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Best constant-aperture telephoto lens for Nikon

There are plenty of good telephoto zoom lenses on the market for Nikon DSLRs. Nikon’s AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR is the best in class, while the Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD is a top bargain buy. But one thing that all cheaper telephoto zooms tend to share is a variable aperture rating that shrinks as you extend through the zoom range, typically down to f/5.6 at the long end.

Expert and professional photographers generally prefer ‘constant-aperture’ zoom lenses wherever possible and, in the case of telephoto lenses, are often willing to sacrifice greater telephoto reach in order to get it. 

There are two advantages. First, you can gain faster shutter speeds without the need to ramp up the ISO. This is ideal for freezing the action in sports and wildlife photography, in anything other than bright sunlight. Second, a wider aperture provides a tighter depth of field, enabling you to throw the background further out of focus and really isolate your subject. 

A 'fast' (constant aperture) telephoto zoom is usually a significant step up the quality ladder, in terms of build, handling and all-important image quality. They don't have the reach of longer-range variable aperture zooms, but most pros would probably swap to a single focal length prime lens for this kind of work anyway.

Spoiler alert

For its impeccable image quality, immaculate build quality and handling, and the sheer performance of its autofocus, stabilization and aperture control systems, the Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR is simply the best fast telephoto zoom for Nikon cameras in the world.

Read more below...

1. Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR

Spectacular performance at a premium price

Effective zoom range: 70-200mm | Lens construction: 22 elements in 18 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 1.1m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 89x203mm | Weight: 1,430g

Class-leading performance
Handling and build quality
Autofocus and stabilization
Comparatively expensive

Nikon's newer, sportier edition of its 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens brings electromagnetic rather than mechanical aperture control for greater exposure consistency in rapid-fire, continuous shooting, while a new Sport VR mode provides a more stable viewfinder image when panning, and prevents a slowdown in drive rate. A fluorite glass element is added for optimum image quality, along with six ED elements, one HRI element and Nano Crystal Coatings. The new lens reigns supreme for sharpness in our tests, especially when shooting wide-open. VR is half a stop more effective than in the older 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, and it has a closer minimum focus distance. It’s simply the best 70-200mm lens on the market, justifying its steep asking price.

2. Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM | S for Nikon

A whopper in terms of reach, as well as size

Effective zoom range: 120-300mm | Lens construction: 23 elements in 18 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 1.5-2.5m | Filter size: 105mm | Dimensions: 121x291mm | Weight: 3,390g

Extra-long telephoto reach
Image quality, performance
Large and weighty design
Quite pricey

Compared with all of the 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses on test, this Sigma stretches the zoom range to 120-300mm. That equates to an impressive 50 per cent extra focal length at full stretch. It comes at a price though: not only is this Sigma the most expensive lens on test, but it’s also relatively large and has a filter thread of 105mm. Refinements include ring-type ultrasonic autofocus and dual-mode static/panning optical stabilization. Two FLD and one SLD elements are included and, unlike most Sigma lenses, it features weather seals. As one of Sigma’s Sport-line lenses, it’s designed for action photography and, the autofocus system is very fast and efficient. Sharpness and contrast are superb, even at the widest aperture, throughout the entire zoom range. 

3. Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/4G ED VR

Being a stop slower isn’t all bad

Effective zoom range: 70-200mm | Lens construction: 20 elements in 14 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 1.0m | Filter size: 67mm | Dimensions: 78x179mm | Weight: 850g

Excellent image quality
Efficient stabilization
Relatively slow f/4 aperture rating
Supplied without tripod collar

At 850g, this own-brand Nikon lens is barely more than half the weight of the others on test and is much smaller, which is why a tripod collar is only offered as an optional extra, and the filter attachment thread is a modest 67mm. Like the big boys, though, it benefits from fully internal zoom and focus. Mod cons include highly effective VR (Vibration Reduction) with automatic panning detection and an additional ‘Active’ setting for shooting from a vibrating platform, and there’s also an autofocus range limiter switch. Sharpness and contrast are spectacular, even when shooting wide-open, exceeding the sharpness of some f/2.8 lenses when they’re stopped down to a matching f/4 aperture. Autofocus is fast and unerringly accurate.

4. Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD for Nikon

Upmarket build at an affordable price

Effective zoom range: 70-200mm | Lens construction: 18 elements in 13 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 0.95m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 90x194mm | Weight: 1,320g

Autofocus fast and quiet
Mid-zoom sharpness
Stabilization when panning

A little more or less expensive than the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8, depending which side of the Atlantic you’re on, this lens represents a major revamp of Tamron’s older ‘Macro’ zoom. The macro badge is ditched, as it doesn’t focus as close, and has a more mainstream maximum magnification ratio, but key improvements include VC (Vibration Compensation) stabilization and ring-type USD (Ultrasonic Drive) autofocus. Build quality feels as good as in Tamron’s older non-stabilized lens, but the newer edition adds weather seals. Tamron’s proprietary optical stabilization system is worth about four stops in static shooting, but it’s less impressive than competing systems when panning. Image quality is good and autofocus is rapid and whisper-quiet. However, our sample lost out to Tamron’s older lens for wide-open sharpness at mid-range zoom settings.

5. Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II

An oldie but goodie

Effective zoom range: 70-200mm | Lens construction: 21 elements in 16 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 1.4m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 87x206mm | Weight: 1,540g

Image quality, performance
Triple-mode autofocus system
VR not as effective as f/4 lens
Wide-open sharpness

Announced back in the summer of 2009, the second incarnation of Nikon’s 70-200mm f/2.8 VR is no spring chicken, and has now been overtaken by the latest
E FL version, our test winner. Even so, it still has a lot to offer. Build quality is a step up from Nikon’s 70-200mm f/4 lens, with a magnesium- alloy skin that’s designed to take the knocks of a busy professional lifestyle while keeping weight to a minimum. A sophisticated triple-mode autofocus system enables you to give priority to either automatic or manual focusing. VR has the same normal and active modes as in the f/4 lens but isn’t quite as effective, rated at 3.5 instead of four stops. Autofocus is so fast that the range limiter switch is largely superfluous, and the Nano Crystal Coatings do well to fend off ghosting and flare. Image quality and overall performance are superb.

6. Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8 DC HSM | A for Nikon

A little something for DX cameras

Effective zoom range: 75-150mm | Lens construction: 21 elements in 15 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 0.95m | Filter size: 82mm | Dimensions: 94x171mm | Weight: 1,490g

Super-fast f/1.8 constant aperture
A more affordable lens
Not the best for sharpness
Autofocus relatively slow

All the other lenses on test are designed for full frame (FX) Nikons, but can of course be used on smaller DX format bodies. This is the only lens in the test group that’s actually designed exclusively for DX format cameras, on which it gives an effective zoom range of 75-150mm. It’s still about the same size and weight as most 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, and has an oversized 82mm filter attachment thread. This is due to its main claim to fame: its super-fast f/1.8 constant aperture. The lens’ relatively short focal length range and extra-wide aperture are more beneficial to creative photography with tight depths of field, making the Sigma more desirable for portraiture and still life capture rather than action sports and wildlife photography. It does have a ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system but AF speed is relatively slow, and there’s no optical stabilizer.

7. Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM for Nikon

A bit of a fair-weather friend

Effective zoom range: 105-300mm | Lens construction: 22 elements in 17 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 1.4m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 86x198mm | Weight: 1,430g

Fast and quiet ultrasonic autofocus
Up-market glass elements
Sharpness drop at end settings
Weather-seals not included

A couple of years newer than the non-stabilized Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8, the Sigma is a more high-tech affair. It has relatively fast and quiet ring-type ultrasonic autofocus and an optical stabilizer rated at four stops, complete with switchable static and panning modes. The lens comes with a padded soft case, tripod collar and hood, and even a hood adaptor for greater efficiency on DX-format (APS-C) cameras. However, the design of the lens doesn’t include any weather seals. Whereas the older Tamron lens relies on a push-pull focus ring for manual override of autofocus, the Sigma has full-time manual override that’s typical of ring-type ultrasonic systems. Autofocus is noticeably faster than from the Tamron lens as well. Image quality is good overall, but levels of sharpness could be better.

8. Tamron SP AF 70-200mm f/2.8 Di LD [IF] Macro for Nikon

Retro chic at a knockdown price

Effective zoom range: 105-300mm | Lens construction: 18 elements in 13 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 0.95m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 90x194mm | Weight: 1,320g

Impressive image quality
Good build quality
Optical stabilization not included
Autofocus a bit noisy and sluggish

Unlike some of the more new-fangled lenses on test, this is something of an old stalwart, dating back to 2008. It was a good year for Tamron, as some of its existing Nikon-fit lenses were upgraded to include autofocus motors, and this one had a motor fitted right from the start. Autofocus is therefore possible on bodies like the D3400 and D5600, as the lens doesn’t rely on the AF drive motor of a host camera. Plus points include good build quality and a robust-feeling construction, and the lens is supplied complete with a tripod collar, hood and soft case. However, the Tamron is one of only two lenses on test to lack optical stabilization. Image quality is impressive, with good sharpness and contrast throughout the zoom and aperture ranges. The basic electric AF motor, though, is noisier and more sluggish than ring-type ultrasonic systems.