Holiday 2012: Telephoto and Supertelephoto Lenses

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Say the word “telephoto” and many photographers automatically think “Oh, telephotos bring things closer.” Now while this is true—particularly in the mind’s eye of newbies—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 or "extreme" focal length telephoto lenses, which for our purposes are lenses that take in angles of view of 8.3° or less. In more common terminology, 8.3° translates into the angle of view for a 300mm lens on a full-frame (24 x 36mm) camera. On APS-C format cameras, such as compact DSLRs, Sony NEX and Samsung NX cameras that have a 1.5x or 1.6x crop factor, a 200mm lens is equivalent to a 300mm (or longer) full-frame lens. And for Four Thirds Format cameras with a 2x crop factor, we’re talking about lenses of 150mm and up that are considered extreme zooms. This article intends to highlight many, but not all, of the lenses that fit into this category.

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 to isolate 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 for interior photography.)

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 an assistant, 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 dollars 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' (2.3 m) AF / 7.2'
(2.2 m) MF

52mm Slip-in

6.4 lb
(2900 g)

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm/f/4D IF-ED

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

4.8' (1.45 m)

77mm Front

3.2lb
(1440 g)

Nikon AF-S 400mm/f/2.8G ED VR

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

9.5' (2.9 m)

52mm Slip-in

10.2 lb
(4620 g)

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500mm/f/4G ED VR

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

12.6' (3.84 m)

52mm Slip-in

8.6 lb
(3880 g)

Nikon AF-S 600mm/f/4G ED VR

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

15.7' (4.8 m)

52mm Slip-in 

11.2 lb (5060 g)

Nikon AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400mm/f/4.5-5.6D ED

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

7.5' (2.3 m)

77mm

3 lb (1360 g)

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm/f/4G ED VR II

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

6.6' (2 m) AF / 6.4' (1.95 m) MF

52mm Rear Screw-on

7.4 lb
(3360 g)

Nikon 70-300mm/f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED AF-S

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

4.9’ (1.5 m)

67mm

1.6 lb
(745 g)

Nikon AF Zoom 70-300mm/f/4-5.6G

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

4.9’ (1.5 m)

62mm

0.9 lb
(425 g)

Canon EF 300/4.0L IS USM

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

4.9’ (1.5 m)

77mm

2.6 lb
(1190 g)

Canon EF 300/2.8L IS II USM

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

6.6' (2 m)

52mm Drop-in

5.2 lb
(2350 g)

Canon EF 400/2.8L IS II USM

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

8.86' (2.7 m)

52mm Drop-in 

8.5lb
(3850 g)

Canon EF 400/4 DO IS USM

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

11.5' (3.5 m)

52mm Drop-in 

4.3 lb
(1940 g)

Canon EF 400/5.6L USM

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

11.5' (3.5 m)

77mm 

2.8 lb
(1250 g)

Canon EF 500/4L IS II USM

Full-Frame –APS-C

Yes

12.14’(3.7 m)

52mm Drop-in

7.03 lb (3190 g)

Canon EF 600/4L IS II USM

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

14.77' (4.5 m)

52mm Drop-in

8.64 lb (3920 g)

Canon EF 800/5.6L IS USM

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

19.7' (6 m) 

52mm Drop-in 

9.9 lb
(4500 g)

Canon EF 70-300/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

4.6' (1.4 m)

58mm

1.6 lb
(720 g)

Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6 IS USM

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

4.9' (1.5 m)

58mm

1.4 lb
(630 g)

Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6L IS USM

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

3.9' (1.2 m)

67mm

2.3 lb
(1050 g)

Canon EF 75-300/4-5.6 III USM

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

4.9' (1.5 m)

58mm

1.1 lb
(480 g)

Canon EF 100-400/4.5-5.6L IS USM

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

5.9' (1.8 m)

77mm

3 lb (1380 g)

Sony 300/2.8G 

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

6.7' (2 m) 

42mm Rear 

5.1 lb
(2340 g)

Sony 70-300/4.5-5.6

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

4' (1.2 m)

62mm

1.75 lb
(800 g) 

Sony 70-400/4-5.6

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

5' (1.5 m)

77mm

3.3 lb
(1500 g)

Pentax DA 560/5.6 ED AW

APS-C

No

18.37’ (5.60 m)

112mm

6.7 lb
(3040 g)

Pentax smc DA* 300/4 ED(IF) SDM

APS-C

No

4.6' (1.4 m)

77mm

2.4 lb
(1070 g)

Pentax smc DA 55-300/4-5.8 ED

APS-C 

No

4.6' (1.4 m)

58mm

1 lb (440 g)

Pentax 60-250mm/f4 ED DA* SDM

APS-C

No

3.6' (1.1 m)

67mm

2.3 lb
(1043 g)

Panasonic Lumix G Vario 45-200/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S

Micro Four Thirds

Yes 

3.3' (1 m)

52mm

0.8 lb
(380 g)

Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S.

