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The Best Budget Lenses

by Chris Gampat on 04/16/2010

Various lenses with different physical and relative aperture sizes.

Various lenses with different physical and relative aperture sizes.

If you’re shopping for a new lens of some sort, you’ve come to just the right place. As per the results of my recent reader polls, here is a list of the best lenses you can get your hands on without breaking the bank too much.

Edit: Due to popularity of this posting, Amazon links have also been inserted. Please support The Phoblographer.

Edit 1/2/2010: I have updated this list to include Pentax and Sony lenses due to popular demand.

Edit 4/14/2013: And we’ve edited the list again

Edit 3/7/2014: Updated list 

Canon

Canon 40mm STM on 5DmkII

Canon 50mm F1.8/F1.4- When I first moved to Canon, I started out with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II
. Though it has some slight quirks to it (autofocus is a bit hard to do at time and can be slow) it is still a wonderful general purpose lens and an excellent lens for when videos need to be shot at something like a concert. Stopped down to F4, it is wonderfully sharp.

If you can afford it, the Canon EF 50mm f1.4 USM is much better and is one of Canon’s best buys.

Canon 100mm Macro 2.8- Known as one of Canon’s sharpest lenses, users will appreciate the versatility available with using a lens like this. One can go from shooting portraits, to macro products, to the fine details at a wedding, and to even sports shooting when put in a cropped sensor body like a 7D or a 50D (available at a rebate at the time of writing this article.) One really can’t go wrong with the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM.

Canon 85mm F1.8- This is my second favorite lens in my camera bag. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM allows for super sharp portraits, headshots, and even candid moments when shooting events or a wedding. What’s great is that you have a telephoto reach without having a really large lens that tends to attract attention: therefore making the photographer more discrete and also allowing them not to disturb their subjects.

Canon 35mm F2.0- The Canon EF 35mm f2.0 is a great lens for events or photojournalism type shooting. This lens is great for capturing environmental portraits, and also for giving a real feel for what the vibe is like at an event. Combined with a flash, it can be great on the dance floor of a party and delivers sharp results with wonderful color.

The lens has since been updated to a new version with IS built in. It’s quite a nice piece of glass but a bit more pricey.

Canon 40mm f2.8- For years, Canon users have been asking for a pancake lens. Though it took them a while, the Canon 40mm f2.8 is the company’s answer to that challenge and from our review, it seems like it was well worth the wait. The 40mm f2.8 is sharp edge to edge, focuses quickly and is extremely affordable. It’s more than earned its right on this list.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Tokina 12-28mm f4 review images others (11 of 23)ISO 2001-2000 sec at f - 4.0

Sigma 50mm f1.4 (First version)- Sigma has updated their 50mm f1.4 to be included into their Art series of lenses, but that doesn’t mean that the first version is a slacker. In fact, we’d like to argue that it is the best 50mm f1.4 lens available to Canon users if you’re also factoring in budget. This one is even better than Canon’s own.

Tokina 11-16mm f2.8- One of the biggest complaints about this list before was its lack of zoom lenses. If you’re looking for one, then consider the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 offering. It’s perfect for APS-C users that want wide angle photos–which means that your landscapes will look that much more epic.

Rokinon 14mm f2.8- If we had to choose a single wide angle prime to stick with, it would be Rokinon’s own 14mm f2.8. With a wide field of view at 14mm and an f2.8 aperture, there is no reason not to spring for this lens. Sure, it’s manual focus only, but if you’re using a lens like this then you’re usually focusing out to infinity anyway.

Tokina 12-28mm f4- Of any of the wide angle zoom lenses that we’ve tested, this one had to be the most fun. Mount it on a camera, put the camera on a tripod and get to the nearest coastline to shoot the sun as it’s about to go down. The colors, sharpness, and price of this lens are all very pleasing.

Rokinon 85mm f1.4- If you want an f1.4 lens designed for portraits, this is the most affordable one that you can get. Wide open, the lens is a bit soft. But once you stop it down a bit, it begins to sing with sharpness. Like other Rokinon lenses, it is a manual focus only one. But man, that bokeh is glorious.

Sigma 30mm f1.4 (Second version)- APS-C camera users that want a fast 50mm field of view (approximately) will be super surprised by Sigma’s new 30mm f1.4 offering. What’s even cooler is that you can use it on a full frame camera–but don’t expect the image quality to be just like that of an APS-C camera’s due to how this lens was designed.

