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Extreme Telephoto and Zoom Lens Roundup

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Say the word “telephoto” and many shooters automatically think “Oh, telephotos bring things closer.” Now while this is true—particularly in the mind’s eye of newbies to the sport—the imaging abilities of telephoto lenses go well beyond “bringing things closer,” especially when you start shooting with progressively longer optics.

The thrust of this roundup is longer focal length telephotos, which for our purposes, are lenses that take in angles of view of 8.3° or less. In real-world terminology, 8.3° translates into the angle of view of a 300mm lens on full-frame (24 x 36mm) cameras, while 200mm lenses for APS-C format cameras (1.5x or 1.6x crop factor) translate into a lens of 300mm or even longer. This group includes compact DSLRs, Sony NEX cameras and Samsung’s NX200. And for Four Thirds-format cameras (2x crop factor) we’re talking about lenses of 150mm and up.

Just as wide-angle lenses capture “the big picture” of whatever lies before your camera’s lens, telephotos zero in on the details of the scene. Depending on the distance of your subject from the camera and the aperture at which you’re shooting, telephotos can be quite adept at isolating your subject from the background or foreground. This is especially true of wider-aperture telephotos, which are very frequently the lenses of choice among fashion and beauty photographers.

In addition to their ability to bring distant subjects closer or isolating your subject from its foreground and background, telephotos also compress the apparent distances between objects within the frame. In the case of cityscapes, buildings that are blocks apart can appear as if they’re flat as billboards plastered one upon another. (Similarly, wide-angle lenses seemingly expand the apparent distances between foreground and background objects in a scene, which is why real estate agents love them so much.)

One issue that’s unique to telephotos—especially the longer and faster ones, has to do with weight and mass, which can add up quickly. Unless you’re being paid a bundle for shooting pro sports or a fashion spread for Vanity Fair or can afford to travel with a pack mule, an elephant or a Sherpa or two, one should consider the cost of hauling around a Canon EF 400/2.8L IS USM when a Canon EF 400/4 DO IS USM will do the job at half of the weight and bulk.

And if there’s a choice of purchasing the lens that tickles your fancy with or without image stabilization, be advised the extra shekels you’ll spend for the image-stabilized version can often be the difference between a not-quite-sharp picture and a real keeper.

