Telephoto zoom and prime lenses are essential for shooting sports, wildlife, nature and travel pictures. They’re also great for creating individual and group portraits with no apparent perspective distortion; homing in on architectural details; as well as capturing a range of outdoor pictures on the go. Indeed, many serious enthusiasts and pros opt for telephoto and tele-zoom lenses to capture compelling images that express their vision and style.
Technically, a telephoto lens is a specific type of long-focus lens with a built-in optical magnification factor. The physical length of the lens is shorter than its effective focal length. However, for most photographers, a telephoto is any lens that’s appreciably longer than the normal lens for the format; one that magnifies the image and brings the subject closer.
For full-frame cameras, a telephoto is any lens with a focal length of about 75mm or longer. Moreover, the most popular telephoto and tele-zoom lenses have focal lengths in the 85mm to 600mm range. Tele lenses for APS-C and Micro Four Thirds (MFT) formats cover equivalent focal ranges at focal lengths that are numerically lower by factors of 1.5x and 2x, respectively.
The lenses covered here fall into four broad categories. 1. Fast moderate telephoto prime “portrait” lenses with maximum apertures of f/1.2–2.0 and focal lengths in the 85–135mm range. 2. High-performance telephoto zooms in the 70–200mm range with a large constant maximum aperture of f/2.8; these are the workhorse lenses of many pros. 3. Long tele-zoom lenses in the 70–400mm range with moderate maximum apertures from f/4.5 to f/6.3. 4. Ultra-long, high-spec tele-zoom lenses in the 100–600mm range, most with variable maximum apertures of f/5–6.7.
A Note on Advancements in Cameras’ High Sensitivity
We should note that telephoto lenses with moderate or variable maximum apertures are now a practical alternative for handheld shooting in almost any light. That’s due to the exceptional performance of the latest cameras at high sensitivity settings. In combination with the enhanced performance of built-in image stabilization systems, today’s digital cameras also make it relatively easy to capture images of surpassing quality handheld, even at moderate apertures and in low light.
We’ve selected 10 fascinating telephoto lenses across all four categories to help you better serve the serious shooters in your customer base. Obviously, there are many more excellent choices than we could squeeze into this article.
Great Tele Lenses to Capture Compelling Images
Tamron 150–500mm f/5–6.7 Di III VC VXD
This Tamron E-mount lens is compact and lightweight for a full-frame ultra-long zoom. It provides a 225–750mm-equivalent focal length range on APS-C format ILCs, as well as an aperture range of f/5–6.7 to f/22–32. Consequently, it allows extensive depth-of-field control as well as shooting in bright light.
The 25-element, 16-group lens employs GM (glass-molded) hybrid aspheric; XLD (eXtra-low dispersion); as well as LD glass elements to reduce chromatic aberrations to very low levels; thus, it enhances clarity, sharpness and color accuracy. Moreover, all elements are BBAR-G2 coated to increase light transmission and reduce flare and ghosting.
The lens also employs a VXD (voice-coil eXtreme-torque drive) linear AF motor to deliver very fast, responsive, quiet and precise autofocus. In addition, it integrates with Sony’s hybrid AF and eye AF features in cameras so equipped. It also focuses down to 23.6 inches at 150mm for compelling close-ups.
Other features include built-in VC (vibration compensation) image stabilization (IS) for shake-effect-free handheld shooting; ergonomic switches; a short-throw zoom ring; a 7-blade diaphragm for smooth bokeh; moisture resistance; and a fluorine coating on the front element to repel dust and dirt. It also includes an Arca-type rotating tripod mount with strap attachment loops and comes with a shock-absorbing hood. The lens measures 8.3 inches in length and weighs 3.8 pounds. E mount, $1,299.
Nikon Nikkor Z 100–400mm f/4.5–5.6 VR S
This is a versatile long-range zoom primarily for full-frame Nikon mirrorless ILCs. The S line, Z-mount lens features an advanced 25-element, 20-group design. It incorporates two super ED (extra-low dispersion) and six ED glass elements to minimize chromatic aberrations and color fringing. Consequently, it noticeably enhances clarity and color accuracy. Furthermore, ARNEO and Nano Crystal coatings on all elements improve contrast as well as minimize flare and ghosting, even in high flare situations.