Nikon

Chris Gampat Digital Camera Review Nikon D7100 product photos (1 of 7)ISO 5001-200 sec at f - 5.0

Nikon 50mm F1.8/F1.4- The Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF is sharper than Canon’s but doesn’t deliver as pleasing out-of-focus areas. In fact, it’s quite a bit sharper and comes with a slightly higher price as well. The Nikon 50mm f/1.4D AF is used widely at concerts and weddings in addition to photographers who capture portraits with cameras like a D300s. Many wedding photographers actually do this and deliver some fantastic and lovely results. I’ve seen some prints from photographers in Brooklyn shooting by the Brooklyn Bridge, and combined with their SB-900 flashes, it does some great work on quite the budget.

Also be sure to consider the newer 50mm F/1.8 G.

Nikon AF-S 35mm F1.8- I’ve tried this lens on the Nikon D3x before. For the price, Nikon photographers get a lens that will stick with them in their bags forever. A lens like this is sharp, focuses surprisingly fast, and can be used for photo shoots, shooting couples, portraits, weddings, etc. Many portrait photographers I know actually use the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX.

Nikkor 28mm F2.8D- Nikon’s wide angle primes are becoming legendary, and the Nikon 28mm f2.8D AF is quite worth its weight in dollars. A lens like this is great for getting up close and personal with your subjects, like children, dogs, etc. Otherwise, it is great for shooting landscapes and some street photography.

Nikkor 85mm F1.8D- Although it’s not the absolutely gorgeous F1.4, the Nikon 85mm f1.8D AF is a lens that is seen on many Nikon photographers’ cameras. This lens is the essential lens for portrait photographers and those looking to do in studio work. Stopped down to around F2.8 it becomes super sharp. The feel and construction of this lens will also not disappoint.

Nikon 40mm f2.8 Micro- If you’re a Nikon user looking for a nice macro lens, the 40mm f2.8 is your answer. Becoming essentially a 60mm f2.8 lens, it is an interesting perspective leaning towards the longer side of the normal field of view range. Combined with a fast f2.8 aperture, it’s the lens you’ll want to tote around when you want to do a couple of projects at home.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Tokina 12-28mm f4 review images others (23 of 23)ISO 1001-125 sec at f - 4.0

Sigma 50mm f1.4 (First version)- Sigma has updated their 50mm f1.4 to be included into their Art series of lenses, but that doesn’t mean that the first version is a slacker. In fact, we’d like to argue that it is the best 50mm f1.4 lens available to Nikon users if you’re also factoring in budget. Nikon has been making some great glass, but this one is right up there in terms of image quality with Nikon’s own version.

Tokina 11-16mm f2.8- One of the biggest complaints about this list before was its lack of zoom lenses. If you’re looking for one, then consider the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 offering. It’s perfect for APS-C users that want wide angle photos–which means that your landscapes will look that much more epic.

Rokinon 14mm f2.8- If we had to choose a single wide angle prime to stick with, it would be Rokinon’s own 14mm f2.8. With a wide field of view at 14mm and an f2.8 aperture, there is no reason not to spring for this lens. Sure, it’s manual focus only, but if you’re using a lens like this then you’re usually focusing out to infinity anyway.

Tokina 12-28mm f4- Of any of the wide angle zoom lenses that we’ve tested, this one had to be the most fun. Mount it on a camera, put the camera on a tripod and get to the nearest coastline to shoot the sun as it’s about to go down. The colors, sharpness, and price of this lens are all very pleasing.

Rokinon 85mm f1.4- If you want an f1.4 lens designed for portraits, this is the most affordable one that you can get. Wide open, the lens is a bit soft. But once you stop it down a bit, it begins to sing with sharpness. Like other Rokinon lenses, it is a manual focus only one. But man, that bokeh is glorious.

Sigma 30mm f1.4 (Second version)- APS-C camera users that want a fast 50mm field of view (approximately) will be super surprised by Sigma’s new 30mm f1.4 offering. What’s even cooler is that you can use it on a full frame camera–but don’t expect the image quality to be just like that of an APS-C camera’s due to how this lens was designed.

Micro Four Thirds

Olympus EM5 and 25mm f1.8 the phoblographer chris gampat

Panasonic 20mm F1.7- As perhaps the most favorite lens amongst Micro Four Thirds photographers, the Panasonic LUMIX G 20mm f1.7 delivers wonderful results in all types of lighting and also does this in a small pancake type body. It has since been refreshed, and despite it not being as sharp as the previous version, the new version has better construction. Still, if you can find the older one, hold onto it.

