I lied, the list has more than 10 lenses on it. Anyway, this is a subjective list, don’t get pissed at me! You won’t find any super expensive lenses on this list simply because the performance per dollar diminishes the higher you go. Also, to get the best bang for your buck, you gotta buy used! So, I am basing the “value” on used prices, not MSRP.
10. (Tie) Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM and EF-S Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS
Cost: under $280 for the 10-18mm, under $85 for the 18-55mm
If you own a crop body, you are in luck. These two little lenses offer extreme value; they are sharp, they have IS, and they don’t cost much. These two lenses are the definition of value, offering image quality that rivals lenses that cost 4x as much. Take for instance the venerable Tokina 11-16mm. It costs almost 1.5x as much as the Canon 10-18mm, and to my eye, actually has inferior image quality (not to mention a narrower focal range and no image stabilization!). Neither of these lenses offer great bokeh, but who cares! They cost next to nothing (particularly if you buy used). I believe I picked up my 18-55mm kit used for under $80.
9. Canon 35mm f/2 IS USM
Cost: under $450 (if you are lucky)
Canon has introduced a series of IS USM lenses recently (24mm, 28, and the 35mm). The 35mm is without a doubt the best of the bunch; offering incredible low light capability, and sharpness. Many owners of the beloved Canon 35mm f/1.4L have ditched it for the 35mm f/2 IS because it costs half as much, is almost as sharp, and has image stabilization. It even arguably has better bokeh; offering rounder bokeh balls when stopped down and a less pronounced onion effect. If you can pick one up for a discount via a Canon sale or on Ebay, you are getting an extremely powerful video and stills lens.
8. 135mm f/2L
Priced at over $1,000 new and over $700 used, “value” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when describing the 135mm. Instead, people use words like amazing, fast, bokehlicious, 3D, sharp, sexy, irreplaceable, and “the best lens Canon makes”. This lens certainly has a cult following. At f/2 it has great bokeh and low light capability. It is the weapon of choice for many portrait and wedding photographers. It has a fast AF system, and puts up an iconic image that screams pro! This lens is incredibly sharp at f/2, but still produces a graceful/cinematic look. It’s expensive because it is worth the price.
7. (Tie) Canon 300mm f/4L USM (non IS), Canon 400mm f/5.6L USM, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
Cost: ~$550 for the 300mm, ~$750ish for the 400mm, ~$900 for a nice copy of the 100-400mm
The 300mm is an old lens that has been replaced by the 300mm f/4.0L IS USM. The non IS version of this lens is an extremely sharp telephoto lens that is built like a tank, has an integrated lens hood, features extremely fast auto focusing, and encompasses everything that makes Canon L series lenses truly L series. The best part is; it will only run you about $500 on Ebay. It is not the most versatile lens; at 300mm even head and shoulder portraits are difficult to achieve, in low light f/4 struggles, it is big and requires a tripod collar. But when you are working at 300mm+ you are not usually seeking versatility. If you are going to the beach, your kid’s soccer game, an outdoor wedding, or an African Safari this baby gets the job done for a reasonable price. On a personal note; it smokes the Canon 55-250mm lens in terms of everything except portability (trust me, I own both).
The 400mm f/5.6 is without a doubt the best bang for you buck if you need reach. Don’t do the whole teleconverter thing on a shorter focal length lenses; it affects image quality as well as auto focus speed. If you want sharp photos at a 400mm focal length and you can handle the bulk of this lens, get the 400mm prime. Birders and nature photographers gravitate towards the 400mm f/5.6 because it provides excellent resolution for the dollar. In broad daylight, you would be hard pressed to get better resolution without spending $2,000+. The 400mm f/5.6 is a highly specialized lens, which is why it is not as popular as Canon’s shorter telephoto lenses. It sports an incredibly fast AF; I’m not sure why on B&H people say it is slow… it is faster than the modern 300mm f/4 IS as well as the 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM.
The Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM is an alternative option but it is more expensive and the autofocusing is sluggish compared to the 400m f/5.6. The zoom range of the 100-400mm is not so valuable because when you shoot long range tele stuff, you gravitate towards 200mm+. I always felt that this lens should have been 200-400mm not 100-400mm. The push pull focus sucks, and in general its an old clunky lens. The truly useful features on the 100-400 zoom are the minimum focusing distance (much closer than on the 400m prime) and image stabilization. If you shoot birds and other small objects in daylight, I say go for the 400mm prime. If you shoot people, sports, nature, and other odd/unexpected things then definitely go for the 100-400mm. With the modern version of this lens being released this year, the prices are falling and great deals can be had.
All three of the lenses are big and not for the faint of heart. If you are not obsessed with shooting at the telephoto end, just settle for a Canon 55-250mm or a 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM (didn’t make my list).
6. Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS USM
Quite possibly Canon’s most reasonable and versatile lens. It is big, but not too big. It is heavy, but not too heavy. Its expensive, but not too expensive. It is a lens that can replace almost all your lenses.. Why drag 10 lenses on a vacation when you can get by with just two.. or one? The 70-200mm f/4L IS USM is an extremely sharp lens. At 200mm it is about as sharp as the Canon 200mm f/2.8L prime! Indoors and in low light is where this lens really shines. F/4 aperture generally sucks, but with the three stop IS you can shoot longer handheld than with the 20mm prime. This lens is good enough for weddings, fashion shows, outdoors, indoors, whatever, anything and everything. The EF 70-200mm f/4L IS is truly the most versatile lens Canon makes at a reasonable price. It is the closest you will ever get to having a one lens solution for your needs without shelling out for the f/2.8 IS version. So, if you can handle the weight and size just get the 70-200mm f/4 IS and be done with it. It will be a “life long” lens providing you with lots of great photos and videos. Is it a walk-around lens? Personally I’d say it fits the bill; its almost half the weight of the 70-200mm f/2.8 IS USM! So unless you need to capture fast action in low light, skip the f/2.8 and get this version.
5. (Tie) Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM and Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM
Cost: ~$260 for the 85mm 1.8, ~$450 for the 24-105mm
Most people choose the 85mm f/1.8 over the Canon 100mm f/2. I don’t know why anyone would own both of these lenses; they are close in focal length and close in performance. They are both sharper than my Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM, even when it is stopped down to f/2. They both offer extremely fast autofocusing speed, about equal to or in some cases faster than the 135mm f/2L. They both feature some purple fringing (chromatic aberration) but the same can be said for the super expensive Canon 85mm f/1.2L. The 85mm f/1.8 has slightly better image quality; it is a tad sharper, faster, is easier to hand hold and has better contrast than the 100mm f/2. The 100mm f/2 is a fine lens but didn’t quite make the cut.
The Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM has a ridiculously low price on the used market. The reason for this is it is a kit lens for many of Canon’s 5D and 6D DSLRs. So people often buy the kit package, keep the body and sell off the lens. If you are lucky you can score this lens for around $500. Basically you get a sharp, compact lens that has good build quality. The only downside is that this lens is a bit slow at f/4. In my opinion Canon’s L series wide angle and medium angle zooms are a bit overpriced, which is why the is the only L series zoom from that focal range. If you need a great general purpose (albeit slow) lens, this is defiantly the ticket.
4. EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II
This humble little lens is a phenomenal value if you own a crop sensor DSLR. It is fairly compact, has a smooth focusing ring, is really sharp all the way from 55mm to 250mm, and has a very serviceable image stabilization system. Why anyone would buy the Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 over this lens is beyond me! The downside to the 55-250mm is that it is slow, has a cheap build quality and is not compatible with full frame sensors. If you want a telephoto lens just for the hell of it, get this! Without question the best part of the 55-250mm is its performance on the tele end. You won’t find better performance at 150mm onward without shelling out major cash. The Canon EF 70-300mm IS USM does give it a run for its money. Unfortunately the 70-300mm IS USM’s image quality falls apart beyond 250mm and so it’s not that big of an improevemnt over the 55-250mm. If I had $350 to spend on a zoom, I’d skip the 70-300mm IS USM and try to find a 70-200mm f/4L used on ebay for under $500.
