The Difference Makers: What You Can Do with a High-End Telephoto Lens


What can you do with a high-end telephoto lens? Be a boss, is what you can do. I mean, c’mon! Strutting around the sidelines or cuttin’ through the bush with one of these beasts resting on your shoulder―not only do you look tough, but you’re also carrying a lens that you need to get the best photos in sports and wildlife photography. When I say best, let’s not underestimate the greatness of photographers who can create wonderful images with a wide-angle lens or even a telephoto of lesser quality, but to really excel in the disciplines of sports, action, and wildlife photography, to create dynamic images of fast-moving subjects at great distances, one needs to utilize a high-quality telephoto lens effectively.

Photograph © Lisa Langell

“Every single time that I pick up my Canon EF 600mm f/4L for my nature photography efforts, I get excited. There is just nothing like a prime, super-telephoto lens for photographing birds and mammals. The reach (especially when paired with a teleconverter), speed, sharpness, and bokeh that can be achieved with this lens perfectly fits my creative vision. Yes, it’s heavy and I need to use a tripod, but I never regret the effort!” ―Grace Scalzo

Puffin photographed with EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens at f/8, 1/3200 second, ISO 800 © Grace Scalzo
Puffin photographed with EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens at f/8, 1/3200 second, ISO 800Grace Scalzo

Wildlife and bird photographer Grace Scalzo nicely sums up the photographer’s experience of using a telephoto prime lens, but what defines a high-end telephoto lens? We’ll mention some characteristics below, but we also need to recognize that the lenses highlighted below do not come cheap, and the reason is because they offer the best features available. From optical design and technical features to robust build, they are professional tools that will improve your output. They are an investment in your creativity.

This article focuses on super-telephoto lenses, which are generally categorized as lenses with a focal length longer than 300mm, and the main difference between what is considered a high-end super-telephoto lens and a mid-tier lens is the maximum aperture. A lens with an f/4 or f/2.8 maximum aperture will enable faster shutter speeds, which are crucial for freezing speedy subjects, but there is a range of features that separate these lenses from their more affordable counterparts.

Polar bear photographed with EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens with 2x Teleconverter, f/8, 1/800 second, ISO 1600 © Grace Scalzo
Polar bear photographed with EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens with 2x Teleconverter, f/8, 1/800 second, ISO 1600Grace Scalzo

Advanced design techniques are improving zoom lens quality at every cycle, and there are some super-telephoto zoom lenses with wide constant maximum apertures but, in general, long zoom lenses tend to have variable maximum apertures and are not as fast as their prime lens counterparts at focal lengths longer than 400mm. They do provide the versatile range that primes do not and are often smaller, lighter, and easier to carry. However, the best of the best super-telephoto lenses are the prime lenses made by Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Sigma. These lenses, at 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm, for example, with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or f/4―and even the 800mm f/5.6 lenses from Canon and Nikon―remain the stalwart lenses for sports and wildlife photographers. Canon also produces a 400mm f/4 DO lens that has the advantage of a shorter and lighter barrel. The DO in its names refers to “diffractive optics,” which enable a smaller form factor.

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

As Scalzo mentioned, “speed, sharpness, and bokeh” are important characteristics of quality telephoto lenses, and these features come from the optical, mechanical, electronic, and computational systems of the lens. “Speed” is a product not only of shutter speed and a wide maximum aperture, but also of state-of-the-art autofocus systems, as well as focus preset, focus locks, and focus limiter controls, which enable a photographer to control the system in a way that lesser-priced lenses do not offer.

Speed, in the holistic sense of the process, also comes from features that don’t always make marketing copy but are certainly recognized by the engineers who make these lenses and photographers who use them. Ergonomics, button and ring placement, tripod collars, and even compatibility with tele-converters and cameras all contribute to one’s ability to get the best shot in the moment.

Bald Eagle photographed with EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens with 2x Teleconverter, f/9, 1/250 second, ISO 1000 © David Speiser
Bald Eagle photographed with EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens with 2x Teleconverter, f/9, 1/250 second, ISO 1000David Speiser

Sharpness is another catch-all type term that is obviously an important characteristic of a lens and is a hallmark of the best telephoto lenses, relative to lesser-priced models. In the case of the abovementioned 600mm lens, and most others in its class, aspherical lens elements limit aberrations and improve sharpness, and Super UD and fluorite lens elements improve color accuracy. The quality of the optical glass itself, as well as the coatings used on these optics, are the best that the manufacturers have to offer. And let’s not underestimate the importance of “sharpness” (in concert with sensor resolution) when it comes to composing in post and cropping, both fundamental to aspects of sports and wildlife photography.

