to pay to get lenses from their camera brands. The build quality is supreme, and the autofocus performance can rival counterparts easily. Distortion is often minimal, while sharpness and lens character give you images you can be proud of.
They don’t just make lenses in the same focal ranges as what already exists in your camera brand lineup. Take a look at their 16mm f1.8 lens, for example. It’s the perfect ultrawide lens for anyone today. I don’t think I had a single image miss focus during my extensive testing with it. You could go as close to your subject as 27cm to your subject. Coupled with the fast f1.8 aperture (yes, f1.8, not 2.8), that really helps with shallow depth of field.
While earlier Viltrox lenses lacked weather sealing, this one does provide it. Which makes me hopeful for the future of Viltrox as a lens manufacturer. If they can keep up this quality level and bring out more lenses for various lens mounts, it will be tough for people to not crave their glass. Some of the other lenses we tested from them are:
They’re Really Making a Mark
Competition is great, as it spurs everyone to create better products. The ones that benefit the most from this are photographers like you and me. We get a much larger range of lenses to choose from, and we don’t always have to burn holes in our bank balance for this. The future is bright for third party Chinese lens manufacturers, and I hope they keep churning out newer and better lenses as the years go along. Why limit yourself to just lenses from your camera brand? Step out of your comfort zone and try some of the brands above. You’d be surprised just how good they can be.