Extreme Telephoto


For many shooters, telephoto lenses are a means of bringing distant scenes closer, and for the most part, this is an accurate description of what telephoto lenses do. But there's more to telephoto lenses than narrow fields of view. Perspective, compression of spatial relationships between subjects within the frame and the dynamics of selective focus are equally part of the game.

Unlike wide-angle lenses, which by design take in wide fields of view, telephoto lenses are designed to zero in on your subject, be it a long-range portrait or a distant landscape. In the case of portraits, telephoto lenses are unique in their ability to isolate your subject from the foreground and background, especially if your telephoto is a wider-aperture lens. Do keep in mind that the concept of "fast" or "wide aperture" is relative to the focal length of your lens. A 28mm lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 is so-so in terms of speed, whereas a 300mm or 400mm with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 is noteworthy—not to mention pricey and heavy.

The payoff is when you shoot a tight portrait with that fast telephoto at close range, compared to a similar focal length lens with a smaller maximum aperture. Unlike wide-angle photographs, in which it's often difficult to blur backgrounds unless you're right on top of of your subject at the lens's widest aperture (and not at all recommended for portraits!), telephotos allow you to focus the viewer's attention easily on the subject. (Filmmakers have long understood and made use of this valuable visual concept.)

Telephoto lenses bring distant subjects closer while compressing perspective and the distance between subjects within the frame.

                     All photos Copyright Allan Weitz 2010. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.

As wonderful as all this sounds, there are a number of realities that go along with shooting with longer (300mm-plus) lenses. First of all is cost. Even though we'd all like to pick up the phone, log on or trek into the store and buy a 400mm f/2.8 lens, there's a matter of cost, which unless you shoot for a living and can justify the price of a lens with a 4- or 5-digit price tag, is beyond the realities of most of the general population.

Even if price isn't an issue, faster lenses are also notably larger and heavier than their smaller-aperture brethren, which is an issue regardless of how deep your pockets are if you plan on hauling your new pride and joy around all day, let alone pack it along with your carry-on baggage next time you fly off to Tahiti for the weekend. And then you have the issue of handholding a heavy lens steady enough to nail a sharp picture. If you plan on shooting from a tripod, though, you're good to go.

If, however, you do shoot handheld with longer optics, always keep in mind a basic tenet of photography that states you should never handhold a lens at a shutter speed less than the focal length of the lens. This means a 200mm lens shouldn't be handheld when your shutter speed is slower than 1/200th-second, a 300mm lens slower than 1/300th-second, a 500mm lens slower than 1/500th-second, etc. Now this doesn't mean you can't get sharp photos shooting at slower speeds, but it does mean you're less likely to get successfully sharp results each time you drop the shutter dial a notch.  

The good news is that many of the faster leviathans we sell at B&H are image stabilized, which means they can be easily handheld three to four shutter speeds slower than normal. Additionally, we also stock a number of smaller-aperture—but equally sharp—fixed and zoom telephoto lenses. True, you lose a degree of selective focus control when shooting with slower-aperture optics, but everything has a price, and at the end of the day a good, sharp picture is a good, sharp picture.

One heads-up I would offer for users of lenses with smaller apertures is that if you should choose to use a polarizing filter, keep in mind that at about f/8 your autofocusing system can start getting sluggish, which means you should stick to your lens's widest aperture or bump up your camera's ISO sensitivity, which these days is an effective fix for such issues.

As for deciding between zoom and fixed focal length lenses, there are good arguments for both. When shooting sports or other fast-action activities where your subjects are moving quickly or at rapidly changing distances from your vantage point, zooms are definitely the way to go. The argument for fixed focal length lenses is that they tend to be available with wider apertures, are often lighter and in most cases focus closer and tighter than their zoom equivalents, though this argument is best made on a case-by-case basis.

One last consideration for those seeking the most bang for their hard-earned bucks is 500mm and 800mm mirror lenses, which in a nutshell are extremely compact mirrored telescopes. We stock a variety of 500mm and 800mm mirror lenses with single, fixed apertures of f/6.3 and f/8. They might be slow and manual focus only, but the flip side is they all sell for under $250.

