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100-400mm lenses: which is the best zoom for you?

100-400mm lenses: which is the best zoom for you?
(Image credit: Canon)

A telephoto zoom is a great add-on for your DSLR or mirrorless camera, and the bigger the reach the further you can zoom in. The best 100-400mm lenses are a popular choice for wildlife, motorsport, airshows and more. 

A 100-400mm zoom is particularly appealing for those using full-frame cameras. Trade up from an APS-C or other crop-sensor camera to a full-frame body and you might feel short-changed in telephoto reach. For example, thanks to the focal length multiplier or ‘crop factor’, a budget 70-300mm lens will give you an effective maximum focal length of 450mm on most APS-C cameras (480mm for Canon).

To regain your telephoto mojo, you could trade up to a lens like the best 150-600mm lenses, but they tend to be much bigger and heavier. A 100-400mm super-telephoto zooms is often a good compromise, delivering powerful reach without weighing you down. Indeed, the latest Sigma and Tamron examples are particularly compact and lightweight, while delivering impressive image quality and all-round performance.

Most camera manufacturers offer their own 100-400mm lenses, or thereabouts. Not everyone sticks strictly to the 100-400mm range, though. For example, it’s 80-400mm for Nikon and 150-450mm for Pentax, whereas Sony markets a 100-400mm lens for its E-mount cameras but a 70-400mm zoom for A-mount bodies. 

In all cases, there’s nothing to stop you using any of the lenses featured in our guide on crop-sensor cameras, where you’ll get even greater telephoto stretch. Indeed, the Fujifilm and Panasonic lenses are designed exclusively for APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras, with crop factors of 1.5x and 2x respectively.

Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | C

1: Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | C

Best buy 100-400mm for Canon DSLRs

Mount: Canon EF, Nikon F | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Optical stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.6m | Maximum magnification: 0.26x | Dimensions (WxL): 86x182mm | Weight: 1,160g

High performance
Good customization options
Canon-mount version enables full in-camera corrections
No optional tripod mount ring 
Not fully weather-sealed

Despite being full-frame compatible, Sigma’s 100-400mm ‘Contemporary’ lens is relatively compact, lightweight and easily manageable. It’s only about two-thirds the weight of Canon’s equivalent lens and is barely any heavier than the Panasonic 100-400mm, which produces a much smaller image circle.

Handling is very good, with smooth zoom and focus rings, and the availability of switching to auto-priority or manual-priority autofocus, the latter enabling you to twist the focus ring and override autofocus without first waiting for it to lock onto a target. Two switchable custom modes for autofocus speed and stabilization behaviour are available, which you can set up with the optional Sigma USB Dock. 

There are Canon EF and Nikon F mount versions of the lens, both of which have very rapid yet near-silent autofocus, along with image quality that’s on a par with competing own-brand lenses. The Sigma is a particularly good buy for Canon cameras, as the rotational direction of the zoom ring is the same as in own-brand lenses (opposite to Nikon), and a full set of in-camera aberration corrections is available with current and recent bodies. These include the likes of peripheral illumination and distortion, as well as lateral chromatic aberration.

Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD

2: Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD

Best buy 100-400mm for Nikon DSLRs

Mount: Canon EF, Nikon F | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Optical stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.5m | Maximum magnification: 0.28x | Filter thread: 67mm | Weight: 1,135g

Excellent performance, 
Lightweight build 
Comprehensive weather-seals
Long-zoom aperture rating shrinks to f/6.3
Tripod mount ring sold costs extra

Like the Sigma 100-400mm lens, this Tamron is available in Canon EF and Nikon F mount options and combines high-end performance with a lightweight build, at an attractive asking price. It lacks the Sigma’s switchable ‘custom’ modes and auto/manual-priority override options for autofocus, but adds a more comprehensive set of weather-seals.

Handling is refined and the oversized AF/MF and dual-mode static/panning stabilization switch are easy to operate even with gloves on. The flipside is that you can find yourself nudging the switches out of position accidentally. Autofocus range limiting is available for both the short and long sectors of focus distance.

Image quality and autofocus speed are similarly impressive as from the competing Sigma lens. Optional extras include a USB Tap-in Console for applying autofocus fine-tuning and firmware updates, and a tripod mount ring, the latter being unavailable for the Sigma lens. Even so, at just over a kilogram, the Tamron is only about two-thirds the weight of Nikon’s 80-400mm lens and doesn’t really need a tripod mounting ring. The rotational direction of the zoom ring is the same as in Nikon lenses, and opposite to Canon. As with the Sigma 100-400mm, electromagnetic diaphragm control makes aperture adjustment impossible with some older Nikon DSLRs.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

3: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

The Mark II edition of this Canon lens is a major redesign

Mount: Canon EF | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Optical stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 0.98m | Maximum magnification: 0.31x | Filter thread: 77mm | Dimensions (WxL): 94x193mm | Weight: 1,640g

Robust build quality, 
Great handling 
f/5.6 rather than f/6.3 at long zoom settings
Relatively heavy and expensive 
No switchable custom settings

This own-brand Canon lens is about 50 per cent heavier than the competing Sigma and Tamron 100-400mm zooms and getting on for three times the price. That’s a big mark-up for a lens that’s only one-third of an f/stop faster at the long end of its zoom range but, then again, you’ll usually pay a premium for own-brand Canon glass.

