The best Nikon telephoto lenses don't have to cost a fortune. There's a long list of lenses to choose from, comprising everything from modest zooms at an affordable price point, through premium pro telephotos right up to super-telephotos with a whopping 500mm focal length or longer.
Then of course, you need to pick the one that's right for your body. The best Nikon cameras include both APS-C (DX) and full-frame (FX) sensors, in both DSLR (F) and mirrorless (Z) mounts. So there's a lot to consider!
To make the minefield easier to navigate, we've put assembled this guide to the best Nikon telephoto lenses around right now. There are actually a number of hyper-telephoto optics available as well, so although we've included one example here, we also have a separate guide to the best 150-600mm lenses.
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You might be tempted to stick to first-party Nikon lenses, but third-party manufacturers such as Tamron and Sigma make excellent optics for all sorts of different users – and many of these are as good as or even better than Nikon's own lenses, with the added benefit of generally being more affordable.
Broadly, telephoto lenses break down into three groups: affordable telephotos for amateurs and enthusiasts, professional telephotos with constant maximum apertures and super-telephoto lenses perfect for long-range bird watching or wildlife.
One thing to watch out for is that some of the more recent lenses feature an electromagnetically controlled diaphragm. Compared with the mechanical lever traditionally used in Nikon’s F-mount lens system, this enables greater consistency in aperture control – especially when shooting in high-speed continuous drive mode. The downside is that aperture control is incompatible with older Nikon bodies, including the D300s, D3000 and D5000.
So here's our pick of the best Nikon telephoto lenses.
(We've stuck to zooms because these are the most versatile and the most affordable. You can also get fast aperture telephoto prime lenses, but these are VERY expensive and for professional use.)
Best Nikon telephoto lenses in 2021
We were always big fans of Nikon’s AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR and this recently launched replacement is even better. It features a ‘Pulse’ stepping motor autofocus system that’s incredibly fast and essentially silent in operation, and there’s also an electromagnetically controlled diaphragm; the only catch is that both of these systems make the lens incompatible with a number of older Nikon DSLRs. The VR system is particularly effective, with 4.5-stop performance and a switchable ‘Sport VR’ mode, ideal for tracking erratically moving objects through the viewfinder. The weather-resistant construction feels robust, and the lens is a top performer in terms of handling and image quality, although some may be disappointed at the lack of a focus distance scale. Since launch, the average selling price has dropped by almost a third, making this lens much better value.
It’s not the outright cheapest telephoto zoom on the market, but, considering that it has fast, whisper-quiet ring-type ultrasonic autofocus, plus highly effective optical stabilization, it's a steal at the price. Unlike many of Tamron’s more recent, up-market lenses, it’s not weather-sealed, but the overall standard of build quality is still very good. Aided by the inclusion of both an LD (Low Dispersion) and an XLD (eXtra Low Dispersion) element, levels of sharpness and contrast are very pleasing, and colour fringing is well controlled. All in all, you can’t buy better if you’re in the market for a budget 70-300mm lens. Unlike some Nikon tele-zooms, the Tamron is compatible with FX as well as DX-format bodies, and its conventional autofocus and aperture control systems make it compatible with older DSLRs.
The Nikon Z 50 is available in an attractive twin-lens kit that includes this telephoto lens as well as the Z 16-50mm standard zoom. Also sold separately, it matches the latter in having a space-saving retractable design and is refreshingly lightweight, helped by the inclusion of a plastic rather than metal mounting plate. Typical of Z-mount Nikon lenses, it has a ‘pulse’ stepping motor autofocus system that’s quick and virtually silent, plus an electromagnetically controlled aperture diaphragm. The aperture itself shrinks to a fairly narrow f/6.3 at the long end of the zoom range but that helps to keep the size and weight down. The zoom range itself is equivalent to 75-350mm in full-frame terms. Image quality is very convincing in all respects and sharpness is enhanced in practical terms by a highly effective 5-stop optical VR system.
The Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 DG OS HSM joins the 'Sport' line, and as this name implies, speed is very much the name of the game here. The lens has been designed with outstanding action capture in mind, and it hits this mark pretty perfectly. It boasts class-leading autofocus speeds and an Intelligent OS that provides effective, algorithm-led image stabilisation in all camera orientations. Water- and oil-repellent coatings on the front of the lens ensure that it can stand up to challenging weather conditions. There's also a focus limiter and a manual override switch to give you very precise control over how your autofocusing works. The drawbacks? All this tech doesn't come cheap, and it also makes the lens pretty heavy even with the magnesium-alloy construction, so bear this in mind before you buy.
