Last Updated on May 9, 2023 by Photography PX
When you look at most sports stadiums, arenas, or sidelines, you’ll often see a flood of professional photographers with enormous telephoto lenses. And they’re using them for a good reason. A telephoto lens lets you get closer to the action by exaggerating the subject through lens compression and focal magnification.
Doing so lets you capture fine intricate details of distant subjects dozens if not hundreds of feet away. And it gives you reach that standard lenses can’t offer. So, thankfully, gone are the days where you’d have to risk your livelihood running into a live NFL match or amongst lions catching dinner, all for the sake of getting the proper framing. Good riddance.
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Historically though many of Nikon’s telephoto lenses have cost a small fortune. But, these days, manufacturers like Tamron and Sigma have joined the ecosystem. And they’ve developed competitive alternatives with matching quality but simultaneously undercut Nikon as much as 50% in price. Nikon themselves have also discounted much of their lineup. So now, many of their best lenses are closely in line with a high-end prime lens.
And this is great news if you’re looking to enter the ecosystem. But, as Nikon is quite a developed manufacturer, there’s no shortage of potential options fitting the suit. So picking the right lens can be somewhat intimidating. With that, we’ve compiled a detailed guide and an FAQ outlining some factors to consider. And we’ll also cover the best Nikon telephoto lenses on the present market.
5 – Nikon 70-200mm f/4G ED VR
Nikon’s 70-200mm f/4G brings excellent image quality and versatility at a more affordable price than its f/2.8 sibling. This lens features a 9-blade diaphragm, a 67mm filter, image stabilization, and weighs 850g. Internally, it houses 20 elements arranged into 14 groups, including several extra-low dispersion elements and Nikon’s Super Integrated Coating to reduce ghosting. Many often overlook the f/4 variant and end up snagging the f/2.8. But, the f/4 brings a more compact and lightweight frame with many of the same features, namely 4-stops of stabilization and Nikon’s Nano-crystal coating.
But you save 580g, which for context is the weight of an average compact mirrorless camera. And this alone greatly improves comfort and makes it better suited for handheld work. Not to mention, it’s also 40% cheaper than the f/2.8E variant. As such, Nikon’s 70-200mm f/4G lens offers plenty of value if you’re willing to forgo the wider aperture. And it’s a solid alternative for those wanting this focal range, not fussy about low light performance.
4 – Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 VC USD
Tamron’s 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 lens gives you excellent reach at an affordable price. This lens features a 9-blade diaphragm, a 67mm filter, image stabilization, weather sealing, and weighs 1,115g. Internally, it houses 17 elements arranged into 11 groups, capturing several low dispersion elements along with the eBAND, and BBAR coatings to reduce ghosting, flares, and chromatic aberrations. Yet, at only 1,115g or 2.45 lbs it’s surprisingly lighter than even Nikon’s 70-200 f/2.8E but brings 200mm more reach.
And it stands among the lightest modern lenses reaching 400mm. But, despite its rather lightweight build, it still offers a robust weather-sealed construction with 4 stops of stabilization and image quality that matches the equivalent Nikon flagship. As such, Tamron’s 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 lens is an excellent option for those wanting to shoot sports and wildlife. And it’s particularly great if you want something lightweight yet feature-packed.
3 – Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC G2
Now on its second generation, Tamron’s 70-200mm f/2.8 remains unmatched in this class, beating Nikon’s own first-party option. This lens features a 9-blade diaphragm, a 77mm filter, image stabilization, weather sealing and weighs 1,485g. Internally, it houses an impressive configuration boasting 23 elements arranged in 17 groups, including several low dispersion and an extra-low dispersion element to eliminate chromatic aberrations.
And this configuration delivers similar raw performance that matches Nikon’s f/2.8E, which costs twice the price. Yet, with this second generation, Tamron’s brought other substantial improvements to the lineup. Namely, it receives better stabilization, now ready for five stops of reduction, improved focusing, and a refined design. Together, the 70-200mm f/2.8 G2 stands out as the best lens of its class, with superior value to the Nikon equivalent. And it’s an excellent option for capturing sports and wildlife in challenging lighting conditions.
2 – Nikon AF-P 70-300 f/4.5-5.6E ED VR
Nikon’s 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E lens updates a fan favorite and a legend in its own right. This lens features a 9-blade diaphragm, a manual focus override, a 67mm filter, image stabilization, weather sealing and weighs 680g. Internally, it houses 18 elements arranged into 14 groups, including an Extra-Low Dispersion element and Nikon’s Super Integrated Coating to reduce glare. Nikon’s also added their new generation AF-P, Pulse, autofocus motor with this new model.
And it delivers faster focusing that’s now nearly silent when used with their newer generation DLSRs. They’ve also added an electromagnetically controlled diaphragm, which helps the lens produce more consistent exposures, especially during burst shots. Yet, it continues to house the extremely effective Vibration Reduction (VR) stabilizer, now updated for 4.5 stops of handshake and offers a Sports mode to better track movement in the viewfinder. As such, Nikon’s 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E is a top performer given its excellent image quality and stabilization. But, it’s also a fantastic everyday walkaround telephoto lens given its weight.
1 – Sigma 150-600 f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | S
Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 lens brings heavy-duty power and outstanding versatility. This lens features a 9-blade diaphragm, a 105mm filter, a manual focus override, a zoom lock, weather sealing, and image stabilization. Internally, it houses 24 elements arranged into 16 groups, including several Super Low-Dispersion elements to reduce chromatic aberration and a front fluorine coating to prevent scratches. As the sports lens of the lineup, it comes with a weight of 2860g (6.3 lbs), making it quite a heavyweight.
