Looking for the best telephoto lens for your camera? Look no further! We choose the top telephoto lenses for each of the main camera brands, types and lens mounts. But first, a little about telephoto lenses and why you might want one.
Back to basics
• What are the best camera lenses to buy?
A standard zoom lens covers most eventualities but runs out of reach when you can’t get as physically close to what you’re shooting as you might like. That’s often the case in sports and wildlife photography. To cover the distance, you’ll need a telephoto zoom.
Not just for sports and wildlife, telephoto lenses are actually very versatile. They can be great for portraiture, where the tight depth of field of a telephoto can blur a fussy background and make the main subject really stand out. They’re even useful for landscape and architectural photography, enabling you to shorten perspective and compress the apparent distance between near and far areas within a scene, making majestic backgrounds look even more dramatic.
What to look for in a telephoto lens
For handheld telephoto shooting, image stabilization can be a huge advantage in getting consistently sharp shots. Optical stabilizers built into telephoto lenses often come with auto panning detection, or have manually switchable static and panning modes. When panning horizontally, stabilization is only applied in the vertical plane.
For cameras that feature sensor-shift stabilization, optical stabilization is less important and is often omitted in the design of compatible lenses. Even so, it’s sometimes included for telephoto lenses, where the optical and in-camera stabilization systems can work in tandem.
For full-frame cameras, the most budget-friendly option is usually a 70-300mm telephoto zoom with a variable aperture rating, typically shrinking from about f/4 at the widest focal length to f/5.6 as you extend through the zoom range. The combination of focal lengths and aperture enables manufacturers to squeeze a powerful and versatile zoom range into a fairly compact and lightweight package, with a keen selling price.
The next step up for full-frame cameras is a 70-200mm lens. It might seem strange that a more expensive class of lens has less powerful telephoto reach, but the main advantage here is generally a faster aperture rating of f/2.8 or f/4, which remains constant throughout the zoom range. The physical length of the lens also usually remains fixed at any zoom setting but they’re rather larger than 70-300mm lenses. 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto zooms can be much heavier and pricier, as the diameter of optical elements towards the front of the needs to be a lot bigger. You don't get the zoom range of a cheaper telephoto lens, but you do get a big jump in image quality and low-light performance, and better separation between your subject and its background, thanks to the wider lens apertures.
Full frame vs APS-C telephoto lenses
Naturally, you can use full-frame compatible telephoto zooms on APS-C format Canon, Nikon and Sony cameras. The 1.5x or 1.6x crop factor boosts the ‘effective’ telephoto zoom range giving you much more powerful reach. Another bonus is that you’ll only be using a relatively small, central area of the image circle produced by the lens, where image quality is at its best.
Even so, manufacturers of ‘crop sensor’ cameras also make lenses that are specifically designed to suit the size of the image sensor. These often have zoom ranges that equate to 70-200mm or 70-300mm in full-frame terms, once the crop factor is applied, but are typically smaller and lighter and often less expensive to buy than full-frame compatible lenses. A full frame lens is ideal, but getting an APS-C lens for an APS-C camera can save both weight and cash.
With all that in mind, here’s our pick of the best telephoto lenses to suit a wide range of cameras.
Canon makes a pretty good EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM telephoto zoom for its APS-C format SLRs. It’s compact and lightweight at 70x111mm and 375g. Measuring 80x146mm and weighing 710g, this full-frame compatible lens is naturally larger and nearly twice the weight but, for our money, it’s more than twice as good. As well as having more powerful telephoto reach, equivalent to 480mm in full-terms, it boasts a super-fast Nano USM autofocus system, a more effective image stabilizer, and delivers sharper image quality. As a handling highlight, it also has an in-barrel information screen with an adjacent button for cycling through multiple modes. It’s our favourite telephoto zoom for APS-C format SLRs and also makes a great compact, budget telephoto for full-frame Canon cameras, including EOS R-series mirrorless models via a mount adapter.