   Format Coverage   Image Stabilized  Min Focus  Filter Size  Weight
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm/f/2.8G ED VR II Full Frame - APS-C Yes  7.5' (2.3m) AF / 7.2' (2.2m) MF 52mm Rear 6.4lb (2900g)
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm/f/4D IF-ED Full Frame - APS-C No 4.8' (1.45m) 77mm 3.2lb (1440g)
Nikon AF-S 400mm/f/2.8G ED VR Full Frame - APS-C Yes 9.5' (2.9m) AF / 9.2’ (2.8m) MF 52mm Rear 10.2lb (4620g)
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500mm/f/4G ED VR Full Frame - APS-C Yes 13.1' (4m) 52mm Rear 8.6lb (3880g)
Nikon AF-S 600mm/f/4G ED VR Full Frame - APS-C Yes 16.4' (5m) 52mm Rear  11.2lb (5060g)
Nikon AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400mm/f/4.5-5.6D ED Full Frame - APS-C Yes 7.5' (2.3m) 77mm 3lb (1360g)
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm/f/4G ED VR II Full Frame - APS-C Yes 6.6' (2m) AF / 6.4' (1.95m) MF 52mm Rear  7.4lb (3360g)
Nikon 70-300mm/f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED AF-S Full Frame - APS-C No 4.9’ (1.5m) 67mm 1.6lb (745g)
Nikon AF Zoom 70-300mm/f/4-5.6G Full Frame - APS-C No 4.9’ (1.5m) 62mm 0.9lb (425g)
Canon EF 300/4.0L IS USM Full Frame - APS-C Yes 4.9’ (1.5m) 77mm 2.6lb (1190g)
Canon EF 300/2.8L IS II USM Full Frame - APS-C Yes 6.6' (2m) 52mm Rear 5.2lb (2350g)
Canon EF 400/2.8L IS II USM Full Frame - APS-C Yes 8.86' (2.7m) 52mm Rear   8.5lb (3850g)
Canon EF 400/4 DO IS USM Full Frame - APS-C Yes 11.5' (3.5m) 52mm Rear  4.3lb (1940g)
Canon EF 400/5.6L USM Full Frame - APS-C No 11.5' (3.5m) 77mm  2.8lb (1250g)
Canon EF 600/4L IS USM Full Frame - APS-C Yes 18' (5.5m) 52mm Rear  11.8 lb (5360g)
Canon EF 800/5.6L IS USM Full Frame - APS-C Yes 19.7' (6m)  52mm Rear  9.9 lb (4500g)
Canon EF 70-300/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM Full Frame - APS-C Yes 4.6' (1.4m) 58mm 1.6lb (720 g)
Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6 IS USM Full Frame - APS-C Yes 4.9' (1.5m) 58mm 1.4lb (630 g)
Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6L IS USM Full Frame - APS-C Yes 3.9' (1.2m) 67mm 2.3lb (1050g)
Canon EF 75-300/4-5.6 III USM Full Frame - APS-C No 4.9' (1.5m) 58mm 1.1lb (480 g)
Canon EF 100-400/4.5-5.6L IS USM Full Frame - APS-C Yes 5.9' (1.8m) 77mm 3lb (1380g)
Sony 300/2.8G  Full Frame - APS-C No 6.6' (2m)  42mm Rear  5.1lb (2300g)
Sony 70-300/4.5-5.6 Full Frame - APS-C No 4' (1.2m) 62mm 1.75lb (800g) 
Sony 70-400/4-5.6 Full Frame - APS-C No 5' (1.5m) 77mm 3.3lb (1500g)
Pentax smc DA* 300/4 ED(IF) SDM APS-C No 4.6' (1.4m) 77mm 2.4lb (1070g)
Pentax smc DA 55-300/4-5.8 ED APS-C  No 4.6' (1.4m) 58mm 1lb    (440 g)
Pentax 60-250mm/f4 ED DA* SDM APS-C No 3.6' (1.1m) 67mm 2.3lb (1043g)
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 45-200/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S Micro Four Thirds Yes  3.3' (1m) 52mm 0.8lb (380 g)
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S. Micro Four Thirds Yes  4.9' (1.5m) 67mm 1.2lb (520 g)
Panasonic Lumix G X Vario PZ 45-175mm/f4-5.6 ASPH Power O.I.S. Micro Four Thirds Yes 3' (0.9m) 46mm 0.5lb (210g)
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 300/2.8 Four Thirds No 7.9' (2.4m) 43mm Rear 7.25lb 3290g
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 90-250/2.8 Four Thirds No 8.2' (2.5m) 105mm 7.2lb 3270g
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 70-300/4-5.6 Four Thirds No 3.3' 1m (MF) / 3.9' 1.2m (AF) 58mm 1.4lb 620 g
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300/4.8-6.7 Micro Four Thirds No 3'  / 0.9m (at 75mm) 4.9'  /1.5m (at other focal lengths)  58mm 0.9lb 430g
Tamron SP 70-300/4-5.6 Di VC USD Full Frame - APS-C Yes 4.9' (1.5m) 62mm 1.7lb (765g)
Tamron SP 200-500/5-6.3 Di LD (IF) Full Frame - APS-C No 8.2' (2.5m) 86mm 2.7lb (1226g)
Sigma 300/2.8 EX APO DG HSM Full Frame - APS-C No 8.2' (2.5m) 46mm Rear 5.3lb (2400g)
Sigma 500/4.5 EX DG APO HSM Full Frame - APS-C No 13.1' (4m) 46mm Rear  6.9lb (3100g)
Sigma 800/5.6 APO DG HSM Full Frame - APS-C No 23' (7') 46mm Rear  10.5b (4740g)
Sigma 70-300/4-5.6 DG OS Full Frame - APS-C Yes 4.9' (1.5m) 62mm 1.3lb (610g)
Sigma 120-300/2.8 EX DG OS APO Full Frame - APS-C Yes 4.9-8.2' (1.5-2.5m) 105m 6.5lb (2950g)
Sigma 120-400/4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM APO Full Frame - APS-C Yes 4.9' (1.5m) 77mm 3.9lb (1750g)
Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 DG OS HSM APO Full Frame - APS-C Yes 7.2' (2.2m) 86mm 4.2lb (1910g)
Sigma 50-500/4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM Full Frame - APS-C Yes 1.6-5.9' (0.5-1.8m) 95mm 4.3lb (1970g)
Sigma 300-800/5.6 EX DG APO IF HSM Full Frame - APS-C No 19.7' (6m) 46mm Rear 12.9lb (5870g)
Sigma 200-500/2.8 EX DG APO IF Full Frame - APS-C No 6.6-16.4' (2-5m) 72mm Rear 34.6lb 15700g)

Budget-Minded Extreme Zooms and Mirror Lenses

Though they may not necessarily be up to spec in terms of resolving power, construction and weatherproofing compared to many of the OEM long zooms and telephotos costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars more, we also carry a selection of long focal length lenses from Rokinon, Phoenix, Vivitar and Bower that will set you back $109.95 to $349.95 tops. The priciest of these lenses are the ultra-long 650-1300mm f/8-16 T-mount zooms from Rokinon, Bower, Vivitar and Phoenix.