Grace Scalzo

Image stabilization is a feature important to telephoto lenses, prime and zoom, and the top-shelf telephoto lenses offer multiple IS modes. State-of-the-art image stabilization systems enable up to six equivalent stops of “shake control,” and the various modes optimize the IS function when shooting vertically or horizontally moving subjects, when panning with a subject, or when the camera is mounted on a tripod.

Typically defined as the blurred effect in the out-of-focus parts of an image, “bokeh” is made more pleasing with high-quality telephoto lenses. The shallow depth of field created by a wide aperture on a long lens places focus on the subject and blurs the background nicely, and rounded 9- or 11-blade diaphragm designs enhance its shape and quality.

Finally, the barrel construction of “high-end” lenses is markedly stronger than middle-of-the-road lenses. They are weatherproof and able to withstand the bumps that come with sports and wildlife photography. Their front lens elements are often fluorine coated to enhance oil and smudge resistance. They also provide the little extras that complete the package: rotating or removable tripod collars, long lens hoods, and even anti-theft features.

“…I realized to truly achieve great images, a prime 400 or greater was the answer! I switched to a 400mm DO and I never turned back. Technique, knowing your equipment’s strengths, and practice will all lead to success.” ―David Speiser

Great gray owl photographed with EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM with 1.4x Teleconverter, f/5.6, 1/80 second, ISO 1600 © David Speiser
Great gray owl photographed with EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM with 1.4x Teleconverter, f/5.6, 1/80 second, ISO 1600David Speiser

Knowing the qualities of the best lenses is one thing, but effectively using super-telephoto lenses is quite another. The main challenge to getting the best out of these lenses concerns their weight and size. It is almost essential that they be used with support, such as a tripod, monopod or even with a gimbal tripod head for fluid movements. However, physical techniques such as how to control focus, how to follow moving subjects, and even how to breathe and depress the shutter button to minimize camera shake are skills that come with practice.

Also, learn to utilize the advanced features of these lenses. Understanding how and when to use focus limiter and focus presets will result in less frustration and more successful shots, and the same goes for image stabilization. Read your manual, and then practice using the different IS modes.

Teleconverters are an important tool in any telephoto photography kit. Enabling a 1.4x or 2x extension of the focal length of your lens, they are an affordable way to have “zoom” ability on a prime lens and to expand your ability to get varied perspectives from just one lens. Teleconverters also work on zoom lenses, but it’s important to research compatibility for all functions and remember that adding a teleconverter creates a slight “light loss,” so the brighter maximum aperture of a prime telephoto lens is even more important when using teleconverters.

Sony FE 2.0x Teleconverter
Sony FE 2.0x Teleconverter

"What's equally important to the quality of the lens you choose is the camera body that drives it. For example, mounting the same tele-zoom lens on five different camera bodies will result in varying performance outcomes for features such as speed of focus, tracking, sharpness, and more. Just because someone raves (or rants) to you about a specific lens does not mean it will perform the same way for you and your camera body. Even the highest-quality lenses have caps on performance based on the body on which they are mounted. If the camera body can't communicate well with the lens, or isn't designed to power it properly, you will not be satisfied. Research is key to a successful pairing." ―Lisa Langell

Oriole photographed with EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM with 2x Teleconverter, f/6.3, 1/640 second, ISO 800 © David Speiser
Oriole photographed with EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM with 2x Teleconverter, f/6.3, 1/640 second, ISO 800David Speiser

Wildlife photographer, Lisa Langell is a past guest on the B&H Photography Podcast, and her advice is spot-on. Do your research before you invest in one of these great lenses, but do invest. It is these lenses that will help you create the images you envision in your mind’s eye. Even if B&H does have a great return policy, I suggest renting a super-telephoto lens before you purchase one. Test to see which focal length works best for your needs and ask yourself if you are comfortable with the settings and control and, of course, with the size and weight. My feeling is that once you try a lens like the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens, the joy (and your answer) will be obvious.

Eagle photographed with Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD lens, f/6.3, 1/800 second, ISO 800 © Lisa Langell
Eagle photographed with Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD lens, f/6.3, 1/800 second, ISO 800Lisa Langell

If you have any anecdotes about your experiences with a truly great super-telephoto zoom lens, please tell us about the in the Comments section, below.