Canon’s own-brand EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM is a favourite with professional photographers all over the world but we prefer this direct competitor from Sigma. It’s similarly sturdy, with a magnesium alloy barrel and a full set of weather-seals, and boasts an optical path that includes no less than 11 top-performance FLD (‘Fluorite’ Low Dispersion) elements. Dual autofocus modes are available, giving priority to autofocus or manual override respectively. Focus on/hold buttons are built into the barrel, the action of which can be switched with some of Canon’s up-market cameras. There are also two switchable custom modes which you can set up with Sigma’s optional USB Dock, for adjusting the likes of autofocus speed and the distance of the range limiter, as well as how visual the stabilization effect is in the viewfinder. Speaking of which, the stabilizer is slightly more effective than in the Canon lens. The only downsides are that the Sigma is a bit bigger and heavier than most 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, and only the tripod foot is detachable rather than the whole mounting ring.
Bucking the trend for 70-200mm lenses, this new zoom for Canon EOS R-series cameras has an inner barrel that extends as you sweep through the zoom range. It has a tough, weather-sealed build befitting its expensive price tag. The telescoping nature of the construction naturally enables a more compact stowage size and the lens is also comparatively lightweight at just 1,070g. For the sake of comparison, Sigma’s 70-200mm f/2.8 for SLRs weighs 1,805g. Performance is exceptional, with lightning-fast autofocus driven by dual Nano USM actuators and triple-mode 5-stop optical stabilization. Sharpness is amazing throughout the entire zoom range, even when shooting wide-open at f/2.8.
Nikon’s full-frame compatible 70-300mm lenses have been highly regarded since the heyday of 35mm film cameras but this latest edition is by far the best yet. Compared with the previous version, the 4.5-stop stabilizer adds two full stops of effectiveness and gains Nikon’s more recent ‘Sport’ mode, while the stepping motor-based autofocus system is both faster and practically silent in operation. The lens also gains an electromagnetically controlled aperture diaphragm, which enables greater exposure consistency when shooting in rapid continuous drive. However, the autofocus system and aperture mechanism make the lens incompatible with some older Nikon DSLRs, including the D3000 and D5000. Image quality is super-sharp for this class of telephoto zoom, making it a great lightweight choice for both DX and FX format SLRs, as well as for mirrorless Z-series cameras via an FTZ mount adapter.
Nikon’s latest AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR is undeniably a superb lens but it doesn’t do anything better than Sigma’s alternative zoom, which costs barely more than half the money. Indeed, the Sigma even undercuts Nikon’s lower-budget 70-200mm f/4 lens for price. Like the top-flight Nikon, the Sigma has fully a professional-grade, robust and weather-sealed construction and impeccable handling, which includes customisable focus-on/hold buttons around the barrel. Another similarity is switchable autofocus modes that give priority either to autofocus or to manual override. The Sigma adds two further customisable setups for the speed of its autofocus system, the distance at which its autofocus range limiter works, and how visible the effect of stabilization is in the viewfinder. These can be configured via Sigma’s optional USB Dock, after which they’re available via a switch on the lens. Based on our lab-tests and real-world testing, the Sigma matches the much pricier Nikon for performance and image quality at every step.
Despite its powerful ‘effective’ zoom range of 75-375mm in full-frame terms, this DX format is particularly compact and lightweight, ideally matched to the diminutive Nikon Z 50 mirrorless camera body. Part of the weight-saving comes from a plastic rather than metal mounting plate, but the overall build still feels pretty sturdy. A retractable design enables a compact stowage size, as also featured in its Z DX 16-50mm stablemate. Both have a relatively ‘slow’ f/6.3 aperture rating at the long end of the zoom range, but the telephoto zoom’s highly efficient 5-stop stabilizer helps to keep things steady. Ideal for shooting movies as well as stills, autofocus is virtually silent and the customizable control ring enables silent, stepless aperture control as well as alternative functions.
The Nikon Z 6 and Z 7 are excellent mirrorless full-frame cameras but the most impressive thing about the system overall is the razor-sharp image quality delivered by Nikon’s Z-mount ‘S-line’ lenses. The 70-200mm f/2.8 hits new heights, thanks to a premium optical design that includes two aspherical elements, one fluorite element, no less than six ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements and an SR (Short-wavelength Refractive) element. ARNEO Coat and Nano Crystal Coat are also applied to minimize ghosting and flare. Other highlights include hugely effective 5.5-stop optical VR (Vibration Reduction) and super-fast yet virtually silent autofocus system. Everything’s wrapped up in a solid, weather-sealed casing with a fluorine coating on the front element. Dual customizable Lens-function buttons and a customizable control ring enhance handling although, typical of 70-200mm f/2.8mm lenses, it’s quite big and heavy.