Now mind you, the zoom lenses in this class are relatively slow in terms of maximum f-stop range—and that’s when you’re shooting at their wider focal lengths; they’re all manual focus and they come with universal T-mounts. These are the key reasons they’re priced well below their faster counterparts.

In addition to these baseball bat-sized extreme zooms, we also carry a selection of 500mm and 800mm T-mount mirror lenses, which are small and light enough to fit into your coat pocket or the lens compartment of any mid-size camera bag. Like the 650-1300mm zooms, mirror lenses are also slow (f/5.6, f/6.3 or f/8), which is why they’re small, light and inexpensive. The 500- and 800mm mirror lenses are available from Bower, Phoenix, Vivitar and Rokinon.

Due to their optical design (they’re basically short mirror-based telescopes), mirror lenses rely on a series of internally mounted circular mirrors that progressively magnify the light entering the front of the lens barrel. Out-of-focus highlights in mirror-lens photographs are rendered as soft, circular rings commonly referred to as “donuts.” Some people love them and some people hate them. Regardless, in the right hands, mirror lenses can capture graphically strong imagery.

All of the above-mentioned extreme zooms and mirror lenses cover the image fields of full frame imaging sensors and can be used via T-mount adapters with most popular DSLRs.

Extreme Zoom Lenses

   Format Coverage   Image Stabilized  Min Focus  Filter Size  Weight
Rokinon 650-1300mm/f/8-16 (Manual Focus) Full Frame - APS-C No 16.25' (5m) 95mm 6lb (2721.6g)
Bower 650-1300mm/f/8-16 (Manual Focus) Full Frame - APS-C No 16' (5m) 95mm 4.4lb  (2000g)
Vivitar 650-1300mm/f/8-16 (Manual Focus) Full Frame - APS-C No 16' (5m) 95mm 4.9lb (2222.6g)
Phoenix 650-1300mm/f/8-16 (Manual Focus) Full Frame - APS-C No 16' (5m) 95mm 4.4lb  (2000g)

Mirror Lenses

   Format Coverage   Image Stabilized  Min Focus  Filter Size  Weight
Rokinon 500mm/f/6.3 ED Mirror Full Frame - APS-C No 6.1' (2m) 95mm 2lb (907.2g)
Rokinon 500mm/f/8 Mirror Full Frame - APS-C No 5.6' (1.7m) 72mm - Front / 30.5mm - Rear 2lb (907.2g)
Rokinon 800mm/f/8 Mirror Full Frame - APS-C No 11' (3.5m) 105mm 3lb (1360.8g)
Bower 500mm/f/6.3 Mirror Full Frame - APS-C No 6.1' (2m) 105mm - Front / 34mm - Rear 1.4lb (650g)
Bower 500mm/f/8 Mirror Full Frame - APS-C No 5.7' (1.7m) 30.5 Rear 0.7lb (330g)
Bower 800mm/f/8 Mirror Full Frame - APS-C No 11.5' (3.5m) 105mm - Front / 30.5mm - Rear 1.9lb (880g)
Vivitar 500mm/f/6.3 Mirror Full Frame - APS-C No 6.6' (2m) 30.5mm - Rear 1.4lb (651g)
Vivitar 500mm/f/8 Mirror Full Frame - APS-C No 5.7' (1.7m) 30.5mm - Rear 1.2lb (521.6g)
Vivitar 800mm/f/8 Mirror Full Frame - APS-C No 5.7' (1.7m) 30.5mm - Rear 2.9lb (1292.7g)
Phoenix 500mm/f/8 Mirror Full Frame - APS-C No 5.6' (1.7m) 30.5mm - Rear 0.8lb (360g)
Phoenix 500mm/f/6.3 Mirror Full Frame - APS-C No 6.6' (2m) 95mm - Front / 34mm - Rear 1.6lb (703g)
Phoenix 800mm/f/8 Mirror Full Frame - APS-C No 11' (3.4m) 105mm - Front / 30.5mm - Rear 2.1lb (948g)

Do you have any questions about this forest of extreme telephoto lenses? Please post your questions in the Comments section below. We’re pleased to hear from you.