Extensively redesigned from the original version of the lens, the Mark II drops the trombone-style push-pull zoom mechanism, instead featuring a regular twist ring. However, it retains the adjustable friction damper of its predecessor. The Mark II also adds high-tech ASC (Air Sphere Coating) to reduce ghosting and flare, and keep-clean fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements.

The image stabilizer is also uprated with 4-stop effectiveness and three operating modes for static and panning shots, plus an option for applying stabilization only during exposures. This makes it easier to track erratically moving objects through the viewfinder. Autofocus speed and image quality are impressive, but not really any better than from the less expensive Sigma and Tamron alternatives.

4: Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Best quality option for Nikon DSLRs

Mount: Nikon F | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Optical stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.75m | Maximum magnification: 0.2x | Filter thread: 77mm | Dimensions (WxL): 96x203mm | Weight: 1,570g

Dual switchable autofocus modes 
Full compatibility for aperture control
Hefty in weight and price
Stabilization is a little mediocre

Nikon’s original AF 80-400mm was the company’s first lens to feature VR (Vibration Reduction). That’s been updated in the new AF-S version, but it’s still only worth about 3-stops and is less effective than in the cheaper Sigma and Tamron 100-400mm competitors. Like the Sigma, it has a switchable dual-mode autofocus system, enabling you to give priority to autofocus or manual override.

The original Nikon AF lens relied on an autofocus motor in the host camera, coupled via a screw-drive mechanism. It was actually one of Nikon’s slowest lenses in terms of autofocus performance, and made autofocus completely unavailable with cameras like the D40, D3xxx and D5xxx series. The replacement AF-S lens has typically fast and near-silent ring-type ultrasonic autofocus, that works with any Nikon DSLR or mirrorless Z-series camera. Furthermore, it has Nikon’s old-style aperture control lever, rather than an electromagnetic system (as featured in the Sigma and Tamron lenses), ensuring compatibility with older Nikon DSLRs.

Performance and image quality are impressive overall. As with the Canon 100-400mm zoom, however, the Nikon struggles to justify its price tag when compared to newer Sigma and Tamron competition.

5: Fujifilm XF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR

Best 100-400mm for Fujifilm

Mount: Fujifilm X-mount | Full-frame compatible: No | Autofocus type: Twin linear motors | Optical stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.75m | Maximum magnification: 0.19x | Filter thread: 77mm | Dimensions (WxL): 95x211mm | Weight: 1,375g

Mighty telephoto reach 
Very effective 5-stop stabilizer
Big and heavy for an APS-C format lens 
Price

One of Fujifilm’s highly acclaimed ‘red badge’ lenses, the XF100-400mm has robust, fully weather-sealed, professional-grade build quality. Handling is excellent, benefiting from Fuji’s typical control ring, ideal for controlling the aperture in aperture-priority and manual shooting modes.

Despite producing a relatively small image circle for APS-C format cameras, the lens is about the same weight as competing Canon and Nikon full-frame compatible lenses. Thanks to the APS-C crop factor, the effective zoom range is boosted to 150-600mm and you can bump it up even more with one of Fujifilm’s 1.4x or 2x tele-converters, albeit with a loss of one or two f/stops in aperture width.

Optical highlights include five ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements and one Super ED element, for minimizing chromatic aberrations. Super-fast and virtually silent autofocus is based on twin linear motors, and there’s a highly effective 5-stop image stabilizer with automatic panning detection.

Panasonic DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3 Asph Power OIS

6: Panasonic DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3 Asph Power OIS

Best 100-400mm for Micro Four Thirds cameras

Mount: Micro Four Thirds | Full-frame compatible: No | Autofocus type: Linear motor | Optical stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.3m | Maximum magnification: 0.25x | Filter thread: 72mm | Dimensions (WxL): 83x172mm | Weight: 985g

Sensational effective telephoto reach 
Relatively lightweight
Aperture rating is a bit on the slow side 
Feels  cumbersome on an MFT body

Typical of Panasonic’s up-market lenses for Micro Four Thirds cameras, this one is impeccably turned out. The relatively small size of MFT image sensors equate to a 2x focal length multiplier or ‘crop factor’, giving the lens a humungous effective zoom range of 200-800mm. As an MFT lens, it will not only work on Panasonic cameras like the GH5, but also on Olympus OM-D and PEN mirrorless cameras (and some Blackmagic video cameras too).

It feels pretty epic in practice, like using a 100-400mm on a full-frame camera with a 2x tele-converter. And while the f/6.3 aperture rating at the long end is a third of a stop down on some competing lenses, it’s no narrower than in the latest Sigma and Tamron 100-400mm zooms.

