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Bristling along the sidelines of practically every professional sporting event, super-telephoto lenses are known for their ability to reach out and capture distant subjects with exceptional clarity and speed. They feel incredible in the hand, with top-of-the-line build quality and a heft that gives shooters confidence in their equipment. Many feature a variety of switches and buttons that allow users to set up the lens for optimal performance in any situation.
In addition to length, these lenses feature all of the latest technology, such as advanced optical construction, accurate image stabilization, and exceptionally quick autofocus motors. Super telephotos sit at the top of their respective lens lineups because of this assortment of features and capabilities, and being packed with the latest tech ensures that any investment is well worth it. And, fortunately for mirrorless shooters, some new brands and lens lines are finally getting some true super-telephoto additions.
The most important feature of these lenses will always be their focal length. The ability to photograph and record images from an extremely long distance cannot be understated, especially when dealing with subject matter that is inaccessible, easily spooked, or both. The most common use for lenses greater than 300mm would be sports and wildlife, where photographers are prevented from getting close to their subjects.
Prime lenses tend to dominate in terms of quality and length, with Canon’s and Nikon’s current longest offerings sitting at 800mm, though each has released longer models in very limited quantities. This compares to the longest zoom lenses available from these two manufacturers, with options reaching 400mm from both manufacturers and Nikon also offering a 200-500mm lens, both fairly short compared to the primes. Third-party lens manufacturers have been jumping into the super-telephoto game lately, too, with their own offerings, such as Sigma’s 150-600mm, 200-500mm, and 300-800mm lenses, and Tamron's 150-600mm.
Going down the line, Canon and Nikon feature options at the 600mm, 500mm,400mm, and 300mm focal lengths, and Sony jumps in with 500mm and 300mm A-mount lenses. Sigma also has a few lenses for a variety of different mounts at 800mm, 500mm, and 300mm. For more variety, some companies offer multiple options at each focal length so that users have a selection of items that are more portable or affordable.
Zooms offer the added benefit of versatility, something that can be vital to some shooters who require speed and can’t afford to keep swapping-out different lenses. Lenses like the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR give you a convenient portrait to super-tele range, while the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM provides a very usable focal length range along with the added feature of a built-in 1.4x teleconverter, which will boost the focal length to 280-560mm at the cost of one stop of light. However, zooms have generally been limited to about 600mm, with the exception being the Sigma 300-800mm lens.
The next thing to consider is sensor size, especially since APS-C cameras come with inherent crop factors that will extend the equivalent focal length. This crop factor makes cameras like the Canon EOS 7D Mark II or Nikon D7200 incredibly useful for sports and wildlife shooters, since they can enjoy more reach and pack somewhat more lightly. This is also where I want to start talking about mirrorless options, since their equivalent focal lengths can be just as long as some of the longest in the DSLR arena.
For example, Micro Four Thirds format sensors offers a 2x crop factor, So Olympus’s 300mm f/4 prime is transformed into a super compact 600mm equivalent optic. MFT also offers a nice selection of zooms, including a 75-300mm from Olympus that is equivalent to 150-600mm and both a 100-300mm and 100-400mm from Panasonic, equivalent to 200-600mm and 200-800mm, respectively. Mirrorless is an interesting option these days when it comes to super telephoto shooting, because the cameras can be made quite small compared to their DSLR brethren, and this means that most of the time, lenses are also smaller. With a 2.7x crop factor, the Nikon CX sensor format exemplifies this smallness with relatively tiny Nikon 1 series bodies and lenses, including a 70-300mm option equivalent to an insane 189-810mm. If you are looking for comparable lenses to use with mirrorless cameras that have less than a 2x crop factor or no crop factor at all, there are options, though with less of a size benefit. Fujifilm offers a 100-400mm for its APS-C X-series cameras that is equivalent to 152-609mm, while Sony has a full-frame-compatible 70-300mm lens, which is on the short end of the discussion but definitely worth a mention in this fledgling lens line.
The second most important feature of any lens is the aperture. With super telephotos, you will find that extremely fast apertures aren’t as common, and that the fastest options are also significantly larger and more expensive than the more conservative models. If we look at Canon’s 400mm lenses, we will find an f/2.8, an f/4 DO, and an f/5.6. Comparing just the size and weight of these models, we can see the f/2.8 lens is more than double the weight and almost twice as wide. If quality is all that matters, then the f/2.8 would appear to be the better option; however, one must consider one’s needs and decide whether it is worth taking a hike with an 8-lb or a 3-lb lens. This is also where mirrorless can be a good decision, since a 300mm f/4 for Micro Four Thirds is going to be way smaller than any 600mm option for full-frame DSLRs.
Most extreme telephotos will sport an aperture closer to f/5.6, which is the limit for most modern-day autofocus systems (some do offer limited shooting at f/8). This is mostly due to size: an 800mm lens with an f/2.8 aperture would be impractical for the everyday shooter and would not be easy to transport.
Faster apertures do have a couple of key benefits that are worth mentioning. Primarily, more light will be reaching the sensor, enabling faster shutter speeds and lower ISOs for better images and overall quality. This will also improve your viewing quality, as well as AF speed and performance, as the sensor can better “see” what is happening in the scene. Next, there will be more separation between your subject and the background, due to shallower depth of field.