Olympus M. Zukio 17mm F2.8- An alternative to the 20mm for those that want a wider field of view, the Olympus 17mm f2.8 Lens is still a great lens for the Micro Four Thirds system due to sharp image quality and wide aperture. It has since been discontinued, but if you can snag it you’ll be in for a treat. Olympus’s own 17mm f1.8 is a bit too expensive for our liking.

Olympus 45mm f1.8- Despite the fact that everyone drools over the Olympus 75mm f1.8, this is the lens we recommend more than any others due to the wider field of view and the fast f1.8 aperture. This is the lens you’ll want to shoot wide open or just barely stopped down all day and all night. And if you’re a Micro Four Thirds users going for a budget friendly option, this is the best you can get.

Olympus 60mm f2.8- The Olympus 60mm f2.8 is another macro lens option–but the killer feature of this lens is the weather sealing. We’ve tested it out and we approve; it’s sharp, contrasty, and really overall quite good. As always though, we recommend using flashes to take advantage of specular highlights.

Olympus 25mm f1.8- While we really enjoyed the 45mm f1.8, we were a bit hesitant and skeptical about how the 25mm f1.8 would perform despite the two lenses have nearly identical construction. And oh man were we wrong. The 25mm f1.8 is one of the best and sharpest offerings that we’ve tested for the Micro Four Thirds system. That and it’s affordable–much more so than Panasonic’s 25mm f1.4.

Sigma 19mm f2.8- The image quality of both the first and second versions of these lenses are comparable–but what really changed is the build quality. The newer ones have faster focusing and a sleeker body while the older versions have a bit more grip on them. Still, if you want something fairly wide and sharp, look no further than this offering from Sigma.

Sony Alpha A Mount and E Mount

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony NEX 35mm f1.8 OSS product image lead (1 of 1)ISO 16001-200 sec at f - 4.0

Sony 50mm F/1.8 DT- Designed specifically for Sony APS-C sensor sized cameras, the venerable Sony 50mm F/1.8will allow your Sony DSLR to photograph subjects with razor thin depth of field while rendering a gorgeous out of focus area. Of all the 50mm F/1.8 lenses I’ve tried, this one perhaps has the best build quality to it. Like all 50mm lenses, if you’re able to throw down a bit more money then you can get the Sony 50mm f/1.4 Lensdesigned for full frame DSLRs.

Sony 35mm F/1.8- On an APS-C sensor DSLR it will be around 50mm. Students, hobbyists, street photographers trying to remain incognito, and portrait shooters will come to appreciate the Sony 35mm F/1.8.

Those of you that want to stick with Sony for the long run should strongly consider this lens because the Sony 35mm F/1.4may be out of your price range for a while.

Sony 28mm F/2.8- This is the lens designed for people that want to shoot wider. For the price point, there is little to complain about.

Sony 85mm F/2.8- It’s a pity that Sony doesn’t have an F/1.8 lens in this focal length. However, for the price point (as this is a budget lens compilation) you’ll find that this can be a more affordable option than what the competition has to offer.

Rokinon 8mm f2.8- This is a fast aperture fisheye lens, but the images that we captured with it were some of the best we’ve seen with an NEX camera. Rokinon lenses render color differently than everyone else and because they are manual focus optics, they can focus much more on putting in some top notch glass.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A7s review images extras (13 of 19)ISO 128001-200 sec at f - 8.0

Sony 20mm f2.8- Sony’s only pancake lens is also incredibly good. When used with your E mount camera, it will make the entire package a lot more compact. In fact, you may even be able to stuff certain cameras with this lens attached into a jacket pocket.

Sony 50mm f1.8 NEX- This is a big one; of any lens made by Sony, the 50mm f1.8 has to be hands down the sharpest optic that we’ve tested for the system thus far. It’s contrasty, sharp, and takes advantage of any Sony NEX sensor to create some beautiful bokeh and images that will leave you bedazzled.

Sony 35mm f1.8 NEX- This a also one of Sony’s sharp optics, but it isn’t as sharp as we originally expected it to be. After some thought though, it made sense as to why it isn’t–and the trade off is that there is image stabilization built into the lens. Generally, when there is stabilization, the image quality can suffer because the elements need to be made smaller for the function to work. But trust us, it’s still very much worth it.

