The Best Lens Bargains

Published March 27, 2013

Increasing vision is increasingly expensive. – R. A. Janek (actually Michael Crichton)

For the last year or so, it seems like almost every new lens release has been accompanied by sticker shock. The manufacturers are businessmen and they know when we’ve been salivating at the promise of a new wonder lens. They know we”ll be willing to (at least some of us) pay a ridiculous amount to put that slightly better lens in front of our camera.

Somewhat lost in the hundreds of Internet threads about whether this-or-that awesome lens is worth its ridiculous price, though, there are some good bargains to be had. In fact, right now there may be more excellent lens bargains available than at any time I can recall. But let’s define real bargains for a minute.

A bargain is NOT finding a $2,500 lens for $1,500. That is a scam and doesn’t happen in the real world. A bargain is finding a lens that does nearly as well as the best possible lens, or does some things every bit as well as the best possible lens, at a fraction of the cost.

In some cases, you can get a good bargain even if you limit yourself to the three-zooms-to-cover-every-boring-possible-focal-length kit. For others, getting a great bargain means leaving your comfort zone a bit; perhaps changing lenses more frequently, or correcting some distortion in post-processing. Doing this, though, especially if you are taking the first timid steps away from the “three zooms” approach, may be the best thing that can happen to your photography.

Bargains for Nikon

Nikon is prime bargain-shopper territory this year, folks. It seems there’s a perfect storm for Nikon shooters. Nikon has released a number or really good, reasonably priced lenses. Third-party developers have added some, too. As if this wasn’t enough, Nikon is exhibiting many of the signs of a business with inventory control or projection problems — discounting things right and left. While the first two factors probably won’t change in the near future, this third one probably will, so some of the Nikon bargains may be temporary.

That being said, the recent price drops have kept a few things from being listed in my bargains. The Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8, for example, would have made the list when it was $1,300 and the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 was $1,900. But with the Nikon currently available at $1,660 it doesn’t make my “costs 60% of the best lens” bargain definition. I’ll also mention there aren’t any DX bargains listed largely because, while DX zooms  are (usually) less expensive than FX alternatives, there are often several to choose from at roughly the same price.

Nikon AF 80-200mm f/2.8D ED

Price: $1,099


As good as the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR II? Nope. Vibration control? Nope. Require cameras with built-in focus motor? Yep. But if you are using this focal length to shoot action, which a lot of people are, then the vibration control is less important because you require shorter shutter speeds. The image quality is better than third party zooms in this focal length (in the center it’s just about as good as the 70-200 VR II). If you don’t need VR, then here’s the classic bargain: 90% of the lens at less than 50% of the price.

Here’s another way to look at it: A Nikon 70-200mm VR II and Nikon D600 combo will set you back $4,394. The Nikon D800 and Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 – only $3,896. Which one do you think gives the best images?

Tokina AT-X 16-28mm f/2.8

Price: $749  



As good as the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8? Nope. Corners soft at f/2.8? Yep. Flare like nobody’s business with the sun in the field? Sure does. Not to mention it’s matched up against the best wide-angle zoom ever made in the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8. But it has excellent resolution for an f/2.8 full-frame wide angle and even the corners are sharp at f/4. And you can buy something nice with the $1,200 you’d save compared to the 14-24mm f/2.8

Sigma 35mm f/1.4

Price: $899


Here’s a superb bargain example. It’s sharper than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 G, Zeiss ZF 35mm f/1.4 or Zeiss 35mm f/2, and significantly less expensive. There seem to be some autofocus issues on the D800, though, so D800 owners may need to be happy using center point AF only. Then again, it certainly autofocuses better than the Zeiss lenses.

Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 AF-S G

Price: $459


I’m not a fan of the 60mm focal length for macro work. But here’s an exceptionally sharp lens, very small and easy to add to your bag that is really inexpensive given the recent price reductions.

Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

Price: $420



It’s manual focus, but at 14mm focus is basically ‘everything I can’t touch is usually in focus’ so that’s not critical. (Manual focus is the reason I didn’t include longer Rokinon lenses as bargains.) It has a lot of barrel distortion, but everything else at this focal length has some. Not as much, but some. But it’s amazingly sharp. Better than the Nikon 14mm f/2.8 prime (which is way dated) and 1/3rd of the price. I will note, this is held together inside with plastic, glue, and small screws. You won’t be using it for years. But the price of a new one is less than the price of a repair on a 14-24 f/2.8.

Nikon f/1.8 G Primes

Nikon 85mm f/1.8 AF-S G – $370 

Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF-S G – $217

Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S G – $220



The Trinity of Nikon f/1.8 G primes. All are as sharp as their far more expensive f/1.4 big brothers. All three together cost about $800, half of what a Nikon 35mm f/1.4 G costs. Want to shoot world-class Nikon for under $3,000? Get a D7100 and these 3 primes and you’re set. That’s actually a bit less than, say, a Fuji X-Pro1 and 3 prime lenses.