In addition, its extensive aperture range extends from f/4.5 to f/40, providing enhanced image control. The lens’s multi-focus AF system also uses two synchronized AF drive units to deliver swift, accurate AF over the entire zoom range. What’s more, stepping motors achieve smooth, quiet AF that’s optimized for still and video shooting.
It also uses an internal focus system to achieve faster AF and to maintain handheld balance, and it provides full-time manual focus (MF) override. Its minimum focus distance of 2.5 feet enables macro close-ups, while its built-in VR (vibration reduction) IS system lends a 5.5 stop advantage in minimizing the effects of handheld camera shake.
Other features include a short-throw zoom ring to enhance speed and responsiveness; suppressed focus breathing for video recording; a 9-blade diaphragm to enhance bokeh; a programmable control ring to access frequently used settings; an OLED info panel that displays aperture, focus distance and depth of field; assignable L.Fn buttons; dust- and moisture-resistant construction; and a rotating tripod collar. Length, 8.8 inches; weight, 2.9 pounds. $2,699.95.
Sigma 150–600mm f/5–6.3 DG DN OS Sport
Sigmas impressive, full-frame super-tele zoom for mirrorless cameras is aimed at pros covering sports. Or anyone requiring high imaging performance along with an extended reach. Based on a revised 25-element,15-group optical design, this internal-focusing lens employs four FLD (F low-dispersion, fluorite equivalent) and two SLD (special low dispersion) elements to minimize chromatic aberrations and enhance clarity and color accuracy.
Super multilayer coating on all lens elements minimizes flare and ghosting and enhances color accuracy. In addition, a water- and oil-repellent coating on the front element minimizes dust and dirt and facilitates cleaning.
Furthermore, a built-in optical stabilizer (OS) provides a 4-stop advantage in minimizing the effects of camera shake. Additionally, an AF actuator-controlled stepping motor and high-precision magnetic sensor enable very fast, precise, quiet AF for stills and video. They also provide full-time manual focus.
Other features comprise a dual-action (linear and ring) zoom system; dust- and splash-resistant construction; a thermally stable (TSC) barrel; a rounded 9-blade diaphragm for smooth, natural bokeh; a zoom lock; three AF lock buttons; a custom mode switch; and a durable brass lens mount. It focuses down to 1.9 feet. Length, 10.4 inches; weight, 4.6 pounds. In E and L mounts, $1,399.
Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM
Canon’s spectacular, speedy, medium-telephoto prime is a full-frame, pro-caliber L-series lens. For RF-mount Canon mirrorless cameras, it facilitates the selective focus techniques favored by leading portrait photographers. In addition, it allows for handheld shooting even in very dim light.
Built on a 13-element, 9-group formula, it employs one UD (ultra-low dispersion) element and one aspheric element, as well as a specially developed Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics element. This unique optical combo virtually eliminates chromatic aberrations and color fringing. It also significantly enhances color accuracy, clarity, sharpness and resolution.
Moreover, all lens elements benefit from Air Sphere Coating, which increases light transmission and suppresses flare and ghosting. In addition, for creating inherently natural bokeh, the lens has a rounded 9-blade diaphragm. It also provides Canon’s new Defocus Smoothing (DS) technology for smoother bokeh in wide-aperture images.
Further, a ring-type ultrasonic motor (USM), a high-speed CPU and an internal-focusing design deliver quick, quiet and precise AF along with full-time manual focus override. Other features comprise a configurable control ring that provides convenient access to exposure settings; a 12-pin communication system that enables the digital lens optimizer, which works in-camera to combat aberrations; lens data display; and weather resistance.
In addition, it offers a minimum focusing distance of 2.8 feet, close enough for compelling head shots. Length, 4.6 inches; weight, 2.6 pounds. RF mount, $3,099.
Sony FE 70–200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II
Sony’s first second-generation G Master lens offers substantial improvements in image quality, handling and AF speed. It also boasts an impressive 29% reduction in weight, making it more attractive as a crossover option for still and video capture.
