When it comes to owning the best quality glass for the likes of sports and wildlife photography, there is nothing like a prime lens to deliver the sharpest images. There are clearly many zoom lenses on the market that cover this focal length, but when you specialize in the telephoto range, tracking down a high-quality 500mm lens is a must.
These lenses are also generally more expensive than other types due to their size, amount of glass, and specialist nature. There is the budget option of using a lens converter on shorter focal length prime lenses, which can also work extremely well, but they still need to be attached to high-end optics to get the best image quality. Plus, the aperture is usually reduced and on cheap prime lenses, images can become softer.
Therefore, let’s have a closer look at the more renowned 500mm prime lenses currently on the market along with what they have to offer for the money, with features and optics.
Considering the high-end nature of telephoto lenses, the Sigma 500mm f/4 DG OS HSM Sport wins out for cost and optical quality, plus it’s available for a range of camera mounts. Useful on both full-frame and crop sensor bodies (a 750mm equivalent focal length), the lens features 16 elements, with one SLD and two FLD elements along with a Super Multi-Layer coating.
An integrated HSM (Hyper Sonic Motor) handles autofocusing, while multiple AF modes are available with focus recall settings. Manual focusing is also available via the standard AF/MF switch and incorporates an MO setting which allows manual focusing when the camera is using continuous AF.
The lens also has a drop-in filter system, fitting 46mm filters, with an optional RCP-11 Circular Polarizer filter which is specifically made for this lens.
The lens barrel is dust and splashproof and even though it has the dimensions of 144.8 x 380.3mm, the lens is well-balanced and easy to hold, making it a nice lens to work with when you’re shooting distance or action shots.
Image quality on this lens is extremely sharp, with rich color definition throughout the aperture range. Considering the price point, this lens delivers a lot of quality from which you should get years of worthwhile images.
The Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM is a lens that is heavy and expensive, but is also the best option at this focal length for Canon users. Useful on both full-frame and crop sensor camera bodies (an equivalent focal length of 800mm), the lens features 16 elements arranged in 12 groups, with two fluorite and four aspherical elements, plus a Sub Wavelength coating.
Optical image stabilization has been included with up to four stops of compensation, which also incorporates three modes of use, depending on your situation. These include standard single-shot mode, panning optimized mode, and a mode that is engaged when the shutter is pressed.
A ring-type Ultrasonic Motor (USM) works with a high-speed CPU for faster and more precise autofocusing, while they focus preset function handles focusing positions and a focus limiter switch limits the focusing to three different ranges.
The lens is a sizeable weight of 3.18kg, with a sturdy tripod collar included being built into the lens. As for overall image quality, sharpness can’t be faulted throughout the aperture range, with high levels of detail and fantastic color and contrast rendition. Add in full weatherproofing, and the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM is a great Canon solution for wildlife and sports photography.
The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR is another step up in price from the Canon above, but in return, you get excellent optics in a relatively lightweight package for this type of lens. Weighing in at 1460g, the lens features 19 elements arranged in 11 groups, with three ED elements, one PF (phase Fresnel) element, and Nano Crystal and Fluorine coatings.
The lens also features Nikon’s Vibration Reduction image stabilization system, with up to four stops of compensation. The system also has two modes for sport or quick movements and for use on a tripod. The lens body is dust and moisture resistant, with a removable tripod collar, plus the all-black lens barrel makes it very discreet for wildlife photography with a Nikon.
Plus points on this 500mm lens are the amazing image quality and fine definition of images, with also a fast and accurate autofocus and very helpful image stabilization system. The lens is obviously a pricey offering, but also one of the best lenses in its class.
When it comes to the 500mm lens range for Sony users, there is the large and impressive Sony 500mm f/4 G SSM. This lens has a constant f/4 aperture, which is dust and moisture resistant, consisting of three extra-low dispersion glass elements and a Nano AR coating.
You’re not short of controls on this lens, with an electronic focus range limiter, four focus hold buttons, beep on an off switch, and the usual Af/MF switch. Drop-in 42mm filters can be used, along with Sony 1.4x and 2x teleconverters which extend the range up to 700mm and 1000mm.
While the lens is extremely sharp at f/4, it definitely hits its stride at f/5, with extremely fine detail, colour saturation and contrast. The lens is also extremely fast to focus, produces lovely creamy bokeh, with nice separation between subject and background.
This is a rather expensive lens, but at this focal length for a top-quality prime lens, it ticks every aspect of what is needed for great sports and wildlife images.
There are lots of caveats with this Bower 500mm f/6.3 lens, but more than anything it’s to show that this type of mirror lens is available and costs virtually nothing compared to the other lenses on this list. The Bower 500mm lens can be used on full-frame and crop sensors bodies but does require a T-Mount adapter to work with the most popular camera makes.
The compact nature comes from internal mirrors being used instead of a straightforward optical path. This provides a very compact lens, but it’s not exactly the greatest for ultimate image quality. The lens does, however, have multicoated optics and one of the plus points is the unique out of focus highlights it can produce, if you like that sort of thing.
As you’ve probably guessed for an inexpensive telephoto lens, the image quality isn’t exactly fantastic, but it’s a great entry point to owning a 500mm prime which won’t weigh you or your wallet down.
Summary of the Best 500mm Lenses
Buying into a top-quality 500mm lens means a sizeable investment if you want the best image quality at this focal length. But, in return, you will have a lens that will serve you for years and if you specialize in the super-telephoto range, these lenses can give you the top-end quality desired by professionals.
These lenses do rank as specialist offerings, but they also represent some of the best 500mm lenses available for sports and wildlife photography.