Long-Reach Telephoto and Tele-Zoom Lenses to Create Compelling Images

Long-Reach Telephoto and Tele-Zoom Lenses to Create Compelling Images


Long-reach telephoto zoom and prime lenses are essential tools for shooting sports, wildlife, nature as well as travel pictures. They also let you create compelling individual and group portraits with little or no apparent perspective distortion. Plus, you can focus in on architectural details or capture outdoor pictures on the go.

Many serious enthusiasts and pros opt for telephoto and tele-zoom lenses as their go-to choices for shooting unique, impactful images that express their personal vision.

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. But for most photographers, a telephoto is simply any lens that’s appreciably longer than the normal lens for any given 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. The most popular telephoto and tele-zoom lenses have focal lengths in the 85mm to 400mm range. Tele lenses for APS-C and Micro Four Thirds (MFT) formats can cover equivalent focal ranges at focal lengths numerically lower by factors of 1.5x and 2x, respectively. 

Four Types of Long-Reach Telephoto and Tele-Zoom Lenses

Further, the telephoto and tele-zoom lenses covered here fall into four broad categories.

  1. Fast, moderate telephoto prime “portrait” lenses with maximum apertures from 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. They are the workhorse lenses of many pros.
  3. Long tele-zooms in the 50–400mm range with moderate maximum apertures from f/4.5 to f/6.3.
  4. Ultra-long, high-spec tele-zooms in the 100–400mm range, with a variable maximum aperture of f/5–6.3.

Note: 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 digital cameras at high sensitivity settings from ISO 6400 to 20K and beyond.

Moreover, in combination with the enhanced performance of the latest built-in image-stabilization (IS) systems, today’s digital cameras make it relatively easy to capture images of superb quality handheld, even at moderate apertures and in low light.

To provide a balanced overview of this expanding and crucial niche, we’ve selected fascinating telephoto lenses in all four categories. Obviously, there are many more excellent choices we couldn’t squeeze into this article.

                  A Selection of Long-Reach Telephoto & Tele-Zoom Lenses
Nikon Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.2 S

Newly released, this ultra-speedy, portrait tele prime works with full-frame and APS-C/DX-format Nikon Z mirrorless cameras. It delivers beautiful rendition and outstanding sharpness, along with gorgeous bokeh and striking background separation.

Of course, that’s an especially useful combination for portraiture, wedding, boudoir and fashion photography. Its 11-blade, electromagnetically controlled diaphragm produces smooth, natural rendition. Even when stopping down, the depth created is “dreamy,” with smooth and circular bokeh that drives attention to the subject.

Nikon Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.2 S

The pro-caliber lens’s f/1.2 aperture enables various creative effects based on its very shallow depth field. Moreover, its superior light-gathering ability facilitates shooting in very low light. The premium S line lens employs an advanced 15-element, 10-group optical design. It includes two aspheric elements and one ED (extra-low dispersion) element. Consequently, it achieves impressive levels of correction for coma, distortion and chromatic aberrations. Nano Crystal coating also minimizes ghosting and flare.

Additionally, dual STM (stepping) motors enable fast, precise, quiet AF even when shooting at its 2.8-foot close focusing distance wide open. Other features include A/M auto-priority manual focus for easy transition to MF during AF operation; eye-detection AF compatibility; suppressed focus breathing; and superior exposure control during continuous bursts and video applications. Comprehensive weather sealing permits shooting under adverse conditions. Measuring 5.6 inches in length, it weighs 2.6 pounds. Nikon Z mount, $2,799.95.

Leica Vario-Elmar-SL 100–400mm f/5–6.3

This is Leica’s new state-of-the-art, full-frame, L-mount super-tele-zoom lens. Aimed at nature, wildlife, sports and action shooters, it’s a compact, lightweight lens capable of outstanding sharpness and clarity across the field at all apertures. Plus, it creates beautiful bokeh. Moreover, it offers the widest and longest zoom range of the SL system.

