When shooting sports, wildlife, groups or portraits, as well as capturing a range of outdoor pictures, serious enthusiasts and pros turn to telephoto and tele-zoom lenses.
Technically, a telephoto lens is a specific type of long-focus lens in which 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 focal length ranges that are numerically lower by factors of 1.5x and 2x, respectively.
What’s more, the lenses we cover here fall into three broad categories: 1. Moderate telephoto prime “portrait” lenses with single focal lengths in the 85mm to 100mm range, often with macro capability. 2. High-performance telephoto zooms in the 70mm to 200mm and 60mm to 250mm ranges with relatively large constant maximum apertures from f/2.8 to f/4; these are the workhorse lenses of many pros. 3. Ultra-long, high-spec tele-zoom lenses in the 100mm to 600mm range, most with variable maximum apertures in the f/5–6.7 range.
Note: the exceptional performance of the latest cameras with sensitivity settings from ISO 6400 to 20K, combined with enhanced built-in image stabilization (IS) systems, makes it possible to capture images of surpassing quality handheld—even at moderate apertures in low light.
To give you an overview of this expanding and crucial niche, we selected fascinating telephoto lenses encompassing all three categories. Obviously, there are many more good choices than we could cover here.
Top Telephoto and Tele-Zoom Lenses
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40–150mm f/2.8 Pro
Equivalent to an 80–300mm lens in the full-frame format, this f/2.8 constant-aperture tele-zoom lens for MFT cameras is part of the Olympus Pro series of fast, high-performance lenses. Compact and nicely balanced, it boasts a 16-element, 10-group lens design. Moreover, it incorporates one aspherical ED (extra-low dispersion) element; two additional aspheric elements; one super ED element; three ED elements; and one HD element to minimize spherical and chromatic aberrations. Consequently, it enhances image sharpness and color accuracy.
In addition, ZERO (Zuiko extra-low reflection optical) coating keeps flare and ghosting to a minimum, for improved contrast and color fidelity. The lens also employs a VCM (voice coil motor) system controlled by two separate linear motors. As a result, it achieves swift, nearly silent AF that’s optimized for still as well as video capture. Notable is its intuitive full-time manual control via pulling the focus ring.
Other features comprise a programmable lens function (L-Fn) button; dust-, freeze- and splashproof construction with 11 seals; a rounded 9-blade diaphragm to enhance smooth, natural bokeh; and a removable rotating tripod platform. Weight, 1.7 pounds; length, 6.3 inches. $1,499.
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200–500mm f/5.6E ED VR
This attractive, full-frame (FX-format), super-telephoto zoom employs a 19-element, 12-group optical design. The fast, constant-aperture Nikon lens has three ED elements to reduce chromatic aberrations and enhance sharpness and color accuracy. Further, Nikon’s super integrated coatings minimize flare and ghosting and improve contrast. In addition, an SWM (silent wave motor) AF system enables fast, quiet autofocus in still and video applications.
The compact, lightweight F-mount lens also provides full-time manual focus override. Plus, built-in VR (vibration reduction) image stabilization delivers up to a 4.5-stop advantage in compensating for the effects of camera shake.
Other features include an electromagnetic aperture mechanism that ensures uniform exposures at rapid framing rates; internal focusing so the lens doesn’t change size during operation; a rounded 9-blade diaphragm that enhances bokeh; a 7.2-foot (0.22x) minimum focusing distance; and a rotating tripod collar. Weight, 5.1 pounds; length, 10.5 inches. $1,399.95.
Sigma 150–600mm f/5–6.3 DG DN OS Sport
Sigma’s exciting, brand-new ultra-telephoto zoom is made for full-frame mirrorless cameras. It’s aimed at pros covering sports and anyone requiring high imaging performance along with an extended reach. It boasts a revised 25-element, 15-group optical design. The 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 minimizes flare and ghosting and adds to color neutrality. The lens also has a water- and oil-repellent coating on the front element.
What’s more, a built-in optical stabilizer (OS) provides a 4-stop advantage in curtailing the effects of camera shake. In addition, its AF actuator-controlled stepping motor and precision magnetic sensor enable fast, precise, quiet AF, very accurate positioning and full-time MF.
Additional features are a dual-action (linear and ring) zoom system; dust/splash resistance; a thermally stable composite barrel; a rounded 9-blade diaphragm for beautiful bokeh; a zoom lock; three AFL buttons; a custom mode switch; and a solid brass mount. Moreover, it focuses down to 1.9 feet (1:2.9 at 180mm). Weight: 4.6 pounds (with tripod collar); length, 10.4 inches. That makes this mirrorless iteration of Sigma’s 150–600mm lens 1.7 pounds lighter and 1.05 inches shorter than the current EF/F mount versions. In E and L mounts. $1,499.
Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f/1.8
Here’s an ingenious, manual focus, full-frame, medium-telephoto prime lens. It employs a classically simple 4-element, 3-group optical formula to achieve soft, glowing, impressionistic effects at its widest apertures. Moreover, photographers can adjust them to yield sharper, crisper images by stopping down. In addition, a 12-blade diaphragm helps the lens achieve smooth, artistic bokeh. And a wide maximum aperture facilitates depth-of-field control and selective focus techniques.
What’s more, the Lensbaby lens focuses down to 9.5 inches (1:2) to capture dramatic close-ups. It also has comprehensive focusing scales and a well-damped focusing action. Weighing in at 1.2 pounds and measuring 3.5 inches in length, it provides a 127.5mm-equivalent focal length with APS-C-format cameras. In black, Canon EF/RF, Nikon F/Z, Sony E/A, Pentax K, MFT, X and L mounts, $499.95. In silver, Nikon F, Canon EF and L mounts, $599.95.
Nikon Nikkor Z DX 50–250mm f/4.5–6.3 VR
This compact, lightweight lens works with Nikon Z mirrorless cameras in DX-format (APS-C) capture mode as well as the new DX sensor in the Nikon Z fc. The 5x telephoto zoom offers fine performance and excellent versatility at a very attractive price point. It is adept at stills as well as video applications with suppressed focus breathing. The 16-element, 12-group lens incorporates one ED element to reduce color fringing and enhance clarity. It also uses Nikon’s super integrated coating to minimize ghosting and flare.
In addition, built-in VR image stabilization achieves a 5-stop advantage in combatting the effects of camera shake. Plus, a stepping AF motor provides quick, quiet AF with full-time manual override and support for eye AF. What’s more, its electromagnetic aperture mechanism permits precise exposure control, and a rounded 7-blade diaphragm contributes to attractive bokeh.
The lens also has a programmable control ring that enables manual focus, aperture and exposure adjustments. Other features include internal focusing and a 1.64-foot minimum focusing distance (0.23x maximum magnification). Weight, 14.3 ounces; length, 4.3 inches. $349.95.
Tamron 18–400mm f/3.6–6.3 Di II VC HLD
The new Tamron 18–400mm is an outstanding long-range, all-in-one zoom lens. In addition, it provides an impressive 28–620mm-equivalent coverage for APS-C-format Canon EF- or Nikon (DX-format) F-mount cameras. Moreover, it integrates Tamron’s Vibration Compensation (VC) optical image stabilization technology. As a result, the lens provides a 2.5-stop advantage in minimizing the effects of camera shake. It also uses a quick, ultraquiet HLD (high/low torque-modulated drive) AF motor that’s optimized for pro-level still and video performance.
The lens additionally features an advanced 16-element, 11-group design. It incorporates three LD, one hybrid aspherical as well as two molded glass aspherical elements to deliver exceptional image quality over its entire range. What’s more, it employs a rounded 7-blade electromagnetic diaphragm to enhance both its pleasing bokeh and its high-speed capture capability.
Other features include a close focus distance of 1.5 feet (0.34x) and moisture-resistant construction for shooting in inclement weather. Weight, 1.6 pounds; length, 4.9 inches. $649.
Pentax-DA★ smc 60–250mm f/4 ED SDM
Designed as a pro-caliber workhorse for serious Pentax K DSLR shooters, this is a constant-maximum-aperture, APS-C-format tele-zoom lens. Its advanced 15-element, 13-group optical formula includes two ED glass elements as well as super-low dispersion elements to minimize chromatic aberrations. In addition, the lens is compatible with both SDM and KAF2 autofocus systems. It provides ultrafast autofocus with quick-shift, full-time manual focus override on both current and older Pentax DSLRs.
Equivalent to a 92–383mm zoom on a full-frame SLR, this beauty focuses down to 3.6 feet (0.14x). In addition, it incorporates a 9-blade diaphragm to enhance its artistic bokeh and stops down to f/32. It also employs Pentax’s super protect (SP) coating on its external surfaces to repel dust, water and grease, and it is moisture resistant. Weighing in at 2.3 pounds, it’s 6.6 inches in length. $1,299.95.
Canon RF 100–500mm f/4.5–7.1L IS USM
Canon’s compact 5x tele zoom for full-frame EOS R mirrorless cameras is an elite L series lens. It spans a range from medium- to super-tele in a stylish, portable design, thanks to its moderate aperture range. What’s more, the RF-mount lens is based on an advanced 20-element, 14-group optical design. It employs six UD (ultra-low dispersion) elements and one super UD element to minimize chromatic aberrations and color fringing. Thus, it achieves impressive sharpness, clarity and color accuracy.
A built-in, three-mode optical image stabilizer provides a 5-stop advantage in abating the effects of camera shake. Also, dual Nano USM focus motors use both a ring-type USM motor and an STM mechanism. As a result, the lens delivers fast, accurate, quiet AF along with full-time manual control when working in one-shot AF mode.