A Selection of Extreme Focal Length
Zoom and Fixed Focal Length Optics


 Format Coverage

 Image Stabilized  Min Focus  Filter Size  Weight
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300/2.8G ED VR II Full-Frame   APS-C Yes       7.5' (2.3m)AF 7.2' (2.2m)MF 52mm Drop-in 102.3 oz (2.9 kg)
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300/4D IF-ED Full-Frame   APS-C No 4.8' (1.46m) 77mm 3.1 lb (1.4 kg)
Nikon AF-S 400/2.8G ED VR Full-Frame   APS-C Yes 9.5' (2.9m) 52mm Drop-in 10.2 lb (4.6 kg)
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500/4G ED VR Full-Frame   APS-C Yes 13.1' (4m) 52mm Drop-in 8.6 lb (3.9 kg)
Nikon AF-S 600/4G ED VR Full-Frame   APS-C Yes 16.4' (5m) 52mm Drop-in  11.2 lb (5.1 kg)
Nikon AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400/4.5-5.6D ED Full-Frame   APS-C Yes 7.5' (2.3m)  77mm 2.9 lb (1.3 kg)
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-400/4G ED VR II Full-Frame   APS-C Yes 6.6' (2m)AF 6.4' (1.95m)MF 52mm Drop-in  7.4 lb (3.4 kg)
Canon EF 400/2.8L IS USM Full-Frame   APS-C Yes  9.8' (2.98m) 52mm Drop-in   11.7 lb (5.3 kg)
Canon EF 400/4 DO IS USM Full-Frame   APS-C  Yes 11.5' (3.5m) 52mm Drop-in  4.3 lb (1.95 kg)
Canon EF 400/5.6L USM Full-Frame   APS-C  No 11.5' (3.5m) 77mm  2.8 lb (1.27 kg)
Canon EF 500/4L IS USM Full-Frame   APS-C  Yes  14.8' (4.51m) 52mm Drop-in  8.53 lb (3.86 kg)
Canon EF 600/4L IS USM Full-Frame   APS-C   Yes 18' (5.48m) 52mm Drop-in  11.8 lb (5.35 kg)
Canon EF 800/5.6L IS USM Full-Frame   APS-C    Yes 19.7' (6m)  52mm Drop-in  9.9 lb (4.49 kg)
Canon EF 70-300/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM Full-Frame   APS-C  Yes 4.6' (1.4m0 58mm 1.6 lb (720 g)
Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6 IS USM Full-Frame   APS-C   Yes 4.9' (1.5m) 58mm 1.4 lb (630 g)
Canon EF 75-300/4-5.6 III USM Full-Frame   APS-C  No  4.9' (1.5m) 58mm 1.05 lb (476 g)
Canon EF 100-400/4.5-5.6L IS USM Full-Frame   APS-C  Yes 5.9' (1.79m) 77mm 3 lb
(1.36 kg)
Sony 300/2.8G APO SSG Full-Frame   APS-C   In-Camera 6.6' (2m)  42mm Rear Screw-in 5.1 lb (2.3 kg)
Sony 500/8 Mirror Full-Frame   APS-C In-Camera 13.1' (4m)  None  1.5 lb (665 g)
Sony 70-300/4.5-5.6 Full-Frame   APS-C In-Camera 4' (1.2m) 62mm 1.8 lb (800 g) 
Sony 70-400/4.5-5.6 Full-Frame   APS-C   In-Camera 5' (1.5m) 77mm 3.5 lb (1.5 kg)
Pentax smc DA 300/4 ED(IF) SDM APS-C In-Camera 4.6' (1.4m) 77mm 2.3 lb (1.07 kg)
Pentax smc DA 55-300/4-5.8 ED APS-C   In-Camera 4.6' (1.4m) 58mm 15.5 oz (440 g)
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 45-200/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S Micro FourThirds Yes  3.3' (1m) 52mm 13.4 oz (380 g)
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S. Micro FourThirds Yes  4.9' (1.5m) 67mm 1.14 lb (520 g)
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 300/2.8 FourThirds No 6.6' (2m) Dedicated Rear Drop-in 7.2 lb (3.3 kg)
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 90-250/2.8 FourThirds No 8.2' (2.5m)  105mm 7.21 lb (3.27kg)
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 70-300/4-5.6 FourThirds No 3.1' (96cm) 58mm 1.3 lb (620 g)
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300/4.8-6.7 FourThirds No NA  NA NA
Tamron SP 70-300/4-5.6 Di VC USD Full-Frame   APS-C   Yes 59.05" (1.4m) 62mm 26.98 oz (765 g)
Tamron SP 200-500/5-6.3 Di LD (IF) Full-Frame   APS-C No 8.2' (2.5m) 86mm 2.7 lb (1.237kg)
Sigma 300/2.8 EX APO DG HSM Full-Frame   APS-C  No 4.9' (1.5m)  105mm 5.7 lb
(2.6 kg)
Sigma 500/4.5 EX DG APO HSM Full-Frame   APS-C  No 13.2' (4m) 46mm Drop-in  6.9 lb (3.1 kg)
Sigma 800/5.6 APO DG HSM Full-Frame   APS-C  No 19.6' (6m) 46mm Drop-in  12.9 lb (5.87 kg)
Sigma 70-300/4-5.6 DG OS Full-Frame   APS-C  Yes  4.92' (1.5m) 62mm 21.5 oz (610 g) 
Sigma 120-300/2.8 EX DG OS APO Full-Frame   APS-C  Yes 4.9' (1.5m) 105m 5.7 lb (2.6 kg)
Sigma 120-400/4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM APO Full-Frame   APS-C   Yes 4.9' (1.5m) 77mm 3.8 lb (1.75 kg)
Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 DG OS HSM APO Full-Frame   APS-C   Yes 7.2' (2.2m) 86mm 4.2 lb (1.91 kg)
Sigma 50-500/4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM Full-Frame   APS-C Yes 19.7" (0.5m) 95mm 4.35 lb (1.97 kg)
Sigma 300-800/5.6 EX DG APO IF HSM Full-Frame   APS-C No  19.6' (6m) 46mm Drop-in 12.9 lb (5.87 kg)
Sigma 200-500/2.8 EX DG APO IF Full-Frame   APS-C No 6.5 - 16.4' (2-5m)  72mm (rear) 34.6 lb (15.7 kg)
Tokina AF-D 80-400/4.5-5.6 ATX Full-Frame   APS-C No 8.2' (2.5m) 72mm 2.2 lb (1.02 kg)