Touted the lightest in the wide aperture, medium tele-zoom class, the f/2.8 constant-aperture lens employs an advanced 17-element, 14-group formula. It includes three ED (one of which is aspheric) and two super ED elements to minimize chromatic and spherical aberrations. What’s more, two additional aspheric elements (including one XA extreme aspherical element) minimize focusing-distance-related aberrations and suppress “onion ring” bokeh.
Nano AR Coating II effectively controls flare and ghosting. And its rounded 11-blade diaphragm contributes to its smooth bokeh at all apertures. The lens also benefits from major upgrades in the AF system, which now consists of four XD (extreme dynamic) linear motors that operate 4x faster to improve focus tracking, while zooming is improved by 30%. Thus, it enables 30-fps continuous shooting with AF. Furthermore, a reduction of focus breathing and focus shift, a linear response MF system and full-time direct MF make the lens suitable for video applications.
A three-mode iteration of Sony’s built-in Optical SteadyShot IS system ensures sharp handheld imaging. Other features include three programmable focus hold buttons; a focus range limiter; iris lock; a removable rotating tripod collar; and a fluorine-coated front element. The lens focuses down to 2.7 feet. Length, 7.9 inches; weight, 2.3 pounds. E mount, $2,799.99.
HD Pentax-D FA* 70–200mm f/2.8ED DC AW
This versatile, constant f/2.8 aperture tele-zoom lens is made for full-frame Pentax K-mount DSLRs. However, it provides a 105–300mm-equivalent range on APS-C-format cameras. Moreover, it’s the mainstay of Pentax pros and enthusiasts, thanks to its useful zoom range, wide aperture and selective focus capabilities. Its large maximum aperture of f/2.8 makes it ideal for portraiture with beautifully defocused foregrounds and backgrounds. And for sports photography where high shutter speeds to freeze the action are required.
The Star series lens use a proven 19-element, 16-group design with extra-low dispersion glass elements to minimize chromatic aberrations over the entire zoom range. In addition, High Definition and Aero Bright II coatings minimize ghosting and flare and provide greater contrast and color fidelity. An SP (super protect) coating on exposed elements also repels dust, water and oil as well as facilitates cleaning.
The lens’s rounded 9-blade diaphragm enhances its inherently beautiful bokeh. Further, the combination of a direct current (DC) autofocus motor and an internal-focusing design provides quick, quiet, smooth and precise AF. What’s more, its quick-shift focus system lets photographers combine AF and full-time manual focus to achieve precise focus without an AF/MF switch.
Other features comprise a focus range limiter; a removable, rotating tripod collar; and weather-resistant construction with 13 separate seals. The lens focuses down to 3.9 feet. Length, 8 inches; weight, 3.9 pounds. K mount in black, $1,699.95; silver edition, $2,099.95.
Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
Sigma’s audacious, high-speed, full-frame moderate telephoto prime is a great choice for portraiture. That’s because it facilitates selective focus techniques and low-light shooting by virtue of its wide f/1.4 aperture.
Its 17-element, 12-group design uses three FLD, two SLD and one aspheric element to minimize chromatic aberrations and color fringing; limit linear distortion; as well as enhance overall sharpness and color accuracy. Its large 105mm diameter front also provides superior peripheral illumination with reduced vignetting. Super multilayer coating minimizes ghosting and flare, enhances contrast and maintains color neutrality, even in backlit UHR conditions. In addition, a rounded 9-blade diaphragm contributes to natural bokeh.
The lens also incorporates a hypersonic motor (HSM) that delivers fast, precise, quiet AF and full-time MF. What’s more, a proprietary electromagnetic aperture mechanism assures accurate, rapid control that’s especially important when shooting at fast framing rates and for video capture.
The barrel is fabricated of TSC materials to maintain optical precision over an extended temperature range, and the mount is machined from solid brass for precision and durability. Rubber sealing is used around the mount to make it dust and splash resistant. Further, the front element has a water- and oil-resistant coating to minimize dust and facilitate cleaning. The lens focuses down to 3.3 feet. Length, 5.2 inches; weight, 3.6 pounds. In Canon EF, Nikon F, Sigma SA, Sony E and L mounts, $1,599.
