Best telephoto zoom lens: 8 tested
11th Apr 2012 | 08:30
Best telephoto lenses to get you closer to your subject
Telephoto zooms explained
Buy any DSLR that comes complete with a standard zoom lens and, chances are, your next purchase will be a telephoto zoom.
A typical 18-55mm 'kit' lens offers a fairly generous wide-angle perspective on life, equivalent to about 28mm, but runs out of reach at the long end of the zoom range. That's OK for portraiture, but when you want to close in on distant subjects, only a telephoto zoom will suffice.
Most of us use APS-C format camera bodies, so there's something to be said for buying a telephoto zoom specifically designed for an APS-C format camera. The focal length is generally around 55-200mm, so once you consider the crop factor or focal length multiplier, they're equivalent to about 80-300mm.
This effective zoom range is pretty much the same as conventional 70-300mm budget telephoto lenses, originally designed for full-frame cameras. But what if you upsize to a full-frame lens?
The physical size of a full-frame 70-300mm lens is likely to be bigger than an APS-C format telephoto zoom, but there are some distinct advantages.
Firstly, you'll get more telephoto reach, equivalent to 450mm (480mm for Canon APS-C bodies), giving you greater telescopic power in a package that's still fairly compact and lightweight. Secondly, because the image circle produced by the lens is cropped by APS-C cameras, you'll only be using the central region, where image quality is at its best.
You can expect greater sharpness into the corners of the frame, and better peripheral illumination, so vignetting (darkened image corners) is less of an issue. And if you ever decide to switch to a full-frame DSLR, you can carry on using the same telephoto lens.
Focal length gap
One thing that puts some people off going for a 70-300mm lens is the gap in focal length between a 18-55mm and larger lens. In practice however, this isn't a major problem.
Moving a few paces when composing, or a little creative cropping when using your standard zoom lens at its longest focal length, is all that's needed to offset the missing 55-70mm of zoom range.
Even so, out of all the lenses we tested here, Nikon bucks the trend. The Nikon AF-S DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR gives the conventional long-end reach of a full-frame lens, but it's the only one on test that's actually designed for APS-C format cameras. As such, it picks up at the same focal length that a standard zoom runs out, while still offering the same maximum telephoto reach of other lenses in the group. But what price image quality?
The lenses in this group fall short of the fully professional qualities you'd expect from constant aperture 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, which cost around £1,500 or more. But they fall into one of two main categories, either being built to a rock-bottom budget or aiming a few rungs further up the quality ladder.
Some of the older and cheaper lenses in the group were originally designed for 35mm film cameras. While they can still produce good results with DSLRs, they tend to be lacking in features, and optical quality isn't likely to be as good.
For £300 or more, you can expect better optical quality and state-of-the-art technology which, in most cases, will include optical image stabilisation. It's a great feature for shooting handheld, especially with zoom lenses, as camera-shake is more of a problem at long focal lengths.
The rule of thumb is that for consistently sharp handheld shots you need a shutter speed that's at least as fast as the reciprocal of the effective focal length.
So, if the effective focal length of your telephoto zoom stretches to 480mm, you'd need a fast shutter speed of 1/500 sec.
The largest available aperture at the longest zoom setting of a budget telephoto lens is normally f/5.6, so you may struggle to get sufficiently fast shutter speeds in anything other than bright, sunny conditions.
Sure, you can increase your camera's ISO setting to enable faster shutter speeds, but that's likely to impact on image quality.
The lenses that feature image stabilisation are signified as Canon IS (Image Stabilization), Nikon VR (Vibration Reduction), Sigma OS (Optical Stabilization) and Tamron VC (Vibration Compensation).
Most boast a four-stop advantage, meaning that you can expect sharp handheld results when shooting at just 1/30 sec (at a focal length of 480mm) instead of 1/500 sec. With a three-stop stabiliser, you'd need to increase the shutter speed to 1/60 sec.
Tamron doesn't fit its VC system to the Sony version of its 70-300mm lens because Sony bodies have sensor-shift stabilisation built in. Sigma takes a different view, fitting optical stabilisers to both the Pentax and Sony versions of its 70-300mm OS lens, so you get the option of using either sensor-shift or optical stabilisation on these cameras.
