Canon makes some of the greatest telephoto lenses in the world, but they’re not always the best buys. Competing lenses from independent manufacturers often deliver equally good overall performance and image quality, and sometimes they’re even better.
Third-party lenses can also save you a small fortune. For example, there’s no denying that the new Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM is a top-class, professional-grade lens. But in some respects, the Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 is even better and costs little more than half the price.
In this guide, we’ll be choosing the best-buy telephoto lenses in terms of price and performance. We’ll be catering to a wide range of requirements and budgets, from relatively small, compact telephoto zooms right up to powerful super-telephoto lenses. However, we’ll be stopping short of ultra-telephoto 150-600mm lenses, which you’ll find in our separate 150-600mm lens buyers’ guide here.
1. Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2
Pro-grade performance at half the price
Mount: Canon EF | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabiliser: Yes | Min focus distance: 0.95m | Filter thread: 77mm | Dimensions (WxL): 88x194mm | Weight: 1,500g
The best Canon telephoto lens overall: While the latest edition of Canon’s own 70-200mm f/2.8 stabilized zoom is only a minor refresh of the previous version, Tamron’s SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 (Generation 2) lens benefits from a major revamp.
The new lightning-fast autofocus system is based on dual microprocessors. There’s also a class-leading image stabilizer with 5-stop performance, and it gains two additional operating modes. The three switchable modes are for static and panning shots, plus an option that only applies stabilization during actual exposures, rather than affecting the viewfinder image.
This makes it easier to track erratically moving objects. Unlike the previous edition of the lens, the G2 is also compatible with Tamron’s new tele-converters, which are also extremely good.
2. Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM
The new Mark II punches above its weight
Mount: Canon EF | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.0m | Filter thread: 72mm | Dimensions (WxL): 80x176mm | Weight: 780g
The runner-up 70-200mm Canon lens: New and improved in 2018, the Mark II edition of Canon’s stabilized 70-200mm f/4 lens has an upgraded optical design for improved image quality.
As well as new glass elements in a different configuration, the coatings are more refined, to help fend off ghosting and flare. Fluorine coatings are also added to the front and rear elements, to repel moisture and grease, and to aid easy cleaning. Similar in performance to Tamron’s 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, the optical stabilizer has a 5-stop rating and three switchable operating modes.
Image quality is excellent and handling benefits from the lens only being about half the weight of most 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. A tripod mounting ring is available as an optional extra, but the genuine Canon ring is pricey to buy.
3. Tamron 70-210mm f/4 Di VC USD
Big on performance and value, but light in weight
Mount: Canon EF | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 0.95m | Filter thread: 67mm | Dimensions (WxL): 76x177mm | Weight: 860g
The best value 70-200mm lens for Canon: The longest focal length of the Tamron 70-210mm F/4 Di VC USD stretches marginally further than conventional 70-200mm lenses, and while it’s full-frame compatible, the lens gives a powerful zoom range of 112-336mm on APS-C format Canon DSLRs. It’s a little heavier than Canon’s latest 70-200mm f/4 IS lens, but still much lighter than f/2.8 lenses.
As usual with this class of constant-aperture telephoto zoom, the physical length of the lens remains fixed throughout the zoom range. The build includes weather-seals and a fluorine coating on the front element, although the 4-stop stabilizer is slightly less effective than that of Canon’s latest equivalent lens, and it only has a single operating mode.
Autofocus speed and image quality are highly impressive, and a tripod mounting ring is available as an optional extra.
4. Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM
Take a load off with this APS-C format zoom
Mount: Canon EF-S | Full-frame compatible: No | Autofocus type: Stepping Motor | Stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 0.85m | Filter thread: 58mm | Dimensions (WxL): 70x111mm | Weight: 375g
The best APS-C format lens for Canon: Proving that telephoto lenses don’t have to be heavy, the Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM weighs just 375g. Part of the weight loss is due to it having a plastic rather than metal mounting plate, but it’s also downsized because it’s specifically designed for APS-C format DSLRs.
As such, it only produces a relatively small image circle and the lens isn’t compatible with full-frame DSLRs. More sophisticated than the IS II model that it replaces, this latest edition has a virtually silent STM (Stepping Motor) autofocus system which is faster for stills and gives smoother autofocus transitions for movie capture.
It’s attractively priced, but as usual with Canon’s non-L-series lenses, you need to buy the hood separately.
5. Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM
Powerful reach, fancy features and good performance
Mount: Canon EF | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Nano USM | Stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.2m | Filter thread: 67mm | Dimensions (WxL): 80x146mm | Weight: 710g
The best-buy 70-300mm lens for Canon: A massive improvement over the original Canon 70-300mm IS USM, this Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM has a much faster Nano USM autofocus system that’s virtually silent, yet gives smooth transitions for video capture.
It’s like the best of ultrasonic and stepping motor systems rolled into one and, unlike in the previous lens, the focus ring no longer rotates during autofocus. The image stabilizer is also much improved, with a 4-stop rating, and image quality is much sharper with better contrast.
Another nice touch is that there’s an LCD screen on the barrel with a pushbutton for cycling through display modes. These include focus distance and depth of field, effective focal length on an APS-C format camera, and the current level of vibration.
