When photographers need to reach for super telephoto focal lengths that produce great images, the likes of the best 200-500mm lenses are brought into action. There are of course prime lens offerings on the market which have a longer reach, but the 200-500mm range provides far more versatility, while still offering very high quality.
Just like other zoom lenses, the cost of a typical 200-500mm is largely dictated by how wide the aperture goes. In this instance, the price is usually far larger than with other zoom lenses that cover smaller focal lengths. In this territory, zoom lenses become more specialist, which is reflected in their cost and also why the options available are more limited. However, for sports and wildlife photographers, a high-quality super telephoto lens is a must, with the 200-500mm conveniently fitting into this gap.
There are also lenses on the market which fall just outside this focal range, such as the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM, Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 or the Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS, which are all respectively priced, but the focus here is on what is currently available in the limited 200-500mm range.
1. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR (Overall Winner)
Nikon is well known for their high quality optics and the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR stands to be no different. The lens provides a constant f/5.6 aperture, with three extra low dispersion elements to reduce lens aberrations, 19 elements in 12 groups. A Super Integrated coating improves contrast and color, while reducing internal reflections.
Nikon’s Vibration Reduction image stabilization system has been included with up to 4.5 stops of compensation, which is highly helpful at the longest focal length. The system also has a Sport Mode, which is optimized for fast panning work and reduces lateral movements. A nine-blade rounded diaphragm helps produce creamy bokeh effects, with the whole package coming in at a rather hefty 2.3kg.
The image quality is excellent on the Nikon and while the lens needs a decent amount of light for the f/5.6 aperture, its fast enough to capture wildlife and useful in everything but the lowest of light sports events. Considering the price of other lenses in this category, the Nikon provides a lot of quality for the price point.
If you have never seen the specialist offering that is the Sigma APO 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG before, you’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s some sort of military weapon or similar. However, this is a high-quality 200-500mm lens available for the Canon, Nikon, and Sigma mounts.
The huge weight of 15.7kg is largely due to the f/2.8 aperture, plus to drive the autofocus motor and built-in LCD, an internal BP-21 lithium-ion battery is needed. If more telephoto reach is needed, then an optional 2x teleconverter can be purchased to provide a reach of 400-1000mm at f/5.6 or equally used on a APS-C camera and a focal length of 320-800mm.
Inside the lens are 17 elements arranged in 13 groups, with two extra-low dispersion and one SLD elements and a Super Multi-Layer coating. All focusing is done internally, which is helpful for such a huge monster lens and the usually large 72mm filters are rear drop-in.
When it comes to image quality, the resultant resolution is outstanding, with fantastic color and contrast. After using the Sigma APO 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG, you won’t miss any of your ultra-telephoto prime lenses, but that should also be expected when you don’t come away with much change from $26,000.
The only real downside to this lens is its enormous weight, so you had better own a very sturdy tripod. In all other respects, this is the best quality lens on the list, but it’s huge price point means it’s an exceptionally specialist lens offering.
3. Tamron AF 200-500mm f/5.0-6.3 Di LD SP FEC (IF) (Budget Winner)
Cost-effective while still providing good quality is the hallmark of the Tamron AF 200-500mm f/5.0-6.3 Di LD SP FEC (IF). This lens has 13 elements arranged in 10 groups with low dispersion (LD) glass elements to reduce chromatic aberration and internal reflections. The aperture mechanism is made up of nine rounded blades, with a solid overall build quality, and external features such as a lens lock switch and manual aperture ring.
Considering its focal length, the Tamron AF 200-500mm f/5.0-6.3 Di LD SP FEC (IF) comes in at a reasonable 1237g and features an integrated tripod collar for the most stability. There’s no image stabilization included, which cuts down on the weight and price, but in all respects, there is a lot of lens here for the price point.
While the aperture range isn’t the greatest in low light, the overall image quality is very good for the price, with lots of detail and well-saturated colors. Tamron has essentially delivered again in providing good quality optics at an affordable price point, with a lens that shouldn’t let you down for general wildlife and sports photography.
Summary of the Best 200-500mm Lenses
There are clearly not many choices when it comes to the best 200-500mm lenses on the market today, especially when one of them is the price of a small car. However, both the Tamron and Sigma are available for the most common lens mounts, which should at least give you a good starting point. There are of course prime lenses which cover this whole focal range, but that topic is out of the scope of this article.
As we stated at the beginning of the article, going outside this focal range provides more options, with a relative amount of optical quality and, in some cases, similar price points.
When choosing any type of super telephoto zoom lens, it’s better to err on the side of better quality lenses out there, even if this means saving up for a little more time. Lenses at this end of the spectrum require more care and attention in the optics department, so if you’re someone who specializes in areas like wildlife and sports photography, saving up for that little bit longer pays off in the long run.