3. Canon 50mm f/1.8
What hasn’t been said about this lens? Nothing. It might be the most talked about lens of all time. Everyone either owns one or has owned one. It is cheap, plastic, flimsy awesomeness. Is it ultra sharp? No. But it is pretty dang sharp for a $100 lens. And it is perfectly suited for low light photography. The reason I favor my 50mm 1.8 over the 40mm STM is because of the low light performance. If you ever have an itch for spending money on a lens, the 50mm f/1.8 is a fun and worthwhile investment. Don’t need f/1.8? Can afford an extra $50? Get the 40mm STM. Better bokeh, better image quality, smaller form factor, and quieter focus. The 40mm STM is a great lens, but doesn’t quite deliver the same bang for your buck that a used 50mm will (I own both).
2. Canon 200mm f/2.8L USM
Cost: you can find Mark II low $550’s, original Mark I for mid $400’s.
When you factor in cost, image quality, and ergonomics, the 200mm f/2.8 is quite possibly the best value L series lens on the market. I doubt you can find an L series lens that beats it in terms of sharpness per dollar. True, the 135mm f/2 is sharper, but it is also significantly more expensive. And while the 135mm is sharper, the 200mm will resolve more detail due to its large aperture (even though it’s f/2.8 it collects more light than the 13mm f/2). If you need a relatively cheap lens that can do a bit of nature, candid street, portraits, astrophotography, landscape, then the 200mm is an excellent option for the price conscious shopper. It is relatively light and small, and because it is not painted white it does not appear intimidating or inconspicuous. The biggest flaw of the 200mm f/2.8 is that it relies on well lit situations and lacks image stabilization. To get truly sharp photos you must either manually stabilize the lens or keep your shutter speed over 1/300.
1. Canon 70-200mm f/4L USM
This is the ultimate bargain if you really think about it. Excellent image quality, excellent autofocus, excellent build quality and a lens that fills up most peoples’ needs at the long end of things. It is relatively light due to its modest aperture and lack of IS; definitely a lens you can take with you just about anywhere on a sunny day. What really makes the 70-200mm f/4 a bargain is its price: usually around $550-600 new, around $400-550 used. Not much else to say about this lens. If you shoot during the day you don’t need IS or f/2.8. Sure f/2.8 gives a nice shallow depth to your subject, but it is not a huge difference over f/4. So yeah, there you have it; the 70-200 f/4L is the king of value.
- 40mm STM: sharp as a mother$&^$#, small, awesome.
- 24mm STM: cheap as #&^$#, great bokeh, great maximum magnification, fairly sharp, and a very useful focal length for crop sensors.
- 100mm f/2.8 Macro: the sharpest Canon lens you can get under $1,000, plus it does macro!
- 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro: same as previous but with IS.
- 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM: the end all be all lens. When u buy this lens for under $1,500 you know you have a powerful weapon that will do whatever you want it to. Weapon of choice for many professionals.
Summery of Best Value Canon Lenses
Why the absence of wide and normal focal length L series lenses? Basically, the cheaper alternatives are pretty darn good. Virtually all of Canon’s cheap lenses put up a respectable fight against the L competitors: 24mm STM, 24mm IS USM, 28mm IS USM, 35mm IS USM, Canon 50mm 1.4, 40mm STM, etc… All of these lenses are sharp and function. Many of them even have image stabilization. They all provide excellent cheap alternatives to more expensive L series zooms and primes. So while the Canon 50mm 1.2L is an amazing lens, it is most certainly not an amazing value; not when the 50mm 1.4 puts up a halfway decent fight.
In short, the real value is found by purchasing non L series lenses at the lower focal lengths. The 10-18mm, 18-55mm, 55-250mm, and all of the non L series EF primes provide a great bang for your buck. A real sleeper lens is the EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM. It is somewhat sharp, sports IS, USM, and can be found for under $160 on Ebay. If you want a one lens solution it is a solid choice, as long as you stop it down a bit. The L series alternative is over tripple the price… When you want to venture beyond 85mm, that is when the L series lenses are truly worth their price. But for most casual shooters, I suggest going non L series for the sub 100mm focal lengths.