Micro Four Thirds

Yes 

4.9' (1.5 m)

67mm

1.2 lb
(520 g)

Panasonic Lumix G X Vario PZ 45-175mm/f4-5.6 ASPH Power O.I.S.

Micro Four Thirds

Yes

3' (0.9 m)

46mm

0.5 lb
(210 g)

Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 300/2.8

Four Thirds

No

7.9' (2.4 m)

43mm Drop-in

7.25 lb (3290 g)

Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 90-250/2.8

Four Thirds

No

8.2' (2.5 m)

105mm

7.2 lb
(3270 g)

Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 70-300/4-5.6

Four Thirds

No

3.3' 1 m (MF) / 3.9' 1.2 m (AF)

58mm

1.4 lb
(620 g)

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300/4.8-6.7

Micro Four Thirds

No

3'  / 0.9 m (at 75mm) 4.9'  /1.5 m (at other focal lengths)

 58mm

0.9 lb
(430 g)

Tamron SP 70-300/4-5.6 Di VC USD

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

4.9' (1.5 m)

62mm

1.7 lb
(765 g)

Tamron SP 200-500/5-6.3 Di LD (IF)

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

8.2' (2.5 m)

86mm

2.7 lb
(1237 g)

Sigma 300/2.8 EX APO DG HSM

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

8.2' (2.5 m)

46mm Rear

5.3 lb
(2400 g)

Sigma 500/4.5 EX DG APO HSM

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

13.1' (4 m)

46mm Rear 

6.9 lb
(3100 g)

Sigma 800/5.6 APO DG HSM

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

23' (7 m)

46mm Rear 

10.5 lb (4740 g)

Sigma 70-300/4-5.6 DG OS

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

4.9' (1.5 m)

62mm

1.3 lb
(610 g)

Sigma 120-300/2.8 EX DG OS APO

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

4.9-8.2' (1.5-2.5 m)

105mm

6.5 lb
(2950 g)

Sigma 120-400/4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM APO

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

4.9' (1.5 m)

77mm

3.9 lb
(1750 g)

Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 DG OS HSM APO

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

7.2' (2.2 m)

86mm

4.2 lb
(1910 g)

Sigma 50-500/4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM

Full-Frame - APS-C

Yes

1.6-5.9' (0.5-1.8 m)

95mm

4.3 lb
(1970 g)

Sigma 300-800/5.6 EX DG APO IF HSM

Full Frame - APS-C

No

19.7' (6 m)

46mm Rear

12.9 lb (5870 g)

Sigma 200-500/2.8 EX DG APO IF

Full Frame - APS-C

No

6.6-16.4'
(2-5 m)

72mm Rear

34.6 lb (5700 g)

Other 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, Vivitar and Bower. The high end of these lenses are the ultra-long 650-1300mm f/8-16 T-mount  zooms from Rokinon, Bower and Vivitar.

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. Also, they’re all manual focus, T-mount lenses which require the purchase of a T-mount adapter for your camera.

In addition to these particularly long 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. Examples of the 500- and 800mm mirror lenses are available from Bower 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 images.

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' (5 m)

95mm

6 lb
(2721.6 g)

Bower 650-1300mm/f/8-16 (Manual Focus)

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

16' (5 m)

95mm

4.4 lb 
(2000 g)

Vivitar 650-1300mm/f/8-16 (Manual Focus)

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

16' (4.88 m)

95mm

4.4 lb
(2000 g)

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' (2 m)

95mm

2 lb
(907.2 g)

Rokinon 500mm/f/8 Mirror

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

5.6'
(1.7 m)

72mm - Front / 30.5mm - Rear

0.8 lb
(360 g)

Rokinon 800mm/f/8 Mirror

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

11' (3.5 m)

105mm

2 lb (936 g)

Bower 500mm/f/6.3 Mirror

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

6.1' (2 m)

95mm - Front / 34mm - Rear

1.4 lb
(650 g)

Bower 500mm/f/8 Mirror

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

5.7'
(1.7 m)

30.5 Rear

0.7 lb
(330 g)

