Lenses are primordial, yet many photographers tend to attach mediocre entry-level zoom glasses on their camera when there are plenty of affordable quality lenses on the market. Here is a personal selection of some of the best optics that can be found under $300.
Jack of all trade master of none. That’s what I see on regular basis with many beginners who tend to spend most of their budget on a camera body to finally end up with an insipid kit lens. Entry level lenses are not necessarily bad but they are slow and don’t offer much creative options for the users. What’s the point of buying an interchangeable lens camera if you can’t play with depth of field and focal length?
I always recommend to spend less on the camera body and save this money to purchase a fun lens that opens new possibilities. There are plenty of options and a good lens doesn't necessarily have to be expensive. The basic but effective 50mm f/1.8 lens for Canon and Nikon only costs $130.
But even seasoned photographers don’t always need the ultimate lens. As a landscape photographer, I mainly use wide-angle focal but I sometimes need to shoot with a telephoto lens. Due to my limited use, I decided to go with the affordable Canon 70-300mm which produces great images despite the poor build quality and relatively slow auto-focus. But for my type of shooting style, I can live with that. Therefore, pricier is not always better. Nowadays most Sigma Art lenses perform much better than the native options. Some high-end lenses like the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II are notoriously bad for the price.
Finally, the new Nikon Z and Canon R mount are so recent that there is no budget option available at this time and I don’t expect to see any change before at least one or two years as the two manufacturers are engaged in a race to figure out who has the largest… aperture despite ridiculous price tag and weight.
Please note that some of the prices indicated below are based on the ongoing rebate at B&H but these items are regularly on sales throughout the year. Finding them for less than $300 shouldn't be an issue.
Canon EF Mount (Full Frame and APS-C)
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM (AF) - $129
Ultra small and light, this fun lens comes with a modern STM focus system and delivers sharp images. Great glass for video work, travel and street photography.
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM (AF) - $299
This lens came out in 1993 but she is still a classic. Small and cheap, the image tends to be on the soft side wide open but the dreamy look disappears when stopped down to f/2.8
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM (AF) - $125
Canon recently updated this lens. The image quality is surprisingly good for the price. Everything else is made of plastic.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM (AF) - $299
Probably the best option for portrait photographers on a budget.
Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III (AF) - $175
Feels cheap in hand, it lacks image stabilization and the auto-focus might not be the best but the image quality is acceptable for the price.
Canon EF-S Mount (APS-C)
Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM (AF) - $279
This ultra-wide APS-C lens for Camera comes with the modern STM AF system and also features image stabilization. A great value at this price.
Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM (AF) - $129
A super tiny and lightweight lens with great image quality.
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II (AF) - $159
Probably the best budget telephoto lens for Canon APS-C camera. Comes with auto-focus and image stabilization.
Nikon F Mount, FX Format (Full Frame)
Nikon AF NIKKOR 28mm f/2.8 Lens (AF) - $285
A Nikon classic, small and sharp.
This lens comes in two variants: the older and cheaper AF model, and the newer AF-S version which offers several upgrades. The economy photographer can safely purchase the AF one.
Nikon AF Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4-5.6G (AF) - $170
Dirt cheap telephoto lens for Nikon DX camera. It lacks image stabilization and the build quality is basic but this glass is priced accordingly.
Nikon F Mount, DX Format (APS-C)
Nikon AF-P DX NIKKOR 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6G VR (AF) - $306
Actually, this lens cost a bit more than $300 but that’s a great wide angle option for Nikon APS-C camera. It also includes image stabilization.
Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G (AF) - $196
Another classic lens from Nikon.
Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC (AF) - $200
A solid option for sports and nature photographers. Comes with auto-focus and image stabilization. The downside? This lens is slow at the long end of the zoom (f/6.3 at 200mm)
Canon EF and Nikon F Mount
Samyang 8mm Ultra Wide Angle f/3.5 Fisheye (Manual) - $200-$250
When wide is not enough, this fisheye lens can cover an entire scene in a single shot. The Nikon version is more expensive than the Canon counterpart due to the implementation of a focus confirm chip.
Samyang 14mm Ultra Wide-Angle f/2.8 IF ED UMC (Manual) - $300
This rectilinear lens has been a long time favorite among astrophotographers over the years. Not everyone can afford a 24mm f/1.4 or 14mm f/1.8 lens. The combination of wide focal and fast aperture helps to capture the stars at night without cranking the ISO or experiencing star trails. The sharpness wide open in the center is good. However, this glass suffers from a complex mustache distortion pattern but it can be corrected in post. Personally, I think that the distortion is not very noticeable for astrophotography.
Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di LD Macro (AF) - $130
It lacks image stabilization and the build quality is not the best but this lens can be found for $130. The image quality is good when stopped down to f/8.
Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG Macro (AF) - $169
The Sigma equivalent of the Tamron 70-300mm.