It’s a smart own-brand Canon buy for the money, but the genuine ET-74B hood (sold separately) is shockingly pricey in the UK, at around £80 compared with $45 in the USA.
6. Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM
This is as good as it gets for a 70-300mm lens
Mount: Canon EF | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.2m | Filter thread: 67mm | Dimensions (WxL): 89x143mm | Weight: 1,050g
The best luxury 70-300mm lens for Canon: At first it’s hard to see the attraction of a suped-up 70-300mm lens that has the same f/4-5.6 variable aperture rating as most ‘budget’ telephoto zooms on the market.
However, this L-series Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens is typically well-built with a robust and weather-sealed construction. Attractions include a 4-stop image stabilizer with switchable static and panning modes, plus super-fast ring-type ultrasonic autofocus. Image quality is fabulous, helped by the inclusion of two UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) elements.
All in all, the lens is a good choice for action sports and wildlife photography, whatever the weather, especially when you need a bit more telephoto reach than a 70-200mm lens can deliver. An optional tripod mounting ring is available but it’s typically pricey. At least, unlike other Canon 70-300mm lenses, this one is supplied with a hood.
7. Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD
A good lens at a great price
Mount: Canon EF | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.5m | Filter thread: 62mm | Dimensions (WxL): 82x143mm | Weight: 765g
The best budget 70-300mm lens for Canon: This isn’t the cheapest 70-300mm lens on the market, as both Sigma and Tamron make cheaper non-stabilized options.
However, it adds fast and highly effective ring-type ultrasonic autofocus, which improves performance and handling, and includes the bonus of optical image stabilization. Both of these features tend to be lacking in cheaper 70-300mm lenses.
Given that Canon DSLRs don’t feature sensor-shift stabilization for shooting stills, stabilization is practically a ‘must-have’ feature for handheld telephoto shooting. Although it’s not weather-sealed, the Tamron is very well built for such an inexpensive lens.
It also delivers very good image quality with impressive sharpness and contrast. Unlike Canon’s similarly priced lenses, the Tamron comes complete with a hood.
8. Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD
More reach for less money
Mount: Canon EF | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.5m | Filter thread: 67mm | Dimensions (WxL): 86x199mm | Weight: 1,135g
The best-value 100-400mm lens for Canon: Weighing in at just over a kilogram, the recently launched Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD only weighs about two-thirds as much as most 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, but delivers twice the telephoto reach.
It’s a particularly attractive option for photographers who have traded up from an APS-C body to a full-frame camera, and are missing the extra ‘effective’ reach of a 70-300mm lens with a 1.6x crop factor. Well made, the Tamron feels sturdy and incorporates weather-seals.
Handling is refined with super-fast autofocus, a 4-stop dual-mode stabilizer and an autofocus limiter switch that can lock out either the short or long end of the focusing range. Image quality is excellent, on a par with Canon’s much pricier and heavier 100-400mm lens.
9. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS II USM
Big, strong and very long
Mount: Canon EF | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 0.98m | Filter thread: 77mm | Dimensions (WxL): 94x193mm | Weight: 1,640g
The best premium 100-400mm lens for Canon: At around twice the price of the Sigma and Tamron 100-400mm lenses on the market, the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is a more substantial proposition. It’s about 50 per cent weightier, comes complete with a tripod mounting ring, and has Canon’s typical L-series pro-grade build quality and weather-seals. The Mark II edition of the lens ditches the trombone style push-pull zoom mechanism and adopts a more conventional twist ring. However, it still incorporates the adjustable friction damper for the zoom mechanism, as featured on the original lens, which helps to avoid zoom creep. Top-class glass includes fluorite and Super UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) elements, along with ASC (Air Sphere Coating) to minimize ghosting and flare, and fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements. There’s a 4-stop triple-mode image stabilizer and very fast autofocus. All in all, it’s a better lens than the original edition in every respect.
10. Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | C
Surprisingly compact and great value for a 100-400mm zoom
Mount: Canon EF | Full-frame compatible: Yes | Autofocus type: Ultrasonic (ring-type) | Stabilizer: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.6m | Filter thread: 67mm | Dimensions (WxL): 86x182mm | Weight: 1,160g
The best budget 100-400mm lens for Canon: Slightly smaller and more lightweight than the competing Tamron lens, and much more compact than the Canon, Sigma’s ‘Contemporary’ class 100-400mm zoom nevertheless feels very well built.
The zoom and focus rings work with a smooth, fluid feel and you can also operate the zoom mechanism with a push-pull action. Indeed, the supplied lens hood is specially shaped for this purpose.
High-quality optics incorporate four SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements, while up-market features include extremely quick ring-type ultrasonic autofocus with three switchable focus modes. As such, you can give priority to either automatic or manual override in dual-mode AF, as well as selecting a purely MF setting. You can also apply custom settings to the new-generation image stabilizer and autofocus system, via Sigma’s optional USB Dock.
In our tests, the Sigma proved marginally less sharp than the competing Tamron 100-400mm but there’s very little in it, and the level of customisation is superior. One disappointment, however, is that no optional tripod mounting ring is available for the Sigma.