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I have owned a number of the Canon 'L' series telephotos such as the 400mm f2.8 as a sports photographer. Obviously for sports, getting in close to the action on the field, from the sidelines is fantastic and brings an intimacy for the viewer. I do also really love the compression longer telephoto lenses bring in Landscapes and cityscapes. Of course now with the advent of Full HD video on the DSLR's like the Canon5D Mk2, the ability to use the shallow depth of field and pulling focus is a huge advantage for HD video, when using telephoto lenses. Getting close to widelife whilst maintaining a distance is also wonderful, catching them in a way which doesn't disturb them is great too of course. I also have 1.4 x and 2 x convertors which are a great substitute, allowing one to get even closer. Slight loss of light of course, but fine during good day light. The Ability to isolate your subject from background brings simplicity for the viewer. Whilst the top quality lenses cost a bit, don't discount the entry level lenses as a good starting point. I have captured a number of nice images on the 75-300mm f4 to 5.6 lens, years ago. If you're only looking for an 8 x 12 inch print, they are ok. Sure image quality is higher on the 'L' series lenses, but composition and lighting are the important elements in making a good photo. Canon's 70 to 200mm f2.8 and f4.0 lenses are both stunning high quality lenses. As is the 85mm f1.2 of course.

I've been shooting with a Canon 600mm f4 L IS for a few years now, and for wildlife - and especially birds in flight. 

I love this lens!  Combine it with patience, persistence and skill and it will produce some spectacular images.

As far as the mirror lenses, I have used them in the past.  There is no comparison in the quality of the mirror lenses and the big Canon or Nikon glass - but there's no comparison in the price either. 

Still, this is one place where the extra spend on better glass is well worth it - I was really dissapointed in the results form the mirror lenses I've tried.

I've also shot with the Sigma 50-500 without stabilization.  In bright sunlight, it works very well but I was sorely missing that stabilization in overcast conditions.  It forced me to shove the ISO uncomfortably high to get acceptable shutter speeds.

The newer Sigma lenses like the 150-500 have a great combination of focal length and stabilization at roughly $1000. 

That's a great price point for photographers just starting out in wildlife photography and $8000 or so less spendy than the big Canon glass.

Charlie MacPherson

I have owned a Sigma 150-500 lens for the past 2 years. I bought it from BH Photo.

I love this lens. Although I wish it were faster, it does a great job when hand held in sufficient light.

The lens is heavy but the heaviness in my opinion adds to the stability.

I have taken this on many wildlife expeditions and exhibits and it easily removes the chain links at zoos and outdoor exhibits.

I recommend this lens for anyone who wants to shoot wildlife on a budget.

Just be prepared, it is heavy but i like it like that.

ForestWander Nature Photography


I have owned a Sigma 170-500 mm purchased from B & H which I shoot with a Sony alpha 700 (aps-c sensor). The lens is now outmoded and replaced by the 150--500 mm in the list in Alan's write-up.  Lenses of this type are great for wildlife and bird photography.

I have shot thousands of shots with it and have gotten excellent results.  Upon first shooting it, it became obvious that lens of this nature are difficult to use, plus they tend to consume a fair amount of camera battery power with autofocusing.   I feel that a zoom would be much better to use than a single focal length such as a 500mm, due to the fact one has more flexibility with a zoom lens.

I would recommend a zoom over a single focal length due to the convenience factor.  There is a downside of possible mechanical failure over time with the zoom compared to a single focal length.