Sigma 35mm f1.4 DG- The one lens that we’ve become absolutely, positively smitten with for Canon DSLR owners is the Sigma 35mm f1.4–but it’s also available for Sony A mount. It’s the fastest wide aperture 35mm available for the system, and you’ll enjoy every image that you snap with it.

Sigma 19mm f2.8- The image quality of both the first and second versions of these lenses are comparable–but what really changed is the build quality. The newer ones have faster focusing and a sleeker body while the older versions have a bit more grip on them. Still, if you want something fairly wide and sharp, look no further than this offering from Sigma.

Pentax

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Pentax K3 first impressions product photos (1 of 8)ISO 4001-50 sec at f - 2.5

Pentax 50mm F/1.4- Most Pentax users will know from reading and research around the interwebs that Pentax’s strength lies with their prime lenses. For portrait shooters using their APS-C sized DSLRs (not that Pentax makes a full frame at the time of writing this posting) this will be your ideal focal length because of how flat the lens will render the image when combined with the sensor. The faster aperture of the Pentax 50mm F/1.4will mean that if you have an older DSLR that you won’t always have to raise the ISOs to nuclear meltdown levels.

If I were to recommend one lens to get, this would be it.

Pentax 35mm F/2.4- The Pentax 35mm F/2.4is a lens that will give users an approximate 50mm field of view. As the ultimate street photography lens for APS-C DSLRs at this price point, you’ll perhaps want to set your camera to aperture priority and leave it wide open at F/2.4 in order to capture all you’ll need for your street scenes. Perhaps this is what gives it loads of value at this price.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Pentax 645z first sample images (5 of 11)ISO 1601-125 sec at f - 11

Pentax 40mm F/2.8 Limited- Pentax’s line of Limited lenses are coveted by all Pentaxians. Having an affordable option in this small package will make you the cool kid on the block amongst your Pentaxian kin. The Pentax DA 40mm f/2.8pancake will be a must-have option for photographers that like to remain discrete or those that always want to keep their cameras on them. Without a larger prime or a bulky zoom lens, you won’t have any excuse to have your camera on you at all.

 

Tokina 11-16mm f2.8- One of the biggest complaints about this list before was its lack of zoom lenses. If you’re looking for one, then consider the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 offering. It’s perfect for APS-C users that want wide angle photos–which means that your landscapes will look that much more epic.

Rokinon 14mm f2.8- If we had to choose a single wide angle prime to stick with, it would be Rokinon’s own 14mm f2.8. With a wide field of view at 14mm and an f2.8 aperture, there is no reason not to spring for this lens. Sure, it’s manual focus only, but if you’re using a lens like this then you’re usually focusing out to infinity anyway.

Tokina 12-28mm f4- Of any of the wide angle zoom lenses that we’ve tested, this one had to be the most fun. Mount it on a camera, put the camera on a tripod and get to the nearest coastline to shoot the sun as it’s about to go down. The colors, sharpness, and price of this lens are all very pleasing.

Rokinon 85mm f1.4- If you want an f1.4 lens designed for portraits, this is the most affordable one that you can get. Wide open, the lens is a bit soft. But once you stop it down a bit, it begins to sing with sharpness. Like other Rokinon lenses, it is a manual focus only one. But man, that bokeh is glorious.

Sigma 30mm f1.4 (Second version)- APS-C camera users that want a fast 50mm field of view (approximately) will be super surprised by Sigma’s new 30mm f1.4 offering. What’s even cooler is that you can use it on a full frame camera–but don’t expect the image quality to be just like that of an APS-C camera’s due to how this lens was designed.

Fujifilm

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Fujifilm 27mm f2.8 first impressions (15 of 18)ISO 8001-60 sec at f - 2.8

27mm f2.8- As currently the only pancake lens for the Fujifilm X series system, it’s a bit pricey but for the small size and focusing/image quality performance like this you really can’t go wrong. It isn’t amongst the sharpest lenses in the lineup, but it is still sharper than many other offerings you may come across.

35mm f1.4- This lens is still our favorite for the system. It was one of the original three released with the inception of the system and has since received various firmware updates to improve it. At this point, there is almost nothing to complain about.

18mm f2- As another lens for the system to launch right out of the gate, its small size and image quality is also something to seriously consider. Of all of the X series lenses, this one is often sold for the steepest discount if you get lucky.

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