In addition, this new entry provides a built-in, 4-stop optical image stabilization (IS) system. Furthermore, its advanced SL2/SL2-S internal focus autofocus technology provides superior tracking abilities for quick, decisive, high-speed AF.

long-reach telephoto-Leica-Vario-Elmar-SL-100-400mm-f5-6.3
Leica Vario-Elmar-SL 100–400mm f/5–6.3

It sports a premium, weather-sealed body with AquaDura coating throughout to protect against dust and moisture. The lens comes with a detachable Arca-type tripod base, a lens hood, lens cap as well as a lens bag.

What’s more, the impressive new 22-element, 16-group lens stops down to f/22. It also focuses down to 3.6 feet. The Leica Vario-Elmar-SL 100–400mm f/5–6.3 measures 7.8 inches in length and weighs in at 3.4 pounds. L mount, $2,195. 

Sigma 70–200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports

This Sigma tele-zoom lens is the mainstay of many pros due to its wide f/2.8 constant aperture and versatile zoom range. The full-frame long zoom excels in tough lighting conditions.

Its sophisticated 24-element, 22-group optical design incorporates no less than nine FLD (fluorite equivalent) elements and one SLD (special low dispersion) element to minimize chromatic aberrations and color fringing. Thus, it achieves outstanding clarity and color accuracy. Super multilayer coatings on all elements also minimize flare and ghosting.

Sigma 70–200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports

Further, an Intelligent OS system minimizes the effects of handheld camera shake for sharper images. Plus, a hypersonic motor (HSM) delivers quick, quiet, decisive AF. It also has a rounded 11-blade diaphragm that enhances its inherently beautiful bokeh, making it an option for portraiture.

In addition, the lens is sealed against dust and moisture. It also employs a special water- and oil-repellent coating on its front and rear elements to prevent contamination and facilitate cleaning. Its bayonet mount is constructed of solid brass, and its rotating tripod collar has a replaceable Arca-type foot for easy mounting. The lens focuses down to 3.9 feet (0.21x). It measures 8 inches and weighs 4 pounds. Canon EF, Nikon F and Sigma SA mounts, $1,499.

Tamron 50–400mm f/4.5–6.3 Di III VC VXD

Here’s a versatile Tamron 8x ultra-telephoto zoom for full-frame Sony E-mount mirrorless cameras. The lens focuses down to 9.8 inches (an impressive 1:2 magnification). It also provides a rapid zoom ring (75º rotation arch) and a zoom lock switch to facilitate quick, intuitive operation.

Its advanced optical construction features 24 elements in 18 groups. It includes XLD (eXtra-low dispersion), LD and hybrid aspheric elements to minimize aberrations and achieve outstanding sharpness and artistic bokeh. Moreover, BBAR-G2 coating on all surfaces suppresses ghosting and minimizes flare in harsh light.

Tamron 50–400mm f/4.5–6.3 Di III VC VXD

A fine choice for everything from sports and wildlife to landscapes and portraiture, the high-performance lens incorporates a VXD (voice-coil eXtreme-torque drive) linear motor for fast, quiet, precise AF. It’s complemented by a VC (vibration compensation) optical IS system to minimize the effects of handheld camera shake. What’s more, it has a close-focusing distance of 9.8 inches at the 50mm end and a 1:2 maximum magnification ratio.

Further, the lens is compatible with many camera-specific features and functions, including fast hybrid and eye AF. It also features weather-resistant construction and a fluorine coating on the outer elements to repel dust/moisture and facilitate cleaning. Plus, users can get updates via a USB Type-C connector and Tamron Lens Utility software. The Tamron 50–400mm f/4.5–6.3 Di III VC VXD measures 7.2 inches in length and weighs in at a 2.5 pounds. Sony E mount, $1,299. 

Tokina atx-i 100mm f/2.8 FF Macro

Tokina’s high-quality, medium-tele macro prime gets down to 1:1 (life-size on sensor or film) at its closest focusing distance of 11.8 inches. As a result, the affordable lens is an excellent choice for nature close-ups, stamps/coins, etc., as well as for portraiture.

