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The best budget telephoto lenses in 2020: for Canon, Nikon, Sony and more

Best budget telephoto
(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Finding the best budget telephoto-zoom lenses can really open up your photography without being too hard on your wallet. Once you've purchased your compact system camera or DSLR you'll like find yourself wanting to expand your shooting options and give yourself the ability to capture distant, fast-moving subjects. But how to know which to choose? We've put together this guide to make it easier for you.

Many of the more affordable lenses on this list are designed for APS-C camera bodies rather than full-frame. This makes a lot of sense, given that these bodies tend to be lighter and more affordable themselves. Some lenses will still work on cameras with larger sensors and others won't, so it's always worth checking the compatibility of a lens with your camera before buying.

We've included a range of lenses, some manufacturers' own, and others from third-party lens makers, but in every case we're confident that the lenses we've included represent fantastic value for money. So take a look through for our picks of the best budget telephoto-zoom lenses you can buy right now...

The best budget telephoto lenses in 2020

Canon

1. Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM

Small, light and affordable

Lens construction: 15 elements in 12 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.85m | Filter size: 58mm | Dimensions: 70 x 111.2mm | Weight: 375g

Virtually silent autofocus
Sharpness throughout range
Lacks weather-seals
AF not the fastest 

About half the price of Canon’s full-frame 70-300mm tele zoom, this EF-S optic for APS-C format bodies is smaller, lighter and more affordable. It gives a powerful effective reach of 400mm (in 35mm equivalent terms) at the end of its zoom range, while at the short end, it picks up where the typical 18-55mm kit lens leaves off. An upgrade over the previous IS II model, the STM lens features redesigned optics and a stepping motor for powering autofocus, instead of a basic electric motor. As seen in many of its rival lenses, a stepping motor enables smooth and virtually silent autofocus transitions that are well suited to both stills and video capture. The optical image stabilizer also performs well, with an effectiveness of about 3.5 stops. Handling is an improvement over previous generations of the lens, in that the focus ring no longer rotates during autofocus.

2. Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD

A stickler for tradition

Lens construction: 17 elements in 12 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 1.5m | Filter size: 62mm | Dimensions: 81.5 x 142.7mm | Weight: 765g

Full-time manual overide
Sturdy barrel and mounting plate
No weather-seals
Quality suffers at telephoto end

This Tamron lens is rather conventional, but it follows the traditions of high-end rather than budget telephoto zooms. As such, it has a ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system that enables full-time manual override, and not just when the stepping motor is being powered by the camera body. Switches are fitted on the barrel for AF/M focus modes and VC on/off. The Vibration Compensation system is Tamron’s proprietary form of optical stabilization; autofocus is fast and effective. Image quality is very good overall, matched by top build quality that combines sturdy barrel parts with a metal mounting plate.

Nikon

3. Nikon AF-P DX 70-300mm f/4.5-6.5G ED VR

Smooth autofocus with Pulse AF

Lens construction: 14 elements in 10 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 1.1m | Filter size: 58mm | Dimensions: 72x125mm | Weight: 415g

Effective four-stop stabilizer
Stepping motor for AF
Incompatible with older cameras
No weather-seals

Nikon is the latest manufacturer to jump on the stepping motor bandwagon: it’s used for autofocus in this AF-P (Pulse) lens. It’s available with or without VR (Vibration Reduction), and the edition without stabilization is a little cheaper to buy. Both are fully compatible with D3300, D3400, D3500, D5300, D5500, D5600 and D500 bodies, but completely incompatible with many older Nikon cameras like the D7000, where autofocus and even manual focusing are unavailable. The 300mm focal length and 1.5x crop factor of Nikon’s DX format gives an effective reach of 450mm. It’s physically big and heavy, and relies on a camera menu for switching off stabilization. In our lab tests, the non-VR version of the lens proved slightly sharper than the VR edition. However, the four-stop stabilizer is particularly effective in hand-held shooting, with the VR lens yielding more consistently sharp images.

(Image credit: Tamron)

4. Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD

This excellent budget lens is available for Nikon, too

Lens construction: 17 elements in 12 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 1.5m | Filter size: 62mm | Dimensions: 81.5 x 142.7mm | Weight: 765g

Amazingly affordable
Generous workhorse zoom range
No weather seals
Nikon has competing lenses

Equipped with all the features and functionality of the Canon version, this is a solid workhorse lens for Nikon DSLR users at a superb price point. Throughout testing on Nikon D7200 and D750 bodies, we found the stabilizer had an effectiveness of four stops, so you can get some real versatility out of this lens just as easily on a Nikon body as on a Canon.

Sony

(Image credit: Sony)

5. Sony E 55-210mm f4.5-6.3 OSS

Top-notch performance meets a very friendly price for Sony users

Lens construction: 13 elements in 9 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 1m | Filter size: 49mm | Dimensions: 63.8x108mm | Weight: 345g

Generous equivalent zoom range
Fast and responsive autofocus
Crop-only on full frame

With the kind of speed that suits the action-oriented A6XXX cameras from Sony, this telephoto optic provides an equivalent focal range of 82.5-315mm, putting it firmly in the telephoto camp. Its autofocus system is fast, smooth and quiet, meaning it's also a great choice for shooting video, and having built-in Optical SteadyShot stabilization is very handy indeed for working in low light, compensating somewhat for the middling maximum aperture. The lens will also work with full-frame Alpha 7 cameras in crop mode, and it is much, much cheaper than equivalent full-frame lens options for this system. An absolute bargain, this.