We've found that optical stabilisation generally produces more consistent results, so it's worth having.
Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III USM
Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III USM - £240/$320
Canon markets this lens as an 'affordable telephoto zoom with a lightweight design'. Sure enough, it's more compact and 150g lighter than the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM, but it's also quite lightweight in features.
The USM autofocus is of the cheaper, motor-based variety that lacks full-time manual focus override. The front element also rotates during focusing, which makes the use of filters like circular polarisers a pain. There's no image stabilisation and build quality feels a bit cheap.
As with many Canon lenses, no lens hood is supplied and the official ET-60 hood costs about £20 extra to buy. Another omission is that there's no focus distance scale. The original version of this lens was launched 20 years ago and even the current Mk III edition has been around for 12 years, having done little to transform itself for the digital age.
Despite its USM credentials, autofocus is ponderous and really struggles in dull lighting conditions. Sharpness is a pretty close match to Canon's more expensive 70-300mm IS lens in the 70-200mm region of the zoom range, but drops off more at longer focal lengths.
Distortions are well controlled throughout the zoom range. Colour fringing is a real problem and very noticeable across much of the image frame when shooting at long focal lengths. As a no-frills option, the lens is fairly cheap, but not particularly good value.
Taken at ISO 200
Very good through most of the zoom range, but sharpness is disappointing at 300mm and hampered by a lack of stabilisation.
Taken at the minimum zoom
There's very little colour fringing at the shorter end of the zoom range but it can be quite extreme between 250mm and 300mm.
Distortion is well controlled overall, and is the lowest in the entire group at the shortest end of the zoom range.
Image test verdict
Sharpness drops off at 300mm where colour fringing also becomes very noticeable, particularly towards the corners of the frame.
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM - £400/$550
Considerably larger and heavier than the Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III USM, this design was launched back in 2005. It's not exactly state-of-the-art, and features a dated IS (Image Stabilization) system that only offers a three-stop benefit, unlike the four-stop systems fitted to many current lenses from Canon and other manufacturers. There's also no automatic panning detection, so you have to manually switch between two modes for static or panning shots.
In most respects, build quality feels better than in Canon's cheaper 75-300mm lens, and in addition the 70-300mm has a UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) element intended to boost contrast and resolution while reducing colour fringing.
However, the USM autofocus is still only of the basic motor-based type, and the front element rotates during focusing. Unlike the cheaper lens, this one also suffers from appalling zoom creep.
Sharpness is good throughout the entire zoom range, and is better at the 300mm focal length than with on competing lenses. Despite the UD element, however colour fringing is still quite noticeable at long zoom settings. Autofocus speed is sluggish, especially at the 300mm end of the zoom range, with similar performance to Canon's cheaper 75-300mm.
We'd have expected ring-type USM to be fitted to this lens, considering its price. There's no doubt it's a better lens than the Canon 75-300mm, but there's still plenty of room for improvement.
Test results are excellent for sharpness at the centre of the frame, but less impressive towards the edges and corners of images.
Not quite as poor as Canon's non-IS 75-300mm lens, but colour fringing is still often noticeable at the 300mm end of the zoom range.
Barrel distortion is the worst in the group at 70mm, and there's noticeable pincushion distortion between 200mm and 300mm.
Image test verdict
The Canon 70-300mm hardly sets the world alight in terms of image quality, but sharpness at the centre of images is very good indeed.
Nikon AF-S DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR
Nikon AF-S DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR - £290/$400
This is the only lens tested here that's specifically designed for APS-C format cameras, so it's not compatible with full-frame bodies. We've included it anyway because, unlike most APS-C format telephoto zooms that have a 55-200mm or 55-250mm zoom range, the Nikon AF-S DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR stretches all the way to 300mm.
There's some smart sophistication in places, such as Nikon's latest-generation Vibration Correction, which gives a four-stop advantage in avoiding camera shake. In other areas, it's less refined and closer to the Canon lenses.
For example, the front element rotates during focusing, and the AF-S autofocus is a motor-based ultrasonic system instead of the more advanced ring-type version fitted to the Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR. This lens lacks a focus distance scale, but at least a hood is included.