I enjoy Alan's writeups.  I like all of them and look forward to each one.

While I have the heavy glass from Nikon, one of the budget lenses that has its place is the Tamron 200-500mm f/5-6.3 Di LD IF.  At under $900, it is a very good lens for those on a budget.  What's more, it is small enough and light enough to handhold or carry in a moderate pack.  Now a light lens requires good technique - on a tripod this lens requires a hand across the top or a solid beanbag.  The lens weights just 2.7 pounds compared to the 11.1 pounds of the Nikon 600 f/4.  At this weight you can handhold.  This lens is best for subjects within about 150 feet - not distant landscapes.

A lot of the newer lenses are incredibly overpriced. Sorry, its near the cost of a house payment or two, not going to be bought new.

I shoot with a Sigma 170-500 or the Nikon AF 2.8 80-200 or a Tamron that goes to 300. Key is how long can you tread water...er hold that lens. Sometimes a monopod is just not useful. Sorry.

Key is, you need to know

1. What shutter speed do I need to stop the action? Forget VR and all that, you need 1/250 indoors in a decent college arena with lights. Can't get that with your outfit, its just dead weight. Same with outdoors. You need a decent shutter speed to stop the action.

A decent frame rate is also needed. 5 fps is good, 8 fps is better. You know when to start shooting.

Location, location, location. Know the sport and know where the action is going to be. Ideally you'll have a press pass to get there, but with smaller college games, you can get anywhere the pros do as long as its not near the team benches in football.

Get the gear you can afford, it'll last a lifetime. Take care of it.

You also don't need this glass to get decent shots, I've shot gymnastics where flash is not allowed with a 50 1.4 or a 85 1.8, again location is key.

Other than that, shoot. Practice makes perfect.

I've owned and shot with various Nikkor 300/2.8 and 400/2.8 lenses, both manual and AF versions and currently only have a an older EDIF manual 300/2.8 though I am seriously considering a 300/2.8VR.  For me the extra size and weight of a 400/2.8 (or the 600/4 etc) can't be justified over the 300/2.8, as it just doesn't add that much extra throw for something that weighs about 1/2 as much as my 8x10 camera kit, whereas the 300/2.8 and a 1.4x and 2.0x easily fit into my 35mm/DSLR kit bag.  I also use a 70-200/2.8VR and have found the VR is the biggest breakthrough around (besides the 100k ISO of the D3)... I almost switched to Canon with all the rest when Nikon finally came out with the VR glass.  Don't even get me started on Sigma, there's just no comparison, particularly with the mechanics of the lens and focusing.

As I have come to expect a fair and helpful report.

I would add two comments on the mirror reflex lenses mentioned at the end of the main report.

First they are fixed aperture as you say, that means you give up all control over depth of field in your shots. So if you are looking to use the compression effect in a composition you may be frustrated by having too much or too little depth.

I have a 300mm f/5.6 Mirror lens in my cupboard which I took on one trip 13 years back. It drove me mad and I went back to conventional glass.

Secondly you may or may not like the bright ring doughnut highlights of out of focus bright spots from a mirror lens. But you get them anyway, and you can get exactly the same effect with a standard lens by a simple trick.

I would say try before you buy if you can, I did not and was disappointed.

Carry on baggage!

Like many folk I always take my photo kit as my carry on for security reasons.

This month returning from Luxor in Egypt. They found no problem with my main checked baggage so they insisted they weigh my rucksack bag which I was going to carry on..

This bag has been with me through hundreds of check in situations, it clearly fits in the measure cage, but has never been weighed before.

It was 3 and 1/2  kilos overweight, the allowance in economy was only 5 kilos. The charge for the excess was 480 Egyptian pounds. (about 80 USD)

I was annoyed but decided to pay without too much fuss, but no they would not accept a credit card, it had to be Egyptian Pounds cash.I had none left, they are not much use anywhere else.

However the ATM in this terminal was not working, so a walk of about 15 minutes to another terminal was needed. The airport ATM only allows withdrawals of 200 per entry, so I had to make three, and pay the cash surcharge on each. Then get back to my check-in.

I suspect this was an extreme case, but I shall be very careful next time.

Do you think I could hide my Canon 28 - 300 f 3.5 in my clothing. Or will they make me strip and weigh my clothes next time.

Hi B&H

I think you should amend the table wrt Image Stabilization.  Lenses for the Pentax and Sony systems do not require in lens image stabilization as they have in body systems.  Thus I suggest you caveat the colume with a reference to in body in thoses cases. 

While the trade-off of in lens and in body is much debated, in body has proven to be effective even at long focal lenths.  See imaging resources wrt to their testing.