Bower 800mm/f/8 Mirror

Full-Frame - APS-C

No

11.5' (3.5 m)

105mm - Front / 30.5mm - Rear

1.9 lb
(880 g)

Kenko 400/8.0 Mirror

Micro Four Thirds

No

3.77’
(1.15 m)

67mm

0.75 lb
(340 g)

Tokina 300/6.3 Reflex

Micro Four Thirds

No

2.87’
(0.88 m)

55mm

0.66 lb
(298 g)

The growing popularity of compact interchangeable lens “mirrorless” cameras highlights one of their distinct advantages: the ability to utilize lenses of any size, mount or brand once you have installed the proper adapter. The ability to use DSLR lenses on mirrorless cameras is especially important for extreme telephoto shooting because, as of now, very few long lenses have been made specifically for compact interchangeable lens cameras. The major manufacturers as well as those companies who specialize in adapters have all released adapters to fit DSLR lenses onto mirrorless bodies.

Sony, for example, has their A-mount Lens to NEX Camera Mount Adapter, which is equipped with Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology and transfers its continuous phase detection autofocus in both still and video capture. Nikon offers its FT1 Mount Adapter to place certain Nikkor F-mount lenses on the Nikon 1 V1 camera. Depending upon the lens used, this adapter will provide automatic lens functions such as autofocus and Vibration Reduction. Canon’s EF-M Lens Adapter Kit for Canon EF/EF-S Lenses provides full compatibility with all lens functions between their EF/EF-S lenses and the new M-mount camera. It also has a detachable tripod adapter, important when using heavy telephoto lenses like the ones described above.

The MMF-3 Four Thirds Lens to Micro Four Thirds Lens Mount Adapter from Olympus does just as its name indicates. It allows for their Four Thirds lenses, such as the M.ZUIKO 300mm f/2.8 lens, to be mounted on their Micro Four Thirds cameras such as the OM-D or PEN series. The adapter is weather sealed to be dustproof and splashproof in order to work in the same conditions that the lenses can handle. In addition to these automatic adapters, numerous manufacturers such as Novoflex and Dot Line produce manual adapters that will fit DSLR lenses of one make to another manufacturer’s mirrorless camera. These adapters may not transfer functions like autofocus and auto exposure, but are a great way to utilize your extreme telephoto lenses on new cameras without an extreme investment.

Do you have any questions about extreme telephoto lenses and the adapters that serve them? Please post your questions in the Comments section below. We’re pleased to hear from you.

Items discussed in article

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Canon 70-200 F2.8/L has been my workhorse for years. Still is and most definitely will be for a long time to come.

i am looking into a canon 100-400 4.5-5.6 to take with me on safari i was wondering if that would be a good lens for a medium level photographer

We currently shoot birds with our Nikor AF VR Zoom-NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED on a D300(in RAW). But not totally happy, lots of shots in low light are out of focus plus we want more zoom. So we bought the Nikon 1 V2 and the adapter which would give us a 2.7x factor unfortunately the 80-400 isn't an AF-S lens so autofocus doesn't work.

My question is would the AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II Lens be noticeably better on the D300? Plus I'm pretty sure autofocus would work with the Nikon 1 V2. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks!

The Nikon FT1 Mount Adapter only allows AF operation with AF-S lens. The AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II Lens will auto focus but the V1's focus mode must be set to AF-S (Single AF) and AF-area mode is fixed at Single-point, using only the center focus point. Have you tried locking the lens @ infinity ? I'm puzzled as to why your images would be out of focus. Have you checked out the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM APO Lens? Its an ultra telephoto zoom lens ideal for nature, wildlife, or sports photography. This zoom range translates into an equivalent range of 225-750mm when used with a Nikon DX digital SLR camera with an APS-C size sensor. B&H # SI150500N

Thanks. I've never had anything to do with Sigma. I always stick to Nikon or Canon for camera gear. My concern about the Sigma is the f5- 6.3. which is kind of the same class of lens as the Nikor 80-400 that we currently use (f4.5 - 5.6) The reason I ask about the Nikor 200-400 f4 is because I believe this lens is in a different class and I have no experience shooting with an f4 lens. When shooting at f4 is the difference noticeable or worth the thousands of extra dollars?

Thank you for that! I have one last lens question. I currently use a Canon 7D with the MP-E 65 for macro bug shots(the only canon lens I own) Is it true that Canon is working on a 200 - 400 f4 lens with a built in extender of some kind? Any idea on release date,price,or how well the extender might work? I thought it might be something to consider for my 7D!
Any thoughts?