Its flat-field 9-element, 8-group optical design provides uniformly high sharpness across the image field and lifelike rendition. Plus, it produces impressive clarity and high definition over its entire focusing range. The lens also features a one-touch focus clutch mechanism for quick changes between AF and MF (manual focus) settings as well as a focus range limiter for faster AF at close distances.

long-reach telephoto-Tokina-ATX-i-100mm-f2.8-Macro-FF-Lens-SLR-Lounge-2000×1333-1200×675
Tokina atx-i 100mm f/2.8 FF Macro

It is fully multicoated to reduce flare and ghosting, and to enhance contrast and improve color fidelity. The Nikon F-mount version provides 150mm-equivalent focal length coverage when used on DX-format Nikon cameras. The Canon EF-mount version offers 160mm-equivalent coverage when used on APS-C-format Canon cameras.

In addition, the Tokina atx-i 100mm f/2.8 FF Macro has a 9-blade diaphragm to enhance its pleasing natural bokeh. The lens measures 3.8 inches in length and weighs in at a portable 1.1 pounds. Nikon F or Canon EF mount, $459.

Editor’s Note: Tokina also offers the Tokina Firin 100mm f/2.8 FE Macro. It’s a very similar lens configured for Sony full-frame, E-mount cameras. $599.  

Canon RF135mm f/1.8 L IS USM

This newly released Canon telephoto prime qualifies as a superspeed lens for its focal length. The full-frame lens delivers a combination of extreme sharpness and shallow depth of field. Consequently, the pro-aimed L-class lens is an outstanding choice for fine art portraiture. However, its robust weather-sealed construction and advanced IS system extend its shooting versatility.

Constructed of 17 elements in 12 groups, it features three ultra-low dispersion elements. All have Air Sphere and Super Spectra coatings. That results in images of exceptional sharpness, clarity as well as color fidelity. Moreover, lens flare and ghosting are effectively controlled.

Canon RF135mm f/1.8 L IS USM

Further, a 9-blade diaphragm augments its beautiful natural bokeh. The lens also incorporates a Nano USM motor for fast, decisive, nearly silent AF. Additionally, it has an advanced optical image stabilization system that compensates for up to 5.5 stops of camera shake. That number rises to 8 stops when combined with in-body camera OIS systems!

The lens also provides customizable lens function buttons and a configurable control ring for rapid access to commonly used settings. In addition, a fluorine coating on the front element repels moisture, dust and fingerprints, as well as expedites cleaning. The Canon RF135mm f/1.8 L IS USM focuses down to 2.3 feet (0.26x). Moreover, it measures 5.3 inches in length and weighs in at 2.1 pounds. Canon RF mount, $2,099.

HD Pentax-D FA 70–210mm f/4 ED SDM WR

This is a multitalented, high-performance, full-frame tele-zoom lens. It provides a constant f/4 maximum aperture that’s wide enough for selective focus effects. It comes in a handy, reasonably compact package and employs a sophisticated 20-element, 14-group optical design.  

Its design includes three extra-low dispersion elements and two anomalous dispersion elements to minimize chromatic aberrations. As a result, the lens delivers images of impressive sharpness, clarity and color accuracy. Further, they are enhanced by comprehensive multilayer HD coatings that suppress flare and ghosting.

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HD Pentax-D FA 70–210mm f/4 ED SDM WR

In addition, Pentax’s ring-type supersonic direct-drive motor (SDM) affords quick, quiet, precise and responsive AF. Plus, internal focus and zoom mechanisms maintain the lens’s overall length and balance at all settings. What’s more, a rounded 9-bladed diaphragm contributes to its artistic bokeh.

It also features an electromagnetic diaphragm for more consistent exposure control when shooting high-speed bursts or video. Moisture-resistant construction along with a SP (super protect) coating on its front element enable the lens to be used in inclement weather. The HD Pentax-D FA 70–210mm f/4 ED SDM WR focuses down to 3.1 feet (0.32x). It measures 6.9 inches in length and weighs in at 1.8 pounds. Pentax K-mount, $799.95. 

Rokinon 135mm f/2.0 ED UMC

This unique, fast, manual-focus telephoto prime is longer than a typical portrait tele. Its extended reach and working distance allow for the capture of flattering, distortion-free portraits.

With a 202.5mm-equivalent focal length on APS-C-format cameras, the full-frame lens’s 2.6-foot minimum focus distance creates frame-filling head shots. Further, a rounded 9-blade diaphragm achieves attractive, natural bokeh.