Nikon’s latest and greatest AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 FL ED VR lens is undeniably spectacular, but this Tamron does everything pretty much as well, and for just half the price. It has an astonishingly fast autofocus system and a triple-mode optical stabilizer, with the third mode being similar to Nikon’s ‘VR Sport’ mode – this applies stabilization only during exposures, making it easier to track erratically moving objects in the viewfinder. On top of that, the Tamron’s VC (Vibration Compensation) system is a stop more effective than the Nikon’s, with class-leading 5-stop performance. The weather-sealed build quality doesn’t feel quite as robust as that of the Nikon lens, but it’s pretty close, and image quality is epic in every respect.
This Tamron lens is full-frame compatible, but gives a slightly longer effective zoom range on both full frame Nikons and DX-format DSLRs than comparable 70-200mm lenses, equivalent to 105-315mm in full-frame terms. The Tamron’s optical image stabilizer is similarly effective for static shots but less so for panning; it lacks a switchable ‘Active’ mode, but nevertheless works well when shooting from an idling vehicle or other non-steady platform. Image quality isn’t quite as sharp as from Nikon's own telephoto lenses but it’s still very impressive in all respects. The construction includes weather seals and a keep-clean fluorine coating on the front element.
70-200mm f/2.8 lenses are incredibly versatile, often favoured for everything from action sports and wildlife to portraiture, weddings and event photography. Nikon really has gone for glory with the design of this lens, which features a feast of high-end glass, including two aspherical elements, six ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements, a fluorite element and a short-wave refractive element. High-tech ARNEO and Nano Crystal Coat are added for good measure. Although typically big and heavy for this class of lens, handling benefits from a removable tripod mounting ring, two customisable L.Fn (Lens Function) buttons and a multi-mode OLED information display. The lens also features rapid dual autofocus stepping motors and 5-stop optical stabilization. Everything’s wrapped up in a sturdy pro-grade, weather-sealed build, complete with a fluorine coating on the front element.
If performance is paramount and price is no object, Nikon's stellar 120-300mm f/2.8E lens is in a league of its own. A very unusual focal range, it sits between the trusted 70-200mm and 300mm combo used by professional sports shooters, offering a fast in-between solution for shooting mid and long range subjects. It has absolutely no weaknesses and is outstandingly consistent in its performance, with remarkable sharpness across the frame, across the focal range and across the apertures – which is what you're paying the big bucks for. Obviously its 9K price tag put it out of most people's reach, but if you have the bucks to spend then you'll receive a versatile and near-perfect performer that's outstanding for sports and wildlife (and takes a mean portrait, too).
Weighing barely more than a kilogram, this Tamron is much lighter than most 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, but gives you twice as much telephoto reach at the long end of its zoom range – if you’ve upgraded from a DX camera with a 70-300mm lens, and are missing the 1.5x crop factor on your FX body, it can give you back some of your lost reach. The lens is sturdy and robust, despite its relatively light weight compared with the likes of Nikon’s AF-S 80-400mm VR, and incorporates weather seals. Performance benefits from super-fast autofocus, 4-stop dual-mode stabilization, and an autofocus limiter that you can use to select either the short or long section of the focusing range. Best of all, image quality is every bit as good as from Nikon’s heavier and pricier 80-400mm VR.
A little more compact and lightweight than the competing Tamron 100-400mm lens, and rather less heavy than the Nikon 80-400mm, this ‘Contemporary’ zoom from Sigma still feels solid and sturdy. It even has a dual-mode zoom mechanism, which you can operate by twisting the conventional zoom ring or with a push-pull action of the barrel; the supplied lens hood is specially shaped for the latter option. Impressive image quality benefits from the inclusion of four SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements and, like the much pricier Nikon 80-400mm, there are switchable auto/manual-priority AF modes. Two custom settings can be applied to tailor the autofocus and stabilization systems to your requirements, via Sigma’s optional USB dock. It’s a great lens for the money, although the lack of an optional tripod mounting ring might be a bit of an upset.
Despite its reasonable asking price this Nikon lens certainly isn’t lacking in advanced features, including very fast ring-type ultrasonic autofocus, an electromagnetically controlled aperture, and a 4.5-stop stabilizer complete with Sport VR mode. It’s also unusual for this class of super-telephoto zoom in having a constant rather than variable aperture, with f/5.6 remaining available throughout the entire zoom range. Three ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements help to boost sharpness and contrast while reducing colour fringing. The Nikon doesn’t have quite the maximum telephoto reach of competing Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm lenses, but it comes very close, and it's great value at the price.
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