Switches are on hand for auto/manual focusing, an autofocus range limiter, and stabilization on/off. The built-in Power OIS (Optical Image Stabilizer) can work in conjunction with sensor-shift stabilization, available in Panasonic cameras with a ‘Dual IS’ function. A handy locking ring between the zoom and focus rings enables variable friction damping and can put a stop to zoom creep. Build quality feels very solid and the lens has a dust- and splash-proof construction.

Typical of MFT lenses, this one has fast and practically silent autofocus, based on a linear motor. Sharpness and contrast are impressive and there’s practically zero distortion at any zoom setting.

7: HD Pentax-D FA 150-450mm f/4.5-5.6 ED DC AW

Best 100-400mm for Pentax DSLRs

Mount: Pentax K | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: DC motor | Optical stabilizer: No | Minimum focus distance: 2.0m | Maximum magnification: 0.22x | Filter thread: 86mm | Dimensions (WxL): 95x242mm | Weight: 2,000g

A little more telephoto reach than usual
Compatible with full-frame and APS-C Pentax bodies
Relatively big and heavy 
Not the quickest autofocus

Compared with typical 100-400mm lenses, this Pentax sets its sights a little higher, with a 150-450mm zoom range. It gives you generous telephoto reach on full-frame cameras, boosted to an effective 230-690mm range on APS-C format bodies.

We’re used to seeing robust kit from Pentax with impressive build quality, and this lens is no exception. It feels particularly solid and has a durable, weather-sealed construction. The flipside is that it’s physically larger and noticeably heavier than competing lenses, weighing in at 2kg. That’s nearly twice the weight of the Sigma and Tamron 100-400mm lenses, although they’re only available in Canon and Nikon mount options.

The Quick-Shift autofocus system has switchable auto/manual priority for override, along with a three-position range limiter switch. It also benefits from four focus buttons around the mid-section of the lens barrel, which you can use to start or stop autofocus, or to apply a preset focus distance. Based on an internal DC motor, autofocus isn’t quite as quick as most ring-type ultrasonic systems but is nevertheless quicker and much quieter than in Pentax lenses that rely on an AF motor in the host camera.

Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 G Master OSS

Best 100-400mm for Sony E-mount mirrorless cameras

Mount: Sony EF | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: RDSSM + LM | Optical stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 0.98m | Maximum magnification: 0.35x | Filter thread: 77mm | Dimensions (WxL): 94x205mm | Weight: 1,395g

Excellent image quality and all-round performance 
Effective optical image stabilization
Ttop-notch G Master lens for A7 and A9  cameras
Relatively expensive for a 100-400mm lens
Feels big and heavy on a mirrorless body

Built to do full justice to Sony’s prestigious A7 and A9 series full-frame mirrorless cameras, this lens also works a treat with APS-C format E-mount bodies, where it gives an effective zoom range of 150-600mm. Build quality is fabulous, with a really solid yet refined feel to the construction and a more comprehensive set of weather-seals than is fitted to Sony’s 70-100mm G-line lens for it’s A-mount cameras.

A full set of switches is on hand for AF/MF focusing, an autofocus range limiter and dual-mode optical stabilization for static and panning shots. Buttons around the forward end of the lens enable a autofocus-hold function. The zoom ring has variable friction damping, applied via a separate ‘zoom torque adjustment ring’.

Image quality and overall performance are excellent in all respects. Autofocus speed is very rapid, based on a system that includes both linear motors and a ring-type ultrasonic actuator to drive different groups of elements. The effectiveness of the optical stabilizer is enhanced when used in conjunction with sensor-shift stabilization, featured in later Sony bodies. Good control over ghosting and flare is aided by a nano-structure coating.

9: Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM II

Best 100-400mm for Sony A-mount cameras

Mount: Sony A | ull-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Optical stabilizer: No | Minimum focus distance: 1.5m | Maximum magnification: 0.27x | Filter thread: 77mm | Dimensions (WxL): 95x196mm | Weight: 1,500g

Pro-grade build and handling 
Zoom starts at a relatively short focal length
No optical stabilization 
No weather-seal on the mounting plate

Going shorter even than the Nikon 80-400mm, Sony’s A-mount super-tele zoom kicks off at just 70mm. It’s full-frame compatible and gives an extended ‘effective’ reach of 105-600mm on APS-C format bodies. The ring-type SSM (Super Sonic wave Motor) gives typically quiet autofocus with the usual full-time manual override, and is four times faster than in the original lens. The Mark II also adds Nano AR coatings to further reduce ghosting and flare. Build quality is of a pro-grade standard, typical of Sony G-line lenses, with a dust- and moisture-resistant construction. 

The AF/MF switch also acts as a range limiter, with an extra mid-point position for locking out short range autofocus. Three buttons around the forward end of the lens enable a handy ‘focus hold’ function for freezing the action of autofocus. As with the competing Pentax 150-400mm lens, there’s no optical stabilizer. Image quality is pretty impressive in all respects although we found outright sharpness to be good rather than great.

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