Rokinon 135mm f/2.0 ED UMC

The lens features an 11-element, 7-group design that integrates one extra-low dispersion glass element to reduce chromatic aberrations. In addition, Rokinon’s Ultra Multi-Coating (UMC) is applied on all elements to reduce flare and ghosting.

Other features include a durable metal barrel, wide focus ring, manual aperture control, a nonrotating filter mount, as well as a removable lens hood. Depending on the mount, it measures from 4.7 inches in length to 5.8 inches. It weighs from 1.8 pounds to 1.9 pounds. Fujifilm X, MFT, Nikon F, Canon EF, Pentax K and Sony E mounts, $499. 

Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM

This is an outstanding pro-caliber portrait tele. That’s thanks to its wide f/1.4 aperture, shallow depth of field and superb imaging performance. Sony’s pro-level G Master (GM) series was created for its full-frame, E-mount mirrorless cameras.

The lens employs an innovative 11-element, 8-group optical design. It has three extra-low dispersion and one XA (extreme aspheric) elements to control astigmatism, field curvature, coma and other spherical aberrations. This enables the lens to capture images of exceptional sharpness, clarity and color neutrality—even at its widest apertures.

Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM

Nano AR coating throughout minimizes flare and ghosting for increased contrast as well as color fidelity, especially in backlit conditions. In addition, it incorporates a linear supersonic wave motor (SSM) for quick, quiet, precise AF. It also provides intuitive anytime manual control via an ergonomic AF/MF switch on the barrel.

In addition, the lens has a focus hold button and a physical aperture ring that videographers can de-click to capture smooth, silent video. Furthermore, an 11-blade, rounded diaphragm creates beautiful natural bokeh.

There are also rubberized control rings for comfortable operation in cold weather and comprehensive dust and moisture seals. The Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM focuses down to 2.6 feet (0.12x). It measures a compact 4.2 inches in length and weighs in at 1.8 pounds. E mount, $1,799.

Fujifilm XF90mm f/2 R LM WR

 Fujifilm’s high-spec, fast telephoto prime is for Fujifilm X-mount cameras. It provides a 137mm-equivalent focal length on APS-C format cameras. The lens is ideal for capturing compelling close-up portraits and homing in on selective subject details.

Its wide f/2 aperture facilitates creative use of shallow depth-of-field techniques and extends its low-light shooting range. Moreover, the lens employs an advanced, 11-element, 8-group optical design. The design incorporates three extra-low dispersion glass elements to minimize chromatic aberrations and color fringing. As a result, the lens can capture images of remarkable detail and clarity even wide open.

Fujifilm XF90mm f/2 R LM WR

Further, Super EBC coating is applied to individual elements to minimize ghosting and flare when shooting in strong directional light. Additionally, a rounded 7-blade diaphragm contributes to its rich bokeh.

The lens also incorporates a quad linear motor AF system that provides smooth, decisive, nearly silent autofocus. Notably, its barrel is fitted with seven weather seals to protect against dust and moisture when shooting in inclement weather. The Fujifilm XF90mm f/2 focuses down to 1.9 feet (0.2x). It measures 4.1 inches in length and weighs in at a portable 1.2 pounds. X mount, $949.95.  

Nikon Nikkor Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S

This Nikkor Z super-telephoto prime is compatible with full-frame/FX-format Nikon Z–mount mirrorless cameras. Moreover, it offers the company’s latest optical tech in a compact, lightweight lens.

In Nikon’s high-end S line lens series, it features Nikkor’s highest optical performance. It’s constructed with one ED glass element; two super ED glass elements; as well as one SR (specialized dispersion) lens element. This 19-element, 13-group formula contributes to a compact size and light weight, while suppressing chromatic aberration. Further, Nano Crystal Coat reduces ghost and flare effects, to achieve clearer images and accurate depiction of even the finest details of distant subjects.

Nikon Nikkor Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S

With a maximum f/4.5 aperture, the lens also realizes three-dimensional rendering to make the subject stand out. Plus, its optical vibration reduction (VR) mechanism provides a compensation effect equivalent to shooting at a shutter speed 5.5 stops faster. When paired with the Nikon Z 9, optical VR combines with in-camera VR for more powerful shake compensation—equivalent to 6.0 stops faster with synchro VR.

