Don’t Break the Bank: Best Lenses under $300 for Canon and Nikon

Don’t Break the Bank: Best Lenses under $300 for Canon and Nikon

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)

The Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM and EF 85mm f/1.8 USM. Two great options for portrait photography.

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 FX 28mm f/1.8 and Nikon DX 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6.

Nikon AF NIKKOR 28mm f/2.8 Lens (AF) - $285

A Nikon classic, small and sharp.

Nikon NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8 (AF) - $130 and $216

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

Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 and Samyang 14mm f/2.8. Many third part manufacturer lenses are available for Canon and Nikon mounts.

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. 

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Previous comments
Maximilian Sulzer's picture

The Nikkor 35mm 1.8 is hands down my favorite lens.
So light and small that my D5500 turns into a pocket camera, still very nice images.

And i could snatch it for 150€ when our local photo store closed down.

Mark Holtze's picture

I would also recommend shooting vintage lenses as a cost savings alternative to some of these lenses. I compared a 45 year old vintage SMC takumar 85 1.8 (m42 mount) to a canon 85 1.8 USM and found the results of that experiment to heavily favour the vintage Tak. The comments on that video (a few hundred) overwhelmingly agree.

Not to mention the build quality of the vintage stuff is so good. Optics are much better than some of these cheaper brand lenses as well.

ONly thing you really miss is auto focus but since I shoot mostly video with these anyway, I’m all manual all the time. Plus it’s amazing how good you can get with a littlest focusing experience.

My entire vintage set of fast prime lenses from 24-135, over 10 different lenses cost me less than my one Canon 24mm 1.4

With full frame mirrorless being picked up by the major photography brands, I don’t see why anyone wanting to experiment or experience a super affordable option wouldn’t consider those over these.

Helios 44m 58 F2 : $32 on eBay, plus $10 adapter and you have a fast 58 with a truly unique look (swirly bokeh wide open).

Take what you learn from vintage and invest smart on modern to what you know you want from a lens/focal length you like to shoot.

Just my thoughts, always enjoy a good photography for less type article, especially for people who are just starting’s a great way to learn as you see first hand the results of dialing in your settings on the lens, vs using a index or thumb wheel.

Ben Bezuidenhout's picture

If only Canon had one of these: Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 STM (AF) for the same price as the EFS, I would be very happy. Wide angle on Canon has a very high price curve...

Now the real questions : are there any for Fuji and Sony ?

Oliver Kmia's picture

I'm going to cover MFT and Sony in a next article.

Aaron B.'s picture

I also recommend the Sigma 10-20 f/3.5 (Used) which hovers around 300. Its APS-C but its crazy good for events and landscapes.It stays in my Kit at all times.

Also, the Nikon 18-105. One of my go to's for events. It does surprisingly well capturing colors in situations that I need flash.

calaveras grande's picture

The 40mm is a nice compact pancake. But the image quality lacks contrast and is not terribly sharp towards the corners. It's good for street photography mostly because it is small. But it's not terribly fast in terms of F stop. And the focus by wire thing makes it a bit annoying to use if you are into manual focus for your street photography. Most Canons timeout of their active mode after a few seconds. So you have to half press the shutter release to 'wake up' then manual 'focus by wire will work. Wait, you did configure back button AF right? If you didn't then you will be fighting AF when you want to manual focus in aperture priority mode.
The 85mm F1.8 OTOH is one of my favorite lenses. Affordable, great contrast and color. Fast enough AF (though not the fastest by a long shot). And while it is a little bit on the big and heavy side, it's nowhere near what the 85L series lenses are.
The 50mm 1.4 is also great. Much better than the 40mm 2.8. It's a decent size. And quite fast for the price! My only complaint on the 50mm 1.4 is that it is hard to rationalize next to the 50mm 1.8 for less than half the price. Though the 1.4 does feel better in the hand when focussing.

Rob Davis's picture

I'm suspecting English is not the authors first language. I know what that's like. Still, if this is going to be your craft, at least use something like Grammarly for the benefit of your readers.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Which part is the actual point of concern?

