If you’ve been into photography for any length of time, you understand two things about lenses: First, you get what you pay for, so finding a high-quality lens that produces sharp results is of the utmost importance, and, second, lenses are usually very expensive.
The expense of good lenses is a reflection of their quality. The better the optics, the better the results you will get. That’s why it’s important to use what budget you have to gear up with the best lenses you can afford.
Of course, there are a couple of ways that you can stretch your lens-buying budget - you can buy high-quality used gear and you can buy a lens that performs well, but doesn’t reach the price point of the best lenses on the market.
So, with that said, we’ve put together a list of 14 of the best budget-friendly lenses money can buy. Note, however that “budget-friendly” is a relative term. Some of these lenses might not seem all that inexpensive, but at least compared to top-shelf professional lenses, the ones listed here are a comparative steal.
Nikon Nikkor 24mm F/2.8 D Autofocus Lens
The claim to fame for the Nikon Nikkor 24mm F/2.8 D Autofocus Lens (aside from its low price) is its incredible autofocus system. The lens never seems to struggle to find the subject, acquiring focus quickly and precisely. Better still, the fast autofocus works equally well indoors and out, allowing you to get the photos you need fast and move on to the next shot. What’s more, this lens has a large viewing angle so you can compose gorgeous shots of large subjects, like landscapes or large groups of people. It’s lightweight, compact design is a bonus for photographers that are on the go as well.
Nikon Nikkor 35mm F/1.8 G DX AF-S
The Nikon Nikkor 35mm F/1.8 G DX AF-S is one of the least expensive lenses on our list. Despite that, it comes with a lot of features photographers of all ability levels will appreciate. It’s small, meaning you can use it in tight situations such as indoor portraits or on the street photographing strangers in a busy cityscape. Either way, the optics are top-notch, and the large f/1.8 aperture generates decent bokeh and allows you to keep shooting even when the lighting isn’t ideal. Use it for portraits, landscapes, and anything in between. It’s a great all-around lens that you can attach to your camera in the morning and continue to use throughout the day without even thinking about a lens change.
Nikon Nikkor 40mm F/2.8 G Micro DX AF-S Autofocus Lens For APS-C Sensor DSLRS
If you’ve got a crop sensor Nikon camera body, the Nikon Nikkor 40mm F/2.8 G Micro DX AF-S Autofocus Lens is a budget-friendly option that will likely become your go-to everyday lens because it’s small enough to take just about anywhere. With a minimum focusing distance of just about 6 inches, you can get 1:1 reproduction of interesting objects you find on your photo adventures and easily highlight their details. It’s easy to operate, making it a solid choice if you’re a beginner, and the optical quality of the lens gives beginners to pros a good option for taking tack-sharp photos and high-resolution HD movies too.
Nikon Nikkor 50mm F/1.8 G AF-S Autofocus Lens
Like its Canon 50mm counterpart (discussed later in this list), the Nikon Nikkor 50mm F/1.8 G AF-S Autofocus Lens is highly affordable yet is packed with tons of features. It’s got excellent optics that give you sharp results and a large maximum aperture of f/1.8 that allows you to shoot in even the poorest of lighting conditions. It works on both full frame and crop sensor Nikon bodies, giving it even more flexibility in terms of how it’s used. The lens isn’t weather sealed, so it’s probably not the best choice for landscape photographers in harsh climates, but for all-around shooting, especially indoors, this is a great choice.
Nikon Nikkor 18-140mm F/3.5-5.6 G ED DX AF-S VR Autofocus Lens For APS-C Sensor DSLRS
If you’re looking for a good zoom lens with tons of range but don’t want to break the bank, the Nikon Nikkor 18-140mm F/3.5-5.6 G ED DX AF-S VR should be at the top of your list. Like the 40mm f/2.8 reviewed above, this 18-140mm lens is designed especially for Nikon’s crop sensor line of camera bodies. You can take this lens to virtually any kind of photo shoot, whether it’s a landscape scene, a wedding, or a portrait session. Though the lens isn’t the fastest on our list, it will get the job done both indoors and out. It’s equipped with Nikon’s vibration reduction system as well, so you can shoot handheld at slower shutter speeds. As if that’s not enough, it’s lightweight for a zoom lens, so you can carry it around with ease.
Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8 XR Aspherical Macro DI IF LD (A09) Lens For Canon EF Mount
You might not have heard of Tamron before, and if that’s the case, you’re missing out on good lenses that are a fraction of the price of similar lenses by Canon. The 28-75mm F/2.8 XR Aspherical Macro DI IF LD Lens is perhaps Tamron’s best lens. It has exceptional sharpness - very nearly comparable to the much, much more expensive Canon 24-70mm lens. Don’t let the fact that it’s a macro lens scare you - it’s a solid choice for other types of photography, portraiture included. Better still, this lens is small and lightweight, which means whatever your photographic pursuits, you can go lean and mean, and the f/2.8 aperture is constant, so you can get exceptional background blur throughout its focal range.
Canon 50mm F/1.8 II
As we noted in an earlier article in our Lens Mastery Series, for Canon shooters, the EF 50mm F/1.8 II is perhaps the first lens you should purchase. It’s one of the least expensive Canon lenses available, but that is not indicative of the quality of this lens. It’s fast, small, and well-built. It’s got excellent optics that result in sharp subjects at virtually any focusing distance. On a crop sensor camera, it’s effective focal length is 80mm, meaning you can enter the realm of short telephoto work without spending an exorbitant amount of money. Better still, it’s an excellent all-around lens that you can use in many different applications and lighting conditions.