Panasonic Lumix S 70–300mm f/4.5–5.6 Macro OIS
Panasonic’s outstanding long-range, full-frame lens employs an advanced 17-element, 11-group design. With pros in mind, it employs two ED elements, one UED (ultra-extra-low dispersion) element and one (ultra-high refractive) element to achieve a high level of correction and image quality over its extended focal length range.
The tele-zoom lens also boasts a responsive, high-spec linear AF motor for swift (480 fps), decisive performance during still and video capture. Further, Panasonic’s proprietary Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) with IS 2 tech is a dual-axis image stabilization system that provides a 5.5-stop advantage in minimizing the effects of handheld camera shake.
The lens is also said to provide superior tracking of active subjects. In addition, for macro shooting, it focuses down to 1.8 feet and achieves an impressive 0.5x maximum magnification at 300mm.
All these specs are built into a weather-, dust- and freeze-resistant body optimized for outdoor still and video shooting. Other features include a rounded 11-blade diaphragm for smooth, natural bokeh; enhanced zoom position detection and wobbling control at 240 Hz to optimize tracking speed and performance; suppressed focus breathing for enhanced video capture; a fluorine-coated front element; and a zoom lock switch. Length, 5.8 inches; weight, 1.7 pounds. L mount, $1,249.99.
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 150–400mm f/4.5 TC1.25x IS Pro
As its long name suggests, this brilliantly innovative, constant f/4.5 aperture telephoto zoom is aimed at pros shooting Olympus OM-D and other MFT cameras. Now under the OM System brand, the lens is especially geared for sports and outdoor photographers who benefit from its amazing 300–800mm-equivalent focal length range. Moreover, that range can be extended by simply flipping a toggle switch to engage a built-in 1.25x teleconverter. This extends its reach to transform it into a super-telephoto 300–1000mm f/5.6 lens.
This remarkable 28-element, 19-group lens incorporates one EDA (extra-low dispersion aspherical) element; four super ED elements; two ED elements; and an HD (high dispersion) element to reduce various aberrations, color fringing and distortion. Consequently, it creates images of impressive sharpness and clarity.
In addition, Z Coating Nano on all surfaces minimizes flare and ghosting and increases contrast and clarity when working in challenging light. Further, a built-in OIS system minimizes the appearance of shake in images shot handheld at long focal lengths. Along with the lens’s 5-axis sync IS system and camera-based sensor-shift IS in top Olympus models, 8 steps of compensation (300mm) are provided.
Other features are an inner zoom system; a three-range focus limiter; focus hold buttons; an L-Fn function switch that activates preset settings; weather/dust/freezeproof magnesium alloy and carbon fiber construction; a rounded 9-blade diaphragm for smooth bokeh; fluorine coating on the front element; and an adjustable tripod collar for easy orientation.
The lens offers a 5-foot close focusing distance across its zoom range. Length, 12.4 inches; weight, 4.1 pounds. MFT mount, $7,499.99.
Tamron 100–400mm f/4.5–6.3 Di VC USD
A flexible all-rounder, this popular, lightweight, full-frame Tamron zoom employs a modern 17-element, 11-group design. It incorporates three elements to minimize chromatic aberrations. As a result, it yields impressive clarity and image quality over its zoom range.
Tamron’s eBand (extended bandwidth & angular-dependency) coatings on all optical surfaces suppress flare and ghosting, even under adverse lighting conditions. Moreover, a fluorine coating on the front element repels contamination and facilitates cleaning.
The lens relies on an advanced ultrasonic silent drive (USD) motor to provide precise, quick, quiet AF performance. In addition, a dual micro-processing unit control system enhances both its AF speed and responsiveness. Its built-in VC image stabilization system also minimizes the effects of shake during handheld shooting.
Other features include a rounded 9-blade diaphragm that contributes to its attractive bokeh; dust- and moisture-proof construction with magnesium alloy components to reduce weight; as well as an optional, removable rotating tripod collar with an Arca-compatible foot. In addition, the lens focuses down to 4.9 feet for compelling close-ups (1:3.6 maximum magnification). Length, 7.8 inches; weight, a portable 2.5 pounds. In Nikon F and Canon EF mounts, $799.