In addition, a stepping motor supports fast, precise AF control for erratically moving subjects. With video recording in mind, the lens also includes a focus-breathing compensation function.

The dust- and drip-resistant lens has a fluorine coating for anti-fouling performance. Other features are an 8.2-foot minimum focusing distance and a memory recall function that instantly recalls focus positions stored in advance. Measuring 9.3 inches, it weighs 2.6 pounds. Z mount, $2,999.95.

Canon RF-S 55-210mm f/5-7.1 IS STM

Just released, this is a long tele-zoom lens for APS-C EOS R Canon mirrorless cameras. It provides 88–336mm-equivalent full-frame coverage in a sleek, compact, lightweight package.

Squarely aimed at sports and wildlife shooters on the go, the lens is also versatile enough to cover portraiture, travel and many other applications. It employs a new 11-element, 8-group optical formula that includes two ultralow dispersion (UD) elements for enhanced sharpness and color correction. And Super Spectra coating minimizes ghosting and flare.

Canon RF-S 55-210mm f/5-7.1 IS STM

In addition, a 7-blade circular diaphragm maintains its attractive bokeh. Complementing its optical design are an optical image stabilizer that compensates for up to 4.5 stops of handheld camera shake. This increases to 7 stops when combined with a camera’s in-body image stabilization!

What’s more, the lens’s STM stepping AF motor achieves fast, smooth, quiet autofocus in both still and video applications. An option for shooting video, landscapes, portraits, travel or pets, the lens focuses down to 28.7 inches (0.28x) for compelling close-ups. It measures just 3.7 inches in length and weighs in at an ultralight, super-portable 9.5 ounces. RF mount, $349.99.  

Tamron 70–300mm f/4.5–6.3 Di III RXD

Tamron’s all-around, full-frame, long telephoto zoom comes in the Nikon Z mount and Sony E mount. Moreover, it spans a useful 4.3x zoom range in an impressively compact, lightweight package. And the lens performs very well across a wide range of applications and shooting styles.

Its 15-element, 10-group optical formula (Z mount) includes one low dispersion element positioned to suppress axial chromatic and other aberrations. The lens is also compatible with in-camera shading and aberration correction functions. Plus, it incorporates Tamron’s RXD stepping motor for quick, quiet, decisive AF. It also works with in-camera features like Sony’s fast hybrid and eye AF.

Tamron 70–300mm f/4.5–6.3 Di III RXD

Due to Tamron’s antireflection BBAR coating, it creates crisp, clear images throughout its range. Fabricated of high-strength aluminum-magnesium alloy, it features moisture-resistant construction. Also incorporated is a rounded 7-blade diaphragm that contributes to its pleasing bokeh. Plus, camera-based lens firmware updates are enabled via the dedicated Tamron Lens Utility software.

The Tamron 70–300mm f/4.5–6.3 Di III RXD focuses down to 31.5 inches (wide end) for dramtatic close-ups. It measures an average of 5.8 inches in length and weighs 1.3 pounds. Nikon Z mount, $699; E mount, $549.99. 

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 ZE

This premium Zeiss telephoto lens is based on a sophisticated 11-element, 9-group, floating element Planar design. The classic, manual-focus, wide-aperture full-frame lens employs seven anomalous partial dispersion glass elements. They work to virtually eliminate chromatic aberrations and distortion. Thus, the Milvus delivers sharp, clean images over its entire aperture range and at all focusing distances.

In addition, enhanced Zeiss T* coatings enhance contrast and color fidelity and significantly reduce flare and ghosting. Plus, all lens edges are provided with a special pitch-black lacquer to further minimize reflections. Furthermore, a unique spherical optical design yields smooth, beautiful bokeh in selective focus applications. This is complemented by a 9-blade diaphragm that creates smooth transitions.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 ZE

Other features include a smooth operating, rubberized focusing ring; a silent, continuous aperture setting; a durable frosted anodized barrel; and comprehensive weather sealing on both the lens and mount.

This beautifully made lens focuses down to 31.4 inches (0.12x). The lens is 4.5 inches long and weighs in at 2.8 pounds. Canon EF and Nikon F mounts (the latter labeled ZF.2), $1,875.