Autofocus is a little quicker than in the Canon lenses here, but still lacks the full-time manual override facility of ring-type ultrasonic systems. Handling feels assured and, despite it being an APS-C format lens, it's still bigger and heavier than the Canon 75-300mm full-frame lens.
Sharpness is very good throughout the zoom range and colour fringing is well controlled. Our only slight criticism is that the extra zoom range seems to push distortions up a bit. They're most noticeable as barrel distortion at 55mm, changing to pincushion distortion in the central region of the zoom range.
Best at its shortest 55mm focal length, sharpness gradually reduces throughout the zoom range and is worst at 300mm.
Chromatic aberrations are barely noticeable at any focal length throughout the zoom range, making it a strong performer.
Fairly low considering the extra-large zoom range, distortion is noticeable at mid-range zoom settings, where there's some pincushion distortion.
Image test verdict
APS-C format cameras need to use the entire image circle of this lens, but even so corner-to-corner performance is particularly impressive.
Read the full Nikon AF-S DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR review
Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR
Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR - £420/$590
A major step up from most lenses in the group, the Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR has a much more professional feel to it. Build quality feels excellent and high-tech finery starts with ring-type ultrasonic autofocus (only matched by the Tamron SP AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD on test).
This has the potential to deliver very fast autofocus performance, complete with full-time manual override. You also get a focus distance scale, which is neatly mounted beneath a viewing window. Focusing is fully internal, so the front element neither moves nor rotates during focusing.
Further benefits over the Nikon AF-S DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR include a more sophisticated VR system. Both are rated at four stops, but this lens features dual-mode stabilisation, which adds an 'Active' setting.
One thing that's shared by both is a rubber O-ring on the mounting plate. This gives weather-sealed protection against dust and moisture, similar to the system used in most Canon L-series lenses.
Autofocus is super-fast and practically silent, and the manual override saves messing around with switches if you want to nudge the focus setting. Distortions are quite minimal and colour fringing is low.
Our lab tests indicate that sharpness could be better at the long end of the zoom range. but in real-world shooting we got pin-sharp shots time after time, with excellent contrast and superb all-round image quality.
Despite disappointing lab results at 300mm, sharpness and contrast are extremely good throughout the entire zoom range in real-world shooting.
There's a touch of colour fringing towards image corners at 300mm, but all Nikon's recent and current bodies tune this out automatically.
There's very little apparent distortion at any zoom setting. The 70-300mm beats Nikon's 55-300mm lens in this respect.
Image test verdict
Image quality is absolutely superb, and the Nikon does especially well to eek out every last drop of contrast under gloomy lighting conditions.
Read the full Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR review
Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO DG Macro
Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO DG Macro - £180/$240
You'd normally reach for a telephoto zoom when you want to shoot distant objects, but the Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO DG Macro is also designed for close-up work. In the 200-300mm zoom range, you can engage the lens's macro switch which shortens the closest focus distance from 150cm to 95cm, enabling a 0.5x maximum magnification factor.
Other attractions include three SLD (Special Low Dispersion) lens elements intended to minimise chromatic aberrations, but it lacks optical stabilisation and the autofocus motor is a basic electric unit.
The front element both moves out and rotates during focusing. At least build quality feels pretty robust and the lens barrel features both focus distance indication and an additional scale for magnification factor.
The Sigma APO turned in good results in lab tests, with respectable sharpness and reasonably low distortion. Aided by the SLD elements, colour fringing is also quite low throughout the zoom range. Autofocus speed from the electric motor isn't quick, but it's no slower than with the Canon lenses that feature ultrasonic motors.
The lack of image stabilisation makes handheld shooting a challenge on Canon and Nikon bodies, although it's less of an issue in Pentax or Sony versions of the lens, where you can use in-camera sensor-shift stabilisation.
The Sigma APO's main flaw is that it produces images with a marked lack of contrast in images taken under dull lighting conditions.
Impressive, particularly at the centre of the frame through most of the zoom range, though there's a bit of a drop at 300mm.
