What is a Telephoto Lens? How to Choose the Best Lens
Whilst the phrase “it’s the photographer that counts, not the camera” is often true, credit must still be given to the equipment used. For example, photographing a high-speed bird is near impossible when using a lens with a sluggishly slow motor. With this in mind, it is important to carefully select your first telephoto lens and ensure you make the right choice.
The first question you need to ask yourself is “how passionate am I about wildlife photography?”. If you are unsure if this field is for you, then you shouldn’t be splashing out all your hard earned cash on the latest high-end lenses. On the other hand, if you’re positive this really is your true calling, then it would arguably make sense to buy the best telephoto lens you can afford. Jumping in at the deep-end like this reduces the long-term monetary loss you’ll have from continually upgrading equipment as your skills improve.
The second question is “do I really need the best lenses?”. There is no point buying a lens capable of extreme feats of engineering (fast, quick motor etc.) if you aren’t going to utilise all of its features. For example, if you never photograph fast-moving subjects, then maybe you can settle for a slower lens.
Best Picture Quality
The number one thing people want most from their equipment is a sharp image. This is mainly down to the quality of the glass in your lens, although there are also other contributing factors. Consequently, the more you spend, the sharper your lens is likely to be. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule and it is therefore important to view sample images from different lenses.
Prime or Zoom?
Telephotos exist as prime and zoom lenses. A prime lens means that the focal length is fixed, whereas zooms work over a range. Primes tend to be faster (have a wider minimum aperture), so let in more light. But in exchange for this, you lose the flexibility of a zoom lens. I find that zoom lenses aid greatly with composition. If a subject is closer than expected, you can zoom out and adjust your composition. Your shooting style will contribute to your choice of prime or zoom, as with a fixed lens you will inevitably miss out on some images. In contrast, there are some situations where that extra speed of a prime lens may make or break an image, and thus a zoom lens could also cause you to miss a shot.
What Are the Options?
There are many camera brands available, but I’ll use Nikon and Canon examples mainly as they are the clear market leaders. There are three main options when choosing a telephoto lens: zoom, prime or budget.
Personally, my favourite telephoto lens is a zoom lens. I’ve used both primes and zooms, but I can’t give up the flexibility of a zoom. As a Nikon user in the past, I used the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 VR II lens. It is a truly fantastic lens. With a silent and fast motor, it reacts quickly when tracking fast moving subjects.
It’s yours for a fairly hefty four-figure sum, but it is worth every penny. The lens hood alone is excellent quality and has saved me a very expensive repair bill when I slipped and landed nose down on the lens.
For Canon users, the equivalent lens is the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM with built-in 1.4x extender. If the price of the Nikkor scares you, then make sure you’re sitting down for this: the Canon lens comes in at almost double the cost of the Nikkor 200-400mm, at around £10,000.
But for this price you get the revolutionary built-in 1.4x teleconverter. It’ll take your lens up to a 280-560mm f/5.6. Although you can buy teleconverters for the Nikkor lens (at a much cheaper price than the extra few thousand), the fact that it is built in means it is much more versatile.
Now the real secret is that the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 Mark II lens is pretty much just as sharp, and weighs a lot less than the larger counterpart. It’s also much more affordable too. For these reasons, it is an extremely popular choice amongst professionals. Note the Mark II indication – that makes a big difference, as the Mark I version does not perform as well.
Nikon do have a counterpart to this: the Nikon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens for their Z-mount range. So if you’re in the mirrorless Nikon ecosystem, then this is a good choice.
There are a variety of prime telephoto lenses about. The most common lenses are 300mm, 400mm, 500mm and 600mm – but you can also get 800mm lenses too.
The longer telephotos are very heavy, and consequently there is a popular solution to this: using a 300mm lens with a 1.4x converter (or similar). The Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G AF-S ED VR II lens with a Nikon 1.4x teleconverter produces a 420mm f/4 lens. It’s not much cheaper than the 200-400mm, but the Nikkor 300mm f/4 lens is a lot cheaper if this is out of your budget.
As always, Canon has its own equivalent. The Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM II is more expensive than the Nikkor, and can also be used with a 1.4x converter to the same effect. The Canon 300mm f/4 is the cheaper version for Canon.
But if you wish for a long telephoto, then a 500mm prime is the most popular choice. For Nikon, this is the Nikkor 500mm f/4.0G ED VR lens. For Canon, it’s the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM.
When starting wildlife photography, I bought myself a Sigma telephoto lens. It was much cheaper than the high-end lenses. Obviously, there is a lot lacking in comparison. The maximum aperture is smaller, the motors are slower, and the image quality is poorer. But what can you expect when you’re paying a fraction of the cost? Even so, I have taken award-winning pictures with a Sigma telephoto that started the ball rolling for my career.
They make lenses for Nikon, Canon and other makes too. The current telephoto they make, equivalent to what I started with, is the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens. You should also check out the equivalent Tamron 150-600mm lens.
Personally, this is my recommendation to anyone who is starting out. It’s a fairly low risk option, as if you decide wildlife photography isn’t for you then you haven’t lost thousands for no reason.
However, if you have a bit more of a budget (and are a Nikon user), then opt for the Nikon 200-500mm lens. We reviewed this recently, and it is a truly fantastic lens for the price.
It is also worth reading our article “The Ultimate Guide to Wildlife Photography on a Budget“, which discusses lots of different budget lenses and camera bodies.
The world of camera lenses is a minefield. There are so many different lenses available on the market, and all of them vary slightly. Hopefully this guide has outlined the three main options for you: Zoom, Prime or Budget.
It is important to “try before you buy”, if you can, as it can eliminate any concerns you have. If not, then ask a friend or colleague who has one for their opinions on the lens.