Recommended Ultra-Telephoto Lenses

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What defines an ultra-telephoto lens? Of course, it’s the “ultra” (or at times “super”) prefix that we are concerned with when talking about these lenses, which enable photographers to get a close-up view of something from which we normally remain very distant.

These lenses are used primarily for photographing wildlife, sports, journalism, and perhaps paparazzi or “stake-out” photography. If most readers are not going on a stake-out or stalking stars, let’s say a clear majority of ultra-telephoto lens users are photographing sporting events, airplanes, boats, birds, or wild animals.

Let’s discuss some of the notable versions of these lenses, which are considered to begin at the 400mm focal length (or that equivalent when using crop-sensor camera systems) and top out at 800mm. Canon, at one point, did sell a 1200mm f/5.6 EF-mount lens, which we were lucky enough to try.

Nikon

The majority of serious sports and wildlife photographers use DSLR cameras, so we will begin with the ultra-telephoto lenses available for these cameras. Starting at the 400mm mark and working our way to longer lenses, we have the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR lens with its Silent Wave Motor, manual focus override, and image stabilization with “Sport Mode.” The f/2.8 maximum aperture is impressive, as are the flare-reducing lens coatings and fluorine-coated front meniscus glass. If used on a camera with a DX-size sensor, its equivalent focal length is 600mm.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR Lens

Like the above lens, the AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR lens provides a specialized electromagnetic aperture mechanism for greater exposure control when working with fast continuous shooting rates. That is a benefit when shooting sports action or a hawk descending on its prey. Brand new to the Nikon lineup is the AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens. This 500mm prime utilizes a unique Phase Fresnel element to reduce its size and weight significantly compared to previous versions of the focal length. This PF element, along with three extra-low dispersion elements, also helps to virtually eliminate color fringing and chromatic aberrations, and its specialized electromagnetic aperture mechanism improves exposure control, especially when shooting in continuous burst mode.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR Lens

The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR lens and AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR lens also feature the electromagnetic aperture mechanism, fluorine coating, VR image stabilization, a water-resistant build, and, in the case of the 800mm f/5.6 lens, an included 1.25x teleconverter to extend the effective focal length to 1000mm f/7.1.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR Lens

There are several Nikon zoom lenses that top out at 400mm but the one zoom with the criteria for truly “ultra-telephoto” is the AF-S NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6E ED VR lens.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Lens

Canon

Canon offers a similar set of ultra-telephoto lenses starting with a more affordable EF 400mm f/5.6L USM lens that includes a removable, rotatable tripod collar and a built-in lens hood. This “L-series” lens does not offer the wide maximum aperture of its pricier stablemates, but its advantages include a significantly smaller and lightweight form.

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens

Going up the price ladder, Canon has the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM lens, which features gapless dual-layer diffractive optics for reduced chromatic and spherical aberrations, as well as a relatively compact and lightweight lens. Power Focus mode, optical image stabilization and AF stop buttons are a few of its advanced features. Despite its wide front element and heavier build, it is a shorter lens than the above 400mm f/5.6 lens. The cream of Canon’s 400mm crop is the brand-new Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens, which stands out for its fast

maximum aperture and a wealth of professional features. The Gen III version of this lens distinguishes itself from its predecessor, the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, with its customizable electronic focusing ring and Super Spectra and Air Sphere Coatings.

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens

The Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM and the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USMlenses are very similar in all aspects of design and features and are undoubtedly two wonderful ultra-telephoto lenses. The new Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens adds a customizable electronic focusing ring and improved lens coatings.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens

Currently, the longest lens from Canon is the EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens and, if used with a compatible EF 2X III Extender, it can reach an incredible 1600mm focal length.

Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens

Sony

For Sony A-mount DSLRs, there are two ultra-telephoto lenses of note: a prime 500mm and a 100-400mm zoom. The Sony 500mm f/4 G SSM lens is a beautiful lens with a virtually silent Super Sonic Wave AF motor and an electronic focus range limiter. The Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM II lens is a similarly designed lens for A-mount cameras with many of the same features and a versatile focal-length range. For Sony E-mount mirrorless cameras, try the Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens.

Sony 500mm f/4 G SSM Lens

For Sony E-mount mirrorless cameras, two exciting new lenses were released this year. The Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS lens offers Optical SteadyShot Image Stabilization, internal focus, Nano AR and fluorine coatings, and a weather-sealed magnesium-alloy design, much like the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens, which was introduced last year. Also new this year is the Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS lens with a versatile full-frame zoom range to 600mm, Direct Drive Super Sonic Wave AF Motor, a 7.87' minimum focus distance and weather-sealed, lightweight construction, ideal for wildlife and sports shooters.

Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens

It also provides Optical SteadyShot Image Stabilization, Nano AR and Flourine coatings, the XD Linear Motor AF system, and power focus.

Sigma

Sigma currently markets two distinct 500mm lenses. The Sigma 500mm f/4 DG OS HSM Sports lens is available for Canon EF, Nikon F, and Sigma SA-mount cameras. As part of Sigma’s Global Vision line of lenses, it provides the latest of Sigma’s lens technologies and is compatible with the company’s teleconverters and USB lens dock. They also offer the 500mm f/4.5 EX DG APO HSM lens for Canon EF, and Sigma SA -mount cameras. Its apochromatic optical design employs two extra-low dispersion glass elements to reduce chromatic aberrations and color fringing. An internal focusing design and Hyper Sonic Motor provide fast and quiet autofocus performance, and a manual focus clutch allows for quick switching between auto and manual focus operation. The incredible Sigma Super Telephoto 800mm f/5.6 EX DG APO HSM Autofocus lens is also an apochromatic-design lens and is available for Canon EF, Nikon F, and Sigma SA cameras.

Sigma 500mm f/4 DG OS HSM Sports Lens for Canon EF

Sigma also offers two 150-600mm zoom lenses. The 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens is the more affordable and less feature-heavy model, and the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports lens offers an enhanced optical, closer minimum focus distance and is a larger, heavier lens. Both have optical stabilization, the Hyper Sonic AF motor, and a splash- and dust-proof mount. Also, the Canon EF mount lens for the Contemporary and Sports models is available with the MC-11 Adapter to use this lens on a Sony E mount full-frame camera.

Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens for Canon EF

Also new from Sigma is the Sigma 60-600mm f/4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens for Nikon F mount, Canon EF mount, and Sigma SA mount.

A favorite of many photo expo attendees is the behemoth, green Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG APO IF Autofocus lens. This lens is made for Canon EF, Nikon F, and Sigma SA cameras and with its size, color, and fast f/2.8 maximum aperture, there is no other lens like it on the market.

Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG APO IF Autofocus Lens for Canon SLR - Green

Tamron

From Tamron comes the impressive SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 Lens from Nikon F, Canon EF, and Sony A mount DSLRs. This surprisingly compact lens, with its attractive form factor, offers VC Image Stabilization, low dispersion glass elements, fluorine coatings, and an Ultrasonic Silent Drive AF motor.

Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 for Nikon F

Micro Four Thirds

For Micro Four Thirds system cameras from Olympus and Panasonic, there are the new Panasonic Leica DG Elmarit 200mm f/2.8 POWER O.I.S. lens, with its 400mm equivalency, and the beautiful Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO lens with 600mm equivalency. Samyang and Rokinon market a 300mm Reflex f/6.3 ED UMC CS lens for Micro Thirds Mounts. The focal-length equivalency of these lenses is 600mm, and both brands offer silver and black models.

Panasonic Leica DG Elmarit 200mm f/2.8 POWER O.I.S. Lens

Zoom Lenses

Until now, we have mentioned only prime lenses and, in general, when you reach 400mm (and longer) lenses, most are prime, but Canon markets the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens with Internal 1.4x Extender and, while theoretically, it is not an “ultra”-telephoto lens, its built-in extender engages with a simple switch and provides 280-560mm f/5.6 capability. This is a very versatile lens.

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x Lens

Nikon also has its AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens, which is an incredibly capable zoom lens, providing the flexibility of a zoom and the build and features of a Nikon prime lens, including the Silent wave Moto AF system, and the electromagnetic diaphragm mechanism.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Lens

Sony recently announced the Sony E 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3 G OSS lens. This telephoto zoom 70-350mm lens is designed for APS-C-format E-mount mirrorless cameras and provides a 105-525mm equivalent focal length range.

Sony E 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3 G OSS Lens

Other Options

While the costs for the above lenses vary considerably, they are decidedly the best of the best and their prices reflect that. If you are new to ultra-telephoto photography and would like to get your feet wet at a lower price, there are still options. Kowa has its 500mm f/5.6 FL Telephoto Lens/Scope, which can be adapted to fit several camera mounts with optional adapters and also used as a spotting scope, but for long focal length lenses that are less than $200, it’s necessary to look to f/8 refractor-style T-mount or catadioptric telephoto lenses. Examples of the former include the Bower 500mm f/8 Manual Focus Telephoto lens, which is available in combination with varied adapters to fit cameras from Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Pentax, and Sony, as well as the Vivitar 500mm f/8 telephoto Lens for T Mount and the Opteka 500mm f/8 Preset Telephoto lens for T Mount.