While it didn’t quite make my ultimate bargain list, the Nikon 28mm f/1.8 G at $600 is excellent, too. If you shoot full-frame you can still get 3 superb f/1.8 primes for $1,100. That’s less than the cost of the 24-70 f/2.8 zoom and each has clearly better IQ than the zoom.

Bargains for Canon

Canon seems to have better inventory control lately, making their markdowns a bit less dramatic. Or perhaps Canon shooters have been using their disposable income on lenses instead of cameras, keeping the demand high. There are still some good bargains to be had in the Canon world, though.

Canon 70-200mm f/4L

 Price: $674


You can focus on the lack of image stabilization and the f/4 aperture rather than f/2.8. But it’s sharper than the f/4 IS version and about half the price. This is one of the ‘starter’ L quality lenses I recommend to everyone. You give up some compromises for this bargain, but in decent light it can create images as good as anything in this focal range.

Tie: Tokina AT-X 16-28 f/2.8 & Canon 17-40 f/4

Price: $749 & $699, respectively


Either is right around half the price of a Canon 16-35 f/2.8L lens. The 17-40 gives up a stop for that money, but is probably a bit sharper than the 16-35 and certainly is more flare resistant. It’s also drop-dead reliable; we rarely see one break. The Tokina is just as sharp and gives you f/2.8, but you won’t be putting any filters in front of it, and it flares if the sun is anywhere in the image. Certainly, though, either provides 80% of the capability for half the money, which is my definition of a good buy.

Sigma 35mm f/1.4

Price: $899



Not quite as great a bargain for Canon shooters as for Nikon shooters since the Canon 35mm f/1.4 is a bit cheaper than the Nikon. But the Sigma is still a sharper lens for about 70% of the price.

Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

Price: $379


This one (or these three if you want to go by different brand badges) is an even better bargain for Canon shooters than for Nikon – it’s cheaper in Canon mount and the Canon 14mm f/2.8 is nearly $2,000 – higher than the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 zoom. If you can live with the distortion it’s definitely the cheapest way to go really wide.

Canon 40mm f/2.8 Pancake

Price: $149


It’s so small and inexpensive I use it as my lens cap. It gives excellent image quality, particularly in the center. If you prefer wider aperture you might consider the slightly less expensive 50mm f/1.8, but the 40mm is quicker to focus, doesn’t have that annoying buzzing motor, and is half the size.

Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro

Price: $499


It’s not quite as good as the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS as far as image quality, but it’s close. Personally, this is one where I’d pay the difference because I really need the IS, but many people do not. For them, this original version is barely more than half the price and an excellent lens. I doubt it will remain available for a lot longer, though.

Canon 85mm f/1.8

Price: $359


Another excellent prime lens that can be had for a tiny fraction of what the Canon 85 f/1.2 or f/1.4 lenses cost. If you can give up the half stop of light and a bit of bokeh creaminess, you can save a lot of money and space in your bag with this one.

Canon 200mm f/2.8L Mk II

Price: $759

It’s sharper and a lot smaller than a 70-200 f/2.8 lens at half the price. I mention this one because there are a lot of sports shooters who could tape their 70-200mm lens at 200mm – every shot is taken there. This lens makes a lot of sense for them.

Bargains for Micro 4/3

There’s a bit less room for bargain hunting in m4/3, which isn’t surprising given fewer lenses and manufacturers. There’s a big group of top-level primes and zooms for around $1,000, another group at $600-$800, and then a lot of zooms at around $500. There are a couple of lenses that meet my ‘60% of the price’ bargain criteria, though.

Sigma 30mm EX DN f/2.8

Price: $149

Superb image quality and a rock-bottom price make this a must buy. It’s not a true wide-aperture prime, being f/2.8, but it’s sharp wide open.

Sigma 19mm f/2.8 EX DN

Price: $199

As above, and while it’s not quite as inexpensive, it’s still a bargain.

There are some other lenses, like the Panasonic pancakes and Olympus 45mm f/1.8 that have good prices, although I’m not sure they’re screaming bargains.

Bargains for NEX

Looking for high-quality, low-price NEX lenses is a fairly quick task, but right now there’s one bargain that may top anything else for any other system.

Sigma 30mm f/2.8 & 19mm f/2.8

Price: $199, total

Basically, unless you already have both of these, buy the package. Even if you have one, buy the package and sell the other one.

That’s Probably Not All

If you think I missed a bargain or two, feel free to add a comment. But remember the criteria aren’t just cheap lenses; it’s excellent lenses at a fraction of the price of similar quality lenses.

Roger Cicala

March, 2013

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Recommendations
  • Great choice of lenses. I’ve shot many of the Canon lenses on this list and they’ve been fantastic. Used brand lens (Canon/Nikon) seem to be a better deal than the off-brand lenses, as there’s no “left the showroom” markdown if you ever decide to upgrade lenses (heavens forbid) or switch systems. The Nikon G in particular an issue for adapter use as there’s no aperture ring (Canon lenses have the excellent Sigma MC-11 on Sony and Fringers’ adapter for Fuji-X).

