Once you're done choosing best Canon camera you then have to face an even greater challenge – picking the best lenses to go with it!
Why buy telephoto lenses? Quite simply it's all about the reach, with telephoto lenses able to push you further and pick out more distant subjects than any other kind. This makes them desirable for all types of photography but essential in particular for sports and wildlife; however, you'll also find them useful if you work in other disciplines. Telephoto lenses produce a different perspective to wider optics, with less distortion, making them desirable for shooting more flattering portraits.
But which to choose? While you'll likely be tempted to stick with Canon, and it's true the firm does make excellent lenses, it's always worth comparing the third-party options, many of which are absolutely fantastic and can also save you a small fortune. For example, there’s no denying that the newer 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.
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.
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.
Shockingly the lens hood for this lens is sold separately - but save yourself money by buying a third-party version, which is much better value than the Canon ET-74B original.
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.
Sigma really pushed the boat out when designing this fast, constant-aperture zoom. From the ‘Sports’ line-up of Global Vision lenses, it goes large on speed and performance, as well as physical size. Autofocus is courtesy of a rapid ring-type ultrasonic system, and comes complete with AF on/hold buttons on the barrel, the action of which can be customised in recent mid-range and up-market Canon DSLRs. The full range of automatic lens aberration corrections is also available, and two switchable dedicated custom modes can be set up with Sigma’s optional USB Dock. The lens is super-sharp even when shooting wide-open, helped in real terms by a highly effective optical stabilizer. The only real downsides are that it’s big and weighty for a 70-200mm zoom, and only the tripod mounting foot is removable (via four Allen screws) rather than the complete mounting ring.
Unlike most constant-aperture 70-200mm zooms, this Canon lens for EOS R-series cameras has an inner barrel that extends at longer zoom settings. Typical drawbacks are an increased likelihood of dust being sucked into the lens, and the danger of zoom creep. On the plus side, it enables a particularly small stowage size for this class of lens, and it’s relatively lightweight as well, in keeping with EOS mirrorless full-frame cameras. It’s pricey to buy but high-end attractions include super-fast and silent Dual Nano USM autofocus, 5-stop optical image stabilization, a customisable control ring and typically pro-grade L-series build quality. Image quality is superb with fabulous sharpness and minimal aberrations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.