Kowa 500mm f/5.6 FL Telephoto Lens/Scope

Opteka also makes a 500mm f/6.3 Mirror Lens for T Mount and a 500mm f/8 HD Telephoto Mirror Lens for T Mount. Both lenses utilize a Cassegrain system of mirrors to achieve a long focal reach in a very compact form factor. Bower also markets those two same lenses and the company’s 500mm f/6.3 Manual Telephoto Lens is available with adapters for most DSLR cameras.

Opteka 500mm f/6.3 Mirror Lens for T Mount

Finally, for those who prefer to have an all-in-one solution for their occasional ultra-telephoto photography, but do not want to invest in a DSLR or mirrorless system, there are point-and-shoot cameras known as “bridge” cameras or “superzooms.” Most major camera manufacturers offer at least one model and, in general, they have a fixed lens on a camera with a DSLR form factor and a focal length reach of at least a 600mm equivalency. One model that really pushes boundaries is the Nikon COOLPIX P900 Digital Camera, with a 2000mm equivalent focal length, but there are many options. Canon has just introduced its latest PowerShot long zoom point-and-shoot, the SX70 HS Digital Camera, with a 65x optical zoom lens, image stabilization, and the DIGIC 8 Image Processor.

Nikon COOLPIX P900 Digital Camera

Let us know your thoughts on the value of ultra-telephoto primes lenses compared to shooting with teleconverters, bridge cameras, or less costly “mirror” lenses and for an interesting conversation on the use of ultra-telephoto lenses, check out this episode of the B&H Photography Podcast.

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5 Comments

You would think companies would learn over the years the value of putting price/street price in aricles.

At the expense of grumbling just a bit, it's a shame that you didn't see Fujifilm gear as pervasive or important enough to include in this article.  Their 100-400, for example, falls within this category and is competitive with any of the similar lenses offered by Canon, Nikon, etc.  I realize you have to draw the line somewhere, but I think this is an unfortunate omission.

I wonder how many of those Sigma 200-500 2.8 lenses they have sold.

I was a little surprised that the Nikon 200-500mm zoom and the Tamron 150-600 zoom did not get a mention.  Both are very nice lenses. I used to have them (Tamron first, then the Nikon so I could use it with a 1.4 teleconverter) but they have now gone to new homes to help finance the 500mm Nikon prime I now have.  I don't regret having the prime; it is definitely sharper and the increased f/4 aperture allows full autofocus 'flexibility' (i.e. all the D750 autofocus points work, not just 15 of them even when wide open) with the teleconverter.  However, zooms do have a couple of advantages that just might lead one to a zoom.  When you go out to shoot wildlife (chiefly birds for me), sometimes things happen that want a shorter focal length to capture (two large birds having a squabble nearby is one example). In cases like that, the ability of the zoom to shorten focal length can mean a shot captured that would have been missed because you had didn't have the time, or perhaps the space to back up, to catch it with the prime.  The zooms have a higher minimum magnification, which means that for some 'targets of opportunity' like butterflies and dragonflies, you can get a bigger subject image on the sensor with the zooms. The zooms are also physically somewhat lighter, though not (IMO) enough to make a significant difference, and they don't "lighten" your wallet near as much :-)

Based on all that, I'd suggest each photographer weigh the relative advantages and disadvantages of prime vs. zoom against the type of shooting they are most likely to do.  If they need flexibility and ability to go closer, then a zoom just might be a better bet. Following fast action and/or working at longer distances without the image going "soft" (and being rich :-) will drive the decision toward the prime.

Maybe some day, super whiz-bang technology will provide a hyperfast-autofocus, 3 pound, 50mm-1000mm,  f/2 zoom with sharpness and close focusing distance equal to a macro lens for $1000, but probably after I'm too old to carry it around :-)

Matthew...Thank you for the insightful comment and your example for in-the-field use of a zoom lens is well-taken. As you realize this article primarily spotlighted prime lenses over 400mm, so your mention of the two zooms is welcomed, and regarding your hope for the perfect f/2 tele zoom, well...    maybe we get a kickstarter going.  Also, seeing that you mentioned you photograph birds, you may enjoy our recent podcast episode on bird photography an dI look forward to your feedback. Thanks.   https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/features/podcast-bird-photography

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