Our first glimpses of the best telephoto zoom lenses on the market are usually at large sporting events or gatherings. Huge telescope like-lenses look very impressive, but why use a telephoto lens in the first place?
A regular zoom lens with a focal length up to around 70mm is fine for reasonably close subjects, but with far off subjects where you can’t get physically near, a telephoto lens is the first choice. Scenarios for a telephoto lens include wildlife, sports, or any subject that is some distance away.
Telephoto lenses can provide a compressed perspective which works well for portraits, while also providing instant bokeh or lovely background blur. In reality, a telephoto zoom lens is only hindered by one’s own creativity. Which means these type of lenses are equally capable for the likes of landscape shots or even architecture, with a narrow-angle of view.
Some telephoto lenses are more popular than others, but they all have their own prerequisites for their specific focal lengths. Optical image stabilization with advanced features is usually a prerequisite. This is mainly due to it being much harder to keep things steady with a heavyweight camera and lens at long focal lengths.
A wide and bright aperture is also needed, usually at the widest f/2.8 or f/4. Then there is the case of if a lens can be used on full-frame or APS-C format camera body. With all these points to consider, below is a short list of the most popular choices which feature high-quality optics and a good range of features.
1. Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sport (Overall Winner)
There are a good few reasons for sticking the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sport at our top spot. Same-as-camera-brand 70-200mm lenses are fantastic, but the Sigma ticks just as many boxes and at a cheaper price point. Plus, it’s available in a range of camera mounts.
The 70-200mm focal length is arguably the most popular telephoto lens, with Sigma providing everything you need in this solid offering. The lens features a magnesium alloy body, with a brass bayonet mount and rubber seals. On a crop sensor camera body, the equivalent focal length is 112-320mm, which is ideal for the likes of wildlife, action, and sports photography.
Internally, the lens is constructed from one Special Low Dispersion (SLD) element and nine F Low Dispersion (FLD) elements, plus a Super Multi-Layer Coating to reduce reflections, flaring, and ghosting. The front and rear elements have a water and oil repellent coating for superior outside protection.
An 11-blade rounded diaphragm produces excellent bokeh effects, while the stabilization system has different modes of operation. Focus on/hold buttons are located around the lens barrel, along with a range limiter and easy hook up to Sigma’s optional USB dock.
Canon’s stabilization system may be slightly more effective than the one found on this Sigma, but in all other respects, this lens is equally as sharp, even at f/2.8. The lens is also quite a heavyweight beast at 1.8kg, but considering the optical qualities for the price, the Sigma is a surprisingly high achiever for such a popular telephoto lens.
Of course, there is the ever so wonderful Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III for DSLR cameras, but looking more to the next mirrorless generation, there’s the Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. This new 70-200mm telephoto lens has been completely reworked for the Canon EOS R/RP mirrorless cameras, with a new barrel design and optics.
Smaller and more compact than its DSLR predecessor, weighing in at 1,070g, the RF 70-200mm has an optical design of one UD (Ultra-Low Dispersion) element, one Super UD, and two aspherical elements, plus an Air Sphere Coating (ASC). The stabilization system provides up to five stops of compensation, with three modes of working.
New to the RF lenses is the configurable control ring at the front of the lens, which can be used for various exposure settings. Plus, switches for focus limiting, AF/MF, and stabilization modes.
The overall performance is exceptional, producing highly detailed and sharp images wide-open and throughout the focal range. This is an expensive lens, but it’s sure to be the new standard for Canon users moving forward.
The 70-300mm lens has been highly regarded for many years, with the Nikon AF-P NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR being no exception. Equally capable on both FX and DX-format cameras (105-450mm equivalent), this lens has an extra-low dispersion element for increased clarity, along with a Super Integrated Coating.
The vibration reduction system provides 4.5 stops of compensation, while the AF-P pulse motor provides very effective and fast autofocusing. On the whole, images are produced with sharp detail. Although the aperture isn’t as wide as other offerings, it’s respectably fast in the right circumstance, making this a great cost-effective choice for the Nikon platform.
There’s always a dilemma when recommending the best telephoto lenses; do we feature the best lenses when money is no object or the version that’s best for the money? In this case, the Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS represents the best optics for the price point.
There is of course the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS, but what the Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS can provide is a lighter overall weight of 840g, fast autofocus, and an image stabilization system. Although the stabilization system isn’t as refined as on the G Master series, its still highly efficient.
This lens is weather-sealed and although the aperture of f/4 isn’t as wide as the other offerings, it’s still extremely sharp. If you really need better light-gathering abilities, then you can’t go wrong with the f/2.8 version. But, in every other respect, the FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS is an incredible lens.
5. Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM (Budget Winner)
A budget telephoto zoom lens such as the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM, shouldn’t just please the pocket, but also have great optics and all the functionality you’ll need from such a lens. The Canon EF 70-300mm is just as capable on crop sensor and full-frame camera bodies, with a four-stop optical stabilization system.
On a crop sensor camera body, the equivalent focal length is 480mm which provides plenty of reach for most scenarios. The USM autofocus system is surprisingly fast and quiet and the internal optical arrangements provide a great degree of sharpness, even though this is a variable aperture lens.
The tiny information screen on the lens barrel is a handy addition for cycling through modes, but the main attraction here is its solid workings on crop sensor camera bodies. It’s reasonable weight of 710g means it isn’t front-heavy on lightweight cameras.
Dialing in the View on the Best Telephoto Zoom Lenses
Some of you maybe already thinking, what about all the prime lenses in the telephoto category and ultralong lenses. We’ve essentially concentrated on telephoto zooms as they are generally the most versatile and feature image stabilization. There are also super-telephoto prime lenses going up to 600mm, but these are generally extremely expensive and more specialist in their use.
All the telephoto zoom lenses listed above are highly versatile and can be used in a range of applications. While f/2.8 apertures have the best light gathering capabilities and produce the best bokeh, f/4 lenses and even the variable apertures types are great performers in the right circumstances.
This bracket of telephoto zoom lenses may seem initially costly than most. But, in return you will always be provided with excellent optics, with loads of scope for creativity.