Colour fringing is only an issue at 300mm and, even then, you need some very high-contrast edges in scenes to make it a problem.
There's almost no distortion at all at 70mm, although pincushion distortion is visible from mid-range to long focal length settings.
Image test verdict
The Sigma looks good on paper, but image quality is flawed by disappointingly low-contrast images in less than bright lighting conditions.
Read the full Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO DG Macro review
Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS
Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS - £300/$360
Compared with Sigma's 70-300mm APO lens, the newer Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS ditches the macro facility but adds a four-stop optical stabiliser. That's great news for Canon and Nikon users and good news for Pentax and Sony photographers as well. We find that optical stabilisation gives better and more consistent results than sensor-shift stabilisation, especially when shooting at long telephoto focal lengths.
In common with the APO lens, the OS model only has a basic electric autofocus motor, instead of Sigma's HSM (HyperSonic Motor) system. Sigma has missed a trick here, since its motor-based HSM usually works well and its ring-type HSM is excellent.
The front element both moves out and rotates during focusing. A focus distance scale is printed on the lens barrel and comes complete with a depth of field indicator marked with f/11 and f/22 calibrations.
Whereas the Sigma APO lens has three SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements, this OS lens has only one. We'd therefore expect chromatic aberrations to be a problem but, as it turns out, the OS lens performs even better, turning in some of the lowest colour fringing test scores in the group.
There are decent levels of sharpness throughout nearly the whole zoom range, only dropping off noticeably at the 300mm end. For dull-day shots, contrast is pretty good, and much better than with the Sigma APO lens. All in all, it's a much better buy for the money.
Outright sharpness isn't as good as with Sigma's cheaper APO lens, but in practice optical stabilisation helps produce sharper handheld shots.
Despite only having one SLD element, instead of the APO lens's three, colour fringing is basically a non-issue at any zoom length.
Well controlled throughout the range, but the lens shifts from mild barrel distortion to slight pincushion distortion as focal length extends.
Image test verdict
Sharpness could be better at edges and corners of the frame, especially towards the longest end of the zoom range, but overall image quality is good.
Read the full Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS review
Sony 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6
Sony 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 - £195/$250
This is the only lens, apart from the Sigma 70-300mm APO, that manages to duck under the £200/$250 barrier. Despite being more expensive than the Sigma, however, the Sony 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens feels a lot more basic.
It lacks the Sigma's unusual macro facility or even a focus distance scale. Indeed, there are no switches at all on the barrel, so AF/MF switching has to be done via the camera body.
Autofocus is based on a basic electric motor that is slow, noisy and causes unpleasant vibrations in the lens itself. By contrast, manual focusing is quite precise, although the focus ring is awkwardly situated right at the front of the lens. Focusing isn't internal, so the front element rotates and moves out.
Build quality isn't great, reflected by the fact that this lens is the most lightweight in the group.
Sharpness isn't great at 70mm, peaks to a respectable level at 135mm, but then drops alarmingly at 300mm. Pincushion distortion is quite apparent in the longer end of the
zoom range and, at 300mm, colour fringing is very noticeable.
As well as its slow autofocus performance, there's a lot of hunting in dull lighting conditions, and the lens often fails to lock onto targets. Overall, performance is disappointing, and the Sony 75-300mm is proof that it's not always best to stick with the camera maker's own-brand glass when buying lenses.
Mediocre at 75mm, it musters a respectable level of sharpness in the middle of the zoom range, but is downright disappointing at 300mm.
Not too bad at wider and mid-range zoom lengths, colour fringing becomes a real problem at 300mm across most of the frame.
There's not too much in the way of distortion at any zoom setting. It's only really pincushion distortion that's noticeable at 300mm.
Image test verdict
A lack of sharpness and noticeable colour fringing make this Sony lens's image quality the least impressive of any lens in the group.
Tamron SP AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD
Tamron SP AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD - £340/$450
Tamron still offers one of the cheapest 70-300mm zoom lenses on the market, but it's a very basic and lacklustre affair. By comparison, this much newer design is stuffed with high-tech extras.