My question relates to this information: I recently returned from a photo safari in South Africa, Kruger National Park. My second body was a fairly-new-to-me Nikon D850 with battery grip and EN-EL18 battery, camera showing 9fps. I had a couple weeks of practice with it before the trip and spent a lot of time programming it into my shooting preferences. My longest lens, always on the D850 and NOT new to me, was a Nikkor 300mm 2.8G ED VR with a Nikkor TC14 III, occasionally with a TC20 III. I used manual mode for 81% of 8865 images. I shot at shutter speeds 1/2000th or above for birds, and 1/750th or faster for other, slower animals, with Auto ISO starting at 64. I always use AF-C with either back-button single-point focus, or front-button 25-point group focus when movement is very fast or erratic, switching between the two buttons as needed, even during bursts. Focus Tracking with Lock On was set to 1 and Subject was set to erratic. I always used VR, and sometimes in “Active” mode. Almost all shots were hand-held, seated, with varying methods of bracing myself in the truck. Monopods were not permitted, and bean bags proved impractical so not used. Truck was open with only soft door panels and roof, each window having a horizontal cross bar that provided bracing. When light was plentiful, I would stop down no more than two stops, often shooting between wide open and only one stop down. I was disappointed with my keeper rate. I felt too many of my images were soft to blurry, even having some bursts where nothing was tack sharp.

My question, is there any way to forensically examine images, looking at the patterns in the bokeh, to determine what may have caused the propensity of soft images, ie. shouldn’t have used VR with high shutter spreads, shouldn’t have used “Active” VR mode, incorrect settings for the situation, poor shooting technique for 45MP sensor, etc.? Thank you.

Unfortunately, I do not know of a way to forensically examine images for issues with softness.  For assistance with your inquiry, I would personally recommend to contact Nikon directly concerning your inquiry.  You may be able to send them some example of your images, and/or also send in your camera and lens so they can check focus performance and/or calibrate your lens to your camera.  You may contact Nikon USA either by calling them at 1-800-NIKON-US(1-800-645-6687) 9AM-8PM EST, Monday to Friday, or you may use the link below to contact them via the e-mail link on their website.

Thank you for your response and suggestions.

The question may be way moot by now, but you might try reducing the frame rate to five frames per second or so. This may give the autofocus system time to track the subject more accurately by reducing the "blackout" time that's incurred whenever the mirror flips up and down and the shutter opens and closes.

Sorry, but I find no mention of exceptional telephoto lenses that DO NOT require a tripod, break the bank and break your back. The Olympus 150-400mm 1.25xTC has no peer in any other system, costs thousands less than Canikony equivalents and can be shot handheld. The Panasonic Leica 200mm f2.8 (400mm equivalent FOV) and Nikon 500mm PF are also great lenses. So when I see interviews like these, it feels like people who sank $10k+ into a lens and $2k+ into a tripod justifying their purchases. I would rather get pleasing bokeh by taking a couple of steps to the side, or crouching, rather than relying solely on sensor size (and being anchored to one spot and height). I get more keepers by following subjects as they move and being able to hike in the wild. And I like shooting with a bare lens rather than needing a teleconverter even with a massive 600mm f4. Horses for courses, I suppose, but I think that large teleprimes and heavy tripods exist because photographers who needed them during film photography days never changed their approach even as technology advanced.

Anupam...  thanks for the comment and you make a valid point. Zoom, optic, and construction technologies are shrinking the quality gap with large primes and size must always be a consideration when shooting in nature. However, many photographers prefer (and are very successful) with a tripod/stationary strategy. Also, I refer you to the fifth paragraph, where we link specifically to the Olympus 150-400mm that you mentioned.  And to this link, a review of that lens from late last year…  

I also dont much like using teleconverters.  But, I'm genuinely curious, do you crop much when you shoot wildlife and birds, and how does the resolution hold up with the systems you use?  Thanks again.

I rented the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L for a practice round at The Masters (only time that cameras are allowed other than news media).  I took a break and sat on the bleachers on the back of the course. Some bankers from Charlotte asked how far it could reach and I passed the camera to them. You could see the clubhouse fill maybe fill 75% of the viewfinder. They were impressed. 

Thanks for the comment Ralph, yes, those long focal lengths certainly provide a unique perspective... and good to see that you rented the lens to give it a test drive.