Canon EF 85mm F/1.8 USM
Great for various applications from portraits to landscapes to weddings, the Canon EF 85mm F/1.8 USM is a favorite for Canon shooters not just because of its great price but because of its large maximum aperture. Create gorgeous portraits with beautiful bokeh and shoot in poor lighting conditions without having to use an enormous ISO. You can also frame up shots of your subjects without having to be right in their lap because at 85mm on a full frame camera (about 136mm on a crop sensor body), you can still get intimate photos from a decent distance away. And, with a USM motor, you can rest easy knowing that its actions are quiet, which is ideal for shooting weddings or photographing wildlife.
Canon 100mm F/2 USM EF Mount Lens
Virtually identical to the Canon 85mm f/1.8 described above, the Canon 100mm f/2 USM Lens offers exceptional sharpness, outstanding build quality, and a price that’s tough to beat, along with an added 15mm of focal length. This lens is a perfect focal length and has a large enough aperture that make it ideal for indoor subjects. You can get close enough to get close-ups of distant subjects, such as athletes playing tennis, basketball, or other indoor sports, and it has a large enough aperture that you can freeze their movement as well. That isn’t to say this lens is limited to indoor work - take it outside and compose highly flattering portraits and close-ups of nature too.
Canon 70-200mm F/4 L USM EF Mount Lens
Most telephoto lenses are extremely expensive simply because of their size and the complexity of their components. However, the Canon 70-200mm F/4 L USM EF Mount Lens is a budget-friendly option that is a good first telephoto lens for just about any shooter.
Though the f/4 aperture isn’t all that large and it doesn’t have image stabilization, this lens does offer excellent image quality because of its professional-grade “L” series glass. It also comes in a package that weighs a good bit less than its f/2.8 cousin, which, if you’ve never lugged telephoto lenses around before, will be much appreciated. Use it for weddings, nature and wildlife photography, or even sporting events. In any case, you’ll get a great lens for a much lower price.
Sigma 19mm F/2.8 DN A (Art) Autofocus Lens For Sony Micro Four Thirds System
For Sony photographers that want a small, compact lens on the cheap, look no further than the Sigma 19mm F/2.8 DN A (Art) Autofocus Lens. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a lens with a smaller profile, and weighing in at just 4.9 ounces, you won’t find a lighter weight lens for your Sony micro four-thirds system either. If you have an e-mount system, you can use this lens as well! The lens has excellent image quality with elements that reduce distortion and aberrations.It has a fast autofocus system too, so you’re sure to get the shots you want, even if the subject is in motion.
Sony 30mm F/3.5 E Macro E Mount Autofocus Lens
If macro work is your favorite, an affordable lens to get your start is the Sony 30mm F/3.5 E Macro E Mount Autofocus Lens pictured above. Designed for e-mount systems, the lens can get you as close as 2.4 cm from your subject with sharp results. The f/3.5 maximum aperture isn’t the best, but it still performs well in low-light situations. It’s a versatile lens as well, with 1:1 image recreation, Optical SteadyShot technology to help reduce the effect of camera shake, reduced chromatic aberration, and high-quality contrast. It’s also a great lens for shooting video because it has a rear-focusing design and an internal stepping motor.
Tamron 18-200mm F/3.5-6.3 DI III VC Sony E Mount Autofocus Lens
Sony shooters that want a solid zoom option should look no further than the Tamron 18-200mm F/3.5-6.3 DI III VC Sony E Mount Autofocus Lens. Perhaps a bit more expensive than what some would consider “budget-friendly,” this lens nevertheless offers great versatility in terms of what it can be used for. Shoot from wide-angle to telephoto, capturing sharp stills and crisp video too. The contrast-detection AF system works like a charm, and because the lens has a motor built in, it’s faster to respond while also being quieter. It’s an all-in-one lens that will get you improved images over your kit lens.
Sony 55-210mm F/4.5-6.3 OSS E Mount Autofocus Lens
Another inexpensive zoom lens for Sony e-mount cameras is the Sony 55-210mm F/4.5-6.3 OSS Lens. Like the 30mm lens reviewed earlier, this lens has Sony’s Optical SteadyShot so you can take photos while minimizing blur due to camera shake. The lens’ design ensures that the aperture remains circular, so you can shoot wide open or several stops down for more natural defocusing. The lens also has aspherical and dispersion elements which reduce both chromatic aberration and spherical aberration. The result is images that are clear and sharp whether you shoot indoors or out.
With that, we conclude our Lens Mastery Series. From portraits to landscapes, beginning photographers to pros, you’ve now got a better understanding of the different types of lenses that are available. With that knowledge, you can now make a more informed purchase when getting a new lens.
As we’ve mentioned throughout this series, buying a high-quality lens will do more for the quality of your images than any other piece of gear. But as we’ve seen in this article, finding a great lens doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. It’s a simple matter of finding well-maintained used gear for a great price.
To do that, visit KEH Camera. Each of the lenses listed here are available from KEH for a price that can’t be beat. KEH puts their used gear through the paces, so you know exactly what you’re getting when you check out. In fact, KEH’s grading system is the industry standard, so if they say the lens is like new, it’s like new! Check out their complete inventory for great deals on lenses, cameras, and other photo accessories.