Rob Davis's picture

Some examples:

"Lenses are primordial" (this statement doesn't make any sense)

"Jack of all trade master of none" (not a complete sentence, misspelled "trades" and missing comma)

"Entry level lenses are not necessarily bad but they are slow and don’t offer much creative options" (missing comma after "bad" to separate two independent clauses -- "much" should be "many")

"I always recommend to spend less on the camera body and save this money to purchase a fun lens that opens new possibilities" (someone who knows more about conjunctions and tense can explain what's wrong with this)

"I mainly use wide-angle focal but I sometimes" (missing determiner "a" before "wide-angle" -- missing a comma before "but" -- "focal" should be followed by another noun like "length" or "lens")

"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." (run-on sentence)

Several other sentences begin with a conjunction ("But" or "That") which is generally considered sloppy writing. In general, this reads like something put through Google Translate.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Damn. OK, I see the point. English is not my native language so I guess I did not see those right away. Run-on sentence is not technically wrong, just not elegant. I'm a frequent offender myself. As for determiners (a, the, etc.) I don't believe I know any person who was not born into English language and gets those 100% right. My native language has no concept of determiners for example.
I see the point thou. Journalists should be held to higher standards. Unfortunately, if you look at the web content it's quantity over quality any time of day or night.

Rob Davis's picture

There are plenty of native English speakers that make similar mistakes. As you said, the bar is much higher for professional writers.

E.N.G. Jole's picture

Yeah, I do research in linguistics and none of these are wrong. Try learning about dialectical differences or even the prescriptive/descriptive divide before commenting on "grammar".

Rob Davis's picture

Really? Where can I study this dialect? Is there a degree program anywhere in the world where one can major in the dialect where saying “lenses are primordial” is a meaningful statement?

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

It would be good to mention that for those two systems (and particularly Nikon since mount compatibility goes a bit further) there is a huge supply of used glass circulating on the market which means one can save even more money.

Daniel Medley's picture

The Nikon 50 1.8g is an amazing lens for the money. Though a couple hundred dollars more, its brethren, the 85mm 1.8g is also an amazing value.

Just a note, to me its a bit confusing having the sentence 'Dirt cheap telephoto lens for Nikon DX camera' under the 70-300 lens in the FX section.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Makes sense. Noted.

Dave Coates's picture

There a number of Tamron lenses that can be picked up for under $300 that are pretty good for the money as well.

I just love Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM. just amazing lens it is. Yes, great lens for the price.

nikon 70-300mm lens is a horrible lens and bottom top 4 on dxomark. good advice oliver, buy a crap lens because its cheap.

Noah Stephens's picture

I can confirm the Canon 85mm f/1.8 is a wonderful portrait lens. The 50mm f/1.4 is great for full body portraits too. Great list.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Big vote up for the Canon 1.4. A long time favourite. Great list!

Yongnuo should have been included in the list. Image quality is rather good (YN 50 1.8 makes better images than original Canon 50 1.8) and they cost next to nothing.

On the other hand Tamron 70-300 is just bad beyond belief.

I hope that ppl looking for decent low cost lenses will take your advice with a grain of salt.

Oliver Kmia's picture

"I hope that ppl looking for decent low cost lenses will take your advice with a grain of salt."
I hope they will, as I said, this is a personal selection and comments like yours are a good way to bring different opinions.

Lee Stirling's picture

Since the author seems to be all about light weight, small size, and lower price, I'm stunned that they didn't even give a mention to the possibility of finding used versions of the various lenses they recommended for less money or looking for older, vintage, high-quality prime lenses that are cheap now but were expensive back in the day. You're already giving up on lens coatings, AF speed, VR or IS anyway, so why not look at older glass as well? For landscape photography using a tripod, you don't need VR or IS anyway and you can focus manually using live view or focus peaking if your camera has that. Additionally, for something like street photography older manual lenses have nice focus scales built-in to make successful zone focusing quite easy. No AF necessary. I think the author of this article and list has really missed the boat and is not giving his readers enough information to make a truly informed choice.