Zoom lenses will usually feature variable apertures, which keeps overall lens size down, though some do manage to maintain a constant maximum aperture, such as the impressive Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR. These options are generally slower than their prime-lens counterparts, but can still be useful in a variety of situations, especially considering the ISO ranges possible on the latest digital cameras.
Elaborate image stabilization is almost necessary when attempting to handhold lenses at these focal lengths. The reasons for this are that the longer lengths show more camera shake, and the heft of these lenses makes them exponentially more difficult to handhold, which is why they are often found mounted on a monopod or tripod. Modern day advancements from Nikon, Canon, and some third-party manufacturers are rated for more than four stops of compensation, exceptionally useful when trying to shoot handheld. In-body stabilization from some manufacturers, such as Sony, does replace the need for optical stabilization and can allow the use of adapted telephoto lenses without losing this critical technology.
Another of the benefits found in super telephotos is the multiple IS modes available. Usually, there are specific settings for panning and general handheld shooting. This allows shooters, like those working on monopods at a sporting event, to track horizontal motion more easily in the scene and capture it. A side benefit to image stabilization is that it will usually stabilize your viewfinder, as well as your final image. This makes composition much easier, since the image you see won’t be jittery and shaking.
Focusing quickly and efficiently is a priority with super-telephoto lenses, especially relating to their use in action and sports photography. While much of this is reliant on the camera and user, the inclusion of a supersonic or ultrasonic motor does a lot to ensure speedy, quiet focusing. These lenses also benefit from the inclusion of multiple settings on the physical lens, such as a focus limiter that will focus on subjects within a certain range, or from a specific distance and farther. This means that the camera will not waste time hunting throughout the long focus range of the lens.
Other features include an AF lock button that will stop focusing so that users can prepare for a certain shot or position. Also, focus presets can be available on certain lenses to automatically return the focus distance to a specific setting. Additionally, these lenses will generally have a manual override option that will assist in fine-tuning focus.
Nearly every piece of optical technology is utilized in super-telephoto lenses, from nano coatings to prevent flaring to fluorite elements that control aberrations. Most common are extra-low dispersion elements, which work with other elements, like fluorite and, to a lesser extent, aspherical, to produce the sharpest, most detailed images possible by reducing visible aberrations and correcting for distortion.
Diffractive optics, or Phase Fresnel, can be found in some of Canon and Nikon’s offerings and are able to dramatically decrease the size and weight of a lens without compromising on image quality. The Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM and Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR are the latest such examples and will even reduce the amount of chromatic aberration visible in the final image, due to the dispersion characteristics of the diffractive element.
Anti-reflective coatings are found on nearly all lenses nowadays, and super telephotos are no exception. Each manufacturer has its own version, such as Canon’s Super Spectra Coating, Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coat, and Sony’s Nano AR Coating. These coatings help eliminate flare and ghosting by reducing internal reflections. Also, many super telephotos have an additional fluorine or water- and dust-repellent coating on the front and rear elements that will allow users to clean their lenses easily when water or oil come in contact with the glass.
Filtration can be a challenge for these lenses, as most have front elements much larger than your standard screw-on options. Adding filters to the lenses is, instead, accomplished through the use of drop-in type filters that fit into dedicated holders found near the rear of the lens and keep filter size significantly smaller than would be needed with front-mounted filters.
As they stand at the top of their lens lineups, these lenses are built to the highest standards, using materials like magnesium alloy to increase strength and keep the lenses lightweight. In addition to this, they are weather–sealed to ensure that the lens will keep functioning, even when out on the field during a rainstorm, or while trekking through a rainforest on a search for an elusive creature.
Now, one common question is, “why are so many super-telephoto lenses white?” The explanation is simple: since these lenses have a larger surface area and are constantly being used in the great outdoors, a white finish on the lens barrel reflects some of the sunlight and reduces the chances that any critical elements or parts will expand due to heat and throw things out of alignment during shooting. Realistically, however, the actual amount of heat gain is probably negligible and, with the durable build quality of these lenses, users of black lenses shouldn’t worry about it.
Many super-telephoto lenses are compatible with teleconverters to further extend their reach. These will magnify the image by 1.4, 1.7, or 2x without sacrificing important features like autofocus or image stabilization. This additional reach does cost one to two stops, depending on the magnification of the teleconverter. Compatibility can also be an issue for some lenses and cameras, as teleconverters have a glass element that can come into contact with the rear element of some lenses. Also, with a loss of light, some cameras’ AF systems may not be able to function.
Many photographers will find that these lenses fall well outside their personal budgets and needs, but this doesn’t mean that they should be left out of the super-telephoto world. Many budget options are available, though without the plethora of features and abilities of their more famous big brothers.
Catadioptric lenses, also known as mirror or reflex lenses, are one of these options. They utilize mirrors in their optical design and are much shorter and lighter in weight than standard optics. However, because of this design they have a fixed aperture setting, are almost exclusively manual focus, and the central obstruction produces a distinct doughnut-shaped bokeh.
There are some standard super telephotos and zooms available without the corrective optics and fancy optical designs that make lenses sharper and more compact. These lenses tend to be a bit slower and have all-manual controls but, if you can’t afford the latest and greatest or are simply looking for an entryway to super telephotos, any lens is better than no lens at all!