Read more: best Sony lenses

Pentax

6. Pentax 55-300mm f/4.5-6.3 DA PLM WR

Clever design and a quality build

Lens construction: 14 elements in 11 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 0.95m | Filter size: 58mm | Dimensions: 76.5 x 89mm | Weight: 442g

Generous zoom range
Excellent image quality
No internal image stabilization
Narrow aperture range

For a budget lens, the build quality of this Pentax lens feels particularly good, and it’s the only lens in the whole group to feature weather seals. It’s big on zoom range, equating to 82.5-450mm on a Pentax APS-C-format body in 35mm terms, yet its build is physically small when stowed away; this is thanks to a clever retractable design that enables the lens to collapse down to just 89mm in length. It also features a stepping motor autofocus system, the near-silence of which is an improvement over some of Pentax’s notably noisy lenses. There’s no optical image stabilization, with the lens instead relying on in-camera stabilization, which is present in all modern Pentax DSLRs. The autofocus system is quick and highly accurate, and testing the lens on a K-70 body, we found stabilization to work well, with a four-stop effectiveness. 

Micro Four Thirds

7. Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II

It’s like a tiny super-telephoto

Lens construction: 18 elements in 13 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.9m | Filter size: 58mm | Dimensions: 69 x 116.5mm | Weight: 423g

Quick and smooth autofocus
Massive effective zoom range
Long-end zoom sharpness
Lack of weather-seals

Boosted by the 2x crop factor of the Micro Four Thirds system, this 75-300mm lens delivers a mammoth effective zoom range of 150-600mm. Its build quality feels a little more robust than in some of the other lenses on test, with a metal rather than plastic mounting plate. A stepping motor enables quick yet smooth autofocus transitions, along with electronically coupled manual focusing. There are no on-board switches or controls, other than the zoom and focus rings. As with the Pentax lens above, this lens has no optical image stabilization system, instead relying on in-camera, sensor-shift stabilization. On an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II body, image stabilization equates to four stops, so the lack of an optical stabilizer isn’t a concern. Autofocus is fast and accurate, and manual focusing is precise. Image quality is pleasing, although sharpness at the long end of the zoom range proved disappointing in our tests.

Read more: Best Micro Four Thirds lenses

8. Panasonic 45-150mm f/4.0-5.6 ASPH OIS

Comes up a bit short

Lens construction: 12 elements in 9 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.9m | Filter size: 52mm | Dimensions: 62x73mm | Weight: 200g

Compact and light
AF fast and reliable
Small telephoto reach
Image quality weak 

This Panasonic lens is incredibly compact and light. Indeed, at just 62x73mm and 200g in weight, it’s only about half the length of most competitors, and only a quarter of the weight of some in this test. The downside is that maximum telephoto reach is similarly small. Applying the 2x crop factor of the Micro Four Thirds system, you still only get an effective focal length of 300mm at the long end. Even so, the lens equals the maximum reach of a traditional 70-300mm budget tele zoom on a full-frame DSLR. Testing the lens on a Panasonic G7, we found autofocus to be fast and reliable. The optical stabilizer is worth about 2.5 stops, so doesn’t compare favourably with even a non-stabilized Olympus Micro Four Thirds lens on a late-generation Olympus body with sensor-shift stabilization. Image quality is pretty good on the whole but, despite its modest zoom range, we found that the optic is actually quite soft at the long end.

Fujifilm

9. Fujinon XC50-230mm f/4.5-6.7 OIS II

Cross your palm with silver

Lens construction: 13 elements in 10 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 1.1m | Filter size: 58mm | Dimensions: 70x111mm | Weight: 370g

Sharpness and contrast
Manual autofocus override
Modest zoom reach
Build feels lightweight

With a smaller zoom range and Fujifilm’s 1.5x crop factor, the maximum effective reach of this lens is a more modest 345mm (in 35mm terms). With the usual stepping motor autofocus, manual override of autofocus and fully manual focusing are available via an electronically coupled ‘fly-by-wire’ focus ring. Focus modes and operation of the 3.5-stop optical image stabiliser are selected via camera menus; the lens lacks control switches. The mounting plate is plastic rather than metal, and the overall build feels lightweight. Sharpness and contrast are good throughout most of the zoom range, even at the widest available apertures. Autofocus speed is pretty good under decent lighting but, coupled with our Fujifilm X-T10 body, we had a lot of autofocus hunting and false positives for focus acquisition in dull conditions.

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  • rangel28
    Thanks for your lust of best budget telephoto lenses for 2019. Please note that the Nikon 70mm-300mm AF-P DX lens is f4.5 to 6.3 (not 6.5) and the non VR lens is remarkably small and light (the article says large and heavy). I recently picked up the non VR version because it is so inexpensive, and it is much smaller and lighter than the FX version, and when paired with the Nikon D3500 makes a nice, light travel camera.
    Reply