The Tamron SP AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD is Tamron's first (and currently only) lens to feature USD (UltraSonic Drive) autofocus. Matched only by the Nikon 70-300mm lens in this group, this ring-type system gives super-fast and practically silent performance, along with full-time manual focus override.
There's a focus distance scale at the back end of the lens, under a viewing window, and focusing is fully internal, so there's no movement or rotation of the front element.
Its heavy-duty build helps to keep things steady during handheld shooting, aided by Tamron's four-stop optical stabiliser. Sadly, the stabiliser is omitted in the Sony-fit version of the lens. At least the Sigma 70-300mm OS gives Sony users the choice of using optical or sensor-shift stabilisation.
Build quality feels robust, although the zoom ring feels a little jerky and there's no weather seal on the mount.
Lab tests are a little disappointing, suggesting a lack of sharpness and poor colour fringing control at the 300mm end of the zoom range. In practice, however, fringing is normally only noticeable around extremely high-contrast edges towards the corners of the frame, such as dark tree branches against a very pale sky. Image quality is still sharp and punchy at 300mm.
Plenty of contrast and, despite poor-looking resolution figures at 300mm, images appear very sharp and detailed.
Very high contrast edges near the corners of the frame produce a little colour fringing that's noticeable at the longest zoom setting.
No glaring distortions at any focal length setting throughout the zoom range. Pincushion distortion is most noticeable at 300mm.
Image test verdict
The Tamron may not look super-special based on lab data, but real world image quality is excellent in all sorts of different lighting conditions.
Read the full Tamron SP AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD review
Lab test results
The lab tests show the Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III USM and Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM have the edge when it comes to sharpness. The scores produced by the Canon lenses are followed closely by the Nikon AF-S DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR.
When it comes to centre sharpness at the widest focal length, the Canon 70-300mm just has the edge over the Canon 75-300mm, with the Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO DG Macro also doing well.
Distortion from all lenses is handled well, with the Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS showing little sign of distortion wide angles.
We measure sharpness by dividing line width by picture height to give a good impression of performance across the lens.
Here, we measured distortion for each lens at an aperture of f/8. The perfect result would be 0 per cent.
Shooting at f/8, we measured fringing in pixels at the centre point of each lens. The perfect result in this test would be 0 per cent.
Despite the sharpness performance of the Canon 70-300mm, it suffered from the greatest degree of distortion at 70mm, but this was easily corrected when processing.
Fringing is most noticeable in images taken with the Sony 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 and the Canon 75-300mm at 300mm, while the least fringing was seen in the Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS.
The Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM came out top in the lab tests, despite issues with fringing at 300mm.
Verdict: best telephoto zoom
The Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR is our favourite telephoto zoom lens from this test. It feels more like a pro lens than anything else here, but is available to buy at a reasonable price.
For action sports and wildlife photography, which are food and drink for telephoto zoom lenses, you need speed. The ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system fitted to the Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR is remarkably responsive, super-fast, practically inaudible and supremely accurate.
Couple this with an extremely effective Vibration Reduction system that easily lives up to its four-stop claims and features an 'Active' mode for enhanced anti-shake, and the Nikon looks a top performer. That performance is fully backed up by superb optical quality that delivers stunning images time after time.
Which lens? Choose the best lens for your DSLR.
By contrast, the Nikon AF-S DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR is a bit of a poor relation, with its downgraded motor-driven autofocus system and single-mode stabiliser. Even so, its optical quality is very impressive.
The Tamron SP AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD is the only lens in the group to match the Nikon 70-300mm's ring-type ultrasonic autofocus, and it also has a highly effective four-stop stabiliser. Its build quality isn't quite as good as the Nikon lens's, but it feels reassuringly robust nonetheless.
It's just a shame that Tamron took the decision to omit the stabiliser from the Sony-fit version of the lens, because we generally find that optical stabilisation works far better than sensor-shift systems, especially when used for telephoto shooting.
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By contrast, Sigma includes stabilisation on the Pentax and Sony versions of its 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS lens, giving the choice of using optical or in-camera stabilisation.
Compared to some of the latest lenses, both Canon lenses look a bit dated and lacking in features. Their optical quality isn't particularly great either. The Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO DG Macro and Sony 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 are the also-rans of the group.