And it’s one that’ll likely demand a tripod in most situations. But, Sigma planned accordingly by equipping the lens with a dual-mode stabilization system, ready to compensate for 4-stops of shake with switchable modes to maximize static or pan shots. And given that you have a 600mm lens at your disposal, which beats Nikon themselves, the trade-off is worthwhile since you can get incredibly close to subjects. And overall, Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5-6.3 is an excellent telephoto lens that offers not only a professional-level build quality and outstanding performance. But it does so at a far more reasonable price point. So if you’re looking for one telephoto lens for most sports or wildlife applications, this is certainly the best option without opting for a 600mm prime costing the same as a downpayment on a house.
Nikon Telephoto Lenses Buyers Guide:
There’s a wide range of focal lengths for telephoto lenses, so it’s important to know your subject matter beforehand as not all are equal. Thankfully, you can find these products broken into three major categories, short, medium, and super telephotos. Let’s cover each now and their best uses.
Short-telephoto – these range from 70-135mm, and they keep you near subjects, but not so near as to intrude. And they’re generally the most compact and lightweight. This focal length is best for shooting portraits and photojournalism.
Medium-telephoto – these range from 135-300mm and they keep you further from subjects, usually where the shutter click happens outside of hearing distance. They’re a popular option for capturing most sports and action, say from the field’s sidelines. And they’re also great for capturing wildlife who don’t scare easily.
Super-telephoto – these range from 300mm on up and keep you the furthest distance from the subject. And this focal length is the go-to choice for wildlife photographers and motorsports, where getting closer to the action is dangerous or not practical.
Size & Weight
Generally, the longer the focal length, the larger and heavier the lens. Even so, telephotos do vary quite a lot in size, and you can still find somewhat compact options, even in the super-telephoto crowd. For some, size and weight will be important considerations. And it could be a potential deal-breaker if you plan on traveling often. So it’s important to evaluate how often you’ll be traveling with the lens.
And how important is its size and weight to you? If it’s not a problem, you’re best going with a longer and heavier lens so that you can get the best build quality, aperture, and focal length combination available. But know, you’ll likely be stuck shooting with it on a tripod. So it will limit your mobility. Otherwise, focus on finding the most portable option in the appropriate focal range you need.
Most of Nikon’s telephoto lenses offer optical stabilization or VR (Vibration Reduction). And they’ve added this feature for a good reason. VR stabilizes the lens, reducing shake and vibration. And that, in turn, lets you shoot with a slower shutter speed to capture more ambient light. And this feature is a must if you enjoy working handheld and want to photograph low light scenes. Without it, you’ll have to use a tripod or monopod to reduce camera shake to get sharp images at slower shutter speeds below 1/50th a second. And that fact could limit your workflow.
But, VR is essential for super-telephoto lenses, as focal length dramatically amplifies the effect of camera shake. So if you’re looking for that kind of lens, be sure it has VR. Otherwise, if you don’t plan on shooting in low light and are using a short-telephoto lens, you can live without it.
If you plan on shooting sports and wildlife, it’s important that autofocus be quiet or near-silent. In this case, you’ll want to opt for a Nikon lens with a Silent Wave (SWM) or Ultrasonic (USM) Motor. Both of these technologies have quiet autofocus driving that shouldn’t be audible within a few feet away. So either will be great for these mediums.
You may also want to consider opting for a lens with a focus limiting switch, which restricts the focus to a set range. This feature, in turn, improves the AF speed by reducing hunting and helps when tracking fast-moving subjects.
Most telephoto lenses only offer a maximum aperture of f/2.8. But, there’s quite a premium to get this speed. So it’s important to consider the types of scenes you’ll often find yourself in beforehand. And avoid getting these lenses if you don’t usually shoot in low light, as they’re generally 40% more expensive. Otherwise, if light collection is a priority and you want the best possible images, an f/2.8 lens is the best route.
What is a telephoto lens?
A telephoto lens is a long focal length lens, generally ranging from 70 to 1,000mm, that magnifies distant objects through optical compression.
Which is better telephoto or zoom lens?
Which is best comes down to your use case and subject matter. A prime telephoto lens will offer the best image quality and fastest aperture. But, you’ll be stuck with a set focal length, which means you’ll have to physically move to change perspective. A zoom lens, on the other hand, offers more versatility in framing. But, they usually don’t have fast apertures, and the image quality across the range suffers. So which is best comes down to the subjects you want to shoot and whether moving to reframe is easy.
Are telephoto lenses worth it?
Yes. They’re versatile and especially useful when getting close to a subject isn’t possible or feasible.
What are the disadvantages of a telephoto lens?
The main disadvantages are the depth of field, price, and size. Even at high apertures, the depth of field offered by most of these lenses is quite shallow, usually less than 1m at f/2.8. And this fact can make it difficult to get much of the scene in focus without using outstandingly high apertures. Next, there’s the price.
Many of these lenses average about 5x the price of a standard prime lens, which makes the entry point somewhat prohibitive for many photographers. Lastly, there’s the size. Most of these lenses are also twice the size of comparable prime lenses, averaging around 1,000g (2.2 lb) compared to 400g (0.88 lb). So they’re generally difficult to travel with when you want to do so with minimal weight.
What are telephoto lenses good for?
Telephoto lenses are best for capturing far-off subjects with great detail and the proper perspective.