Moreover, the lens features a configurable control ring for adjusting key exposure settings; a protective fluorine coating on external elements; weather resistance; a rotation-type zoom ring with torque adjustment capability; a rounded 9-blade diaphragm to produce smooth bokeh; and a 12-pin communication system. The lens focuses down to 2.95 feet (0.12–0.33x). Weight, 3 pounds; length, 8.2 inches. $2,699.
Sony FE 70–200mm f/2.8 GM OSS
The mainstay of many Sony-shooting pros, this is a fast, full-frame, constant-maximum-aperture tele-zoom lens. The E-mount glass is part of Sony’s top-of-the-line G Master series. And it delivers outstanding image quality, along with smooth natural bokeh, thanks in part to an 11-blade diaphragm. To minimize aberrations, its advanced 23-element, 18-group optical formula incorporates one XA (extreme aspherical) element, two aspheric elements, four ED elements and two super ED elements. Furthermore, its Nano AR coating diminishes flare and ghosting for improved contrast and color rendition.
In addition, its built-in Optical SteadyShot (OSS) IS system has a panning mode option; comprehensive focus hold; and OSS control buttons on the barrel for intuitive handling. Other features are moisture resistance; a floating element design for enhanced close-up performance; and a state-of-the-art double linear and ring supersonic wave motor that provides fast, precise, quiet AF for stills and video. The lens focuses down to 3.2 feet (0.25x). Weight, 3.3 pounds; length, 7.9 inches. $2,599.99.
Panasonic Lumix S Pro 70–200mm f/2.8 OIS
This impressive Panasonic full-frame, pro-caliber glass is a high-speed, L-mount telephoto zoom lens. It has a constant f/2.8 aperture and employs a cutting-edge 22-element, 17-group optical design. What’s more, one aspheric element, two UED (ultra-extra-low dispersion) elements and three ED elements deliver edge-to-edge sharpness across the field, exceptional color correction, as well as outstanding clarity. The lens also boasts a double focus system that uses both linear and stepping motors. They achieve very fast, precise, quiet AF as well as suppress focus breathing. Also notable is a focus clutch to provide nearly instant AF/MF switching.
Moreover, a built-in optical image stabilizer (OIS) combats the effects of camera shake and supports Dual IS and Dual IS 2.0 functions. Consequently, the lens provides an anti-shake advantage of up to 7 stops! Other features comprise three focus hold buttons; an 11-blade diaphragm for pleasing bokeh; splash/dust-resistant and freezeproof construction; a 3.12-foot (0.21x) close focusing distance; and a removable rotating tripod collar. Weight, 3.5 pounds; length, 8.2 inches. $2,599.99.
Tokina FiRIN 100mm f/2.8 FE Macro
This full-frame Tokina E-mount lens works as a medium tele portrait lens as well as a macro lens that gets down to 1:1 (life-size image on the sensor). This corresponds to a minimum focusing distance of 11.8 inches. The ingenious lens boasts extremely high resolution, low distortion as well as low falloff. Based on an innovative 9-element, 8-group flat field design, it provides natural rendition along with impressive detail and clarity.
Furthermore, it offers 150mm-equivalent coverage on APS-C-format cameras and an effective working distance of 4.5 inches for convenient close-up setups. In addition, it is compatible with Sony A7 cameras’ MF-assist functions, like manual focus adjustment, the image auto enlargement function, focus peaking and the viewfinder electronic distance bar. It also works with in-camera 5-axis IS.
Other features are a multilayered coating to minimize flare and increase light transmission; fast, precise AF with full-time manual override; printed magnifications on the lens barrel to aid in macro shooting; and a 9-blade diaphragm to augment soft bokeh. Weight, 1.3 pounds, length, 4.8 inches. $599.
Sigma 100–400mm f/5–6.3 DG DN OS Contemporary
This very successful Sigma moderate aperture, long-range tele-zoom lens is easy to handhold. And it delivers outstanding overall imaging performance. Its advanced 22-element, 16-group optical design incorporates one FLD element. It also utilizes four SLD elements to effectively control chromatic aberrations over the entire zoom range. Thus, it provides enhanced clarity and high color accuracy.
Built-in optical image stabilization (OS) provides a 4-stop advantage in minimizing the effects of camera shake. Moreover, the lens integrates a stepping motor optimized for phase-detection AF and contrast AF, complemented by an optimized AF algorithm. Together they enable quick, quiet, precise autofocus in still as well as video capture. In addition, the lens focuses down to 5.25 feet.
Additional features are an AFL button that users can program to adjust shooting settings; a focus limiter switch for faster AF; a zoom lock; a rounded 9-blade diaphragm that creates beautiful bokeh; and a rubber-sealed, dust/splash-resistant brass bayonet mount. Weight, 2.5 pounds; length, 7.8 inches. In E and L mounts, $949.