Fujifilm’s telephoto zoom offerings for its X-mount cameras include the compact and budget-friendly XC50-230mm f/4.5-6.7 OIS II, and the more advanced, highly capable XF55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 R LM OIS. However, for the ultimate in performance, build quality and overall image quality, this XF50-140mm f/2.8 WR OIS lens is the one to go for. Taking the 1.5x crop factor into account, it has a 75-210mm ‘effective’ zoom range, competing with popular 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses for full-frame cameras. High-end glass includes five ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements and one Super ED element, along with high-tech HT-EBC (High Transmittance Electron Beam Coating) and Nano-GI (Gradient Index) coating. It’s not overly large for an APS-C format lens, despite having fully internal zoom and focus mechanisms, the latter being driven by a speedy triple linear motor. There’s also a highly effective 5-stop optical image stabilizer. Everything’s built into a particularly tough and durable package and, if you feel the need for a little extra reach, optional kits are available that include either a 1.4x or a 2.0x tele-converter.
Olympus and Panasonic
With their downsized image sensors, Micro Four Thirds cameras have a 2x crop factor that extends the telephoto reach of lenses. Indeed, the Panasonic 45-150mm gives has an ‘effective’ zoom range of 90-300mm but is still impressively small and weighs a mere 200g, making it a good match on even the most compact and slim-line Olympus and Panasonic camera bodies. The optical design includes two aspherical elements and an ultra-high refractive index element, autofocus is fast and near-silent, and the lens has a ‘Mega Optical Image Stabilizer’. No official rating is given for the last of these but, in our tests, it only gave an effectiveness equivalent to about two stops. Even so, the lens delivers very pleasing image quality and is remarkably inexpensive to buy. All things considered, it’s knockout value for money.
This Pentax lens is remarkably small for a 55-300mm zoom, partly because it’s designed exclusively for APS-C format cameras but mostly because it has a retractable design for compact storage. There’s nothing small about the zoom range, however, which is equivalent to 82.5-450mm on a full-frame camera. Build quality is very good, featuring weather-seals and a fluorine coating on the front element, while optical highlights include ED elements and Pentax’s HD coating to reduce ghosting and flare. The stepping motor-based autofocus system is ultra-quiet compared with some Pentax lenses, but is still audible and not particularly fast. Pentax’s ‘Quick-Shift Focus System’ enables easy switching between autofocus and manual focus. There’s no optical stabilizer, the lens instead relying on the sensor-shift stabilization of Pentax camera bodies, which isn’t always ideal when shooting with telephoto lenses. Image quality is very good overall but sharpness drops off a bit at the long end of the zoom range.
Sony recently launched a highly impressive pair of up-market lenses for its A6000-series cameras, in the shape of the E 16-55mm f/2.8 G standard zoom and this telephoto lens. Unlike its smaller companion, the telephoto zoom doesn’t have a fast, constant aperture rating and drops to f/6.3 at the long end. Even so, that’s not uncommon for recent zoom lenses for mirrorless cameras, from a variety of manufacturers. The upside is that the zoom range is particularly generous, equating to 105-525mm in full-frame terms and taking the lens into super-telephoto territory. One aspherical element and three ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements are featured in the premium optical design An XD (eXtreme Dynamic) linear motor powers the high-speed autofocus system, which includes a customisable focus hold button on the side of the barrel. No official rating is given for the Optical SteadyShot system but it gave a mediocre 3-stop effectiveness in our tests. The weather-sealed build is impressively robust but reasonably lightweight. Image quality is superb.
If money is no object, Sony’s FE 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master OSS is a cracking telephoto zoom. However, it’s a weighty beast at 1,480g and feels a bit of a mismatch for slim-line A7 and A9 series camera bodies. This f/4 model is much more manageable, tipping the scales at 840g, and it’s much more affordable to buy. There’s no shortage of high-tech attractions, including precision ‘advanced aspherical’ and Super ED elements, along with Nano AR coating. Dual-mode optical stabilization includes switchable static and panning modes, and the autofocus system is super-fast, based on twin linear motors. Image quality is superb in all respects, although stabilization performance is a bit lacklustre. Even so, that’s less of an issue on current and recent Sony cameras that feature sensor-shift stabilizers. This lens is the sensible choice for Sony’s full-frame mirrorless cameras, unless you really feel the need for the G Master lens’s extra f/stop.