  • For Canon FF: Sigma 15mm f/2.8 fisheye @ $600 in place of Canon’s 8-15mm f/4 @ $1500

  • Grant

    What about bargains for Canon EF-S? There are more of us than FF.

  • kevin conlon

    regarding Samyang 14/2.8, I would prefer the Nikon mount version for my Canon cameras because I like the aperture ring.

    @Bryant, I have both Canon and Nikon 50/1.4 (AI-S, AF-D, not AF-S but I have some experience with it). the Canon EF one is much better.

  • You’ve missed the nikkor 50mm f1.4
    It’s very sharp. I love the lens a lot

    Hope you could compare it to canons 50mm f1.4

  • Tom

    Manual focus or not, the Rokinon 85/1.4 (manufactured by Samyang and available under many different brand names) has to be one of the bargains of the century. Optimised for wide apertures, it is impressively sharp at f/1.4 already. It isn’t as bleedlingly sharp as other 85s from f/5.6 onwards, but who cares? The bokeh is exquisite and the price is a fraction of other 85s that aren’t optically as good (for portrait purposes).

    In Pentax mount this lens supports matrix metering (other camera users can buy an additional chip though) and is even image stabilised. With the camera giving feedback about when focus has been obtained, manual focusing isn’t that hard at all. It can actually be fun! I can’t recommend this lens highly enough.

  • Zak McKracken

    I’m misssing two things in the Canon line-up:
    1: The 70-300 f4.0-5.6 IS USM — no very big aperture but at least according to the tests I’ve seen beats the some 70-200 L lenses for sharpness while costing half as much as those, weighing a lot less and going 100 mm further, too.
    Owning, one, I’m completely happy with it, but cannot draw any comparison with the 70-200 L lenses. I only know it is much much better than the Sigma 55-200 it’s replacing.

    2: Some fixed lens in the range 20mm – 30mm. Simply because I’m looking for one and have no idea which ones are bargains and which ones just cheap. I hope the omission doesn’t mean they’re all either bad or expensive.

  • Teun

    As for m43, the 45mm 1.8 olympus is a bargain. Stellar performance at a very low cost. There is no 60% of the cost here, since there is no better lens in this range available. I feel like Olympus could have charged double the price.

    Also, the samyang 7.5mm 3.5 fisheye lens for m43 is a bargain. Much much sharper than any fisheye lens i’ve tried before (nikkor 10.5, samyang 8.5, panasonic 8mm) at a bargain price.

  • I think 24-105mm L is very good and cheap compared to others for just $750 used market price. 50mm f/1.8, and 18-55mm IS for $100 and 55-250mm IS you got 90%-95% sharpness of other more expensive lenses that cost 3-5x more.

  • Gabriel

    Ty 4 ur swift reply. (Dont publish this mail)

  • Roger Cicala


    The 200 is definitely sharper than the 70-200 non IS version. I can’t say it’s absolutely sharper than the 70-200 f/2.8 IS II, but it’s really close.

  • Gabriel

    Could you please clarify yor statement about the ef 200 mm. Is it sharper than all of the ef 70-200 2.8 zooms in general, or just the oldest one, fr.o.m. 1996, without zoom, in particular. I am about to buy the latest one of these zooms but i strongly dislike the size and weight of it. I would gladly buy few smaler primes with similar performance. Image stabilisation is not that important for me but i need a 2.8 aperture at least.

  • On the Nikon side, there are a couple of hidden gems:

    Nikon 180 2.8 D
    – In a word? Stellar. This pig of a lens has optics on par with the 70-200 VR II and comes from an era when lenses were made of METAL (cue Pantera). Retails NEW for $850ish but can be found used for $500.

    Tokina 100mm 2.8 Macro
    – This lens is my weapon of choice for portraits from the waist up. Oh, and it also does macro too. Duh. Just as sharp as the Nikon 105 sans VR. Pick it up used for $450.

  • Chris

    Please excuse the spelling, I’m *primarily* a photographer, not a writer!

  • Chris

    The weakness with the Nikon AF 80-200mm F2.8D is not primerilly the lack of VR but the lack of AFS. The in camera motors tend to struggle to maintain AF speed with bigger lenses such as this and the AF 180mm F2.8 and even more with the AF 300mm F2.8 non AFS (I sold the afore mentioned two lenses for that very reason, and my hit rate of sharp images went up.) AF performance from this method also depends on the body used. Back in the day those big lenses focused faster on an F100 than on an S2Pro which used to struggle. The difference is still apparent today even with small lenses such as the 50mm F1.8 or 28mm F2.8, my D3 has the edge over my D200, and I’m not talking about AF accuracy or speed to lock on to target, just how fast the motor spins that distance scale round. The bigger higher spec bodies are just more torque-y. Bit like cordless electric drills as you go up the range.

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