Is your kit lens just not cutting it? Do you need a little more reach from your camera? If so, what you’re in need of is a telephoto lens. Telephoto lenses start at focal lengths above 50mm and go upwards of 800mm and are designed to give you more reach. Short telephotos are popular for portraiture, while long telephotos are good for sports and wildlife. Telephoto lenses come in both fixed and zoom varieties, and with Canon, Nikon, and third parties offering many different models, there’s no shortage to choose from.
To help you whittle down your choices, we’ve rounded up our favorite telephoto lenses on the market, from industry classics to new and exciting options. As telephoto lenses can reach some pretty extremes prices, we also offer our recommendation for whether you should buy or rent a given lens.
The Classic (70-200mm)
If you ask almost any photographer what their favorite telephoto lens is, there’s a very good chance they’ll respond with their favorite brand’s take on the iconic 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens. Canon, Nikon, Sigma, and Tamron all have their own take on this classic lens design. And almost every company has both an f/2.8 and f/4 version, with a few exceptions.
As to why this lens is so popular, the answer is fairly straightforward — it’s a versatile lens that performs admirably both indoors and out, useful for everything from weddings to sports. The fast aperture of the f/2.8 version grants better low light capability and a shallower depth of field, while and f/4 model is lighter and more portable (and less expensive). Whatever version you choose, and from whatever manufacturer you pick, it’s hard to go wrong with a 70-200mm lens.
Buy or rent?
Ranging from $1,200 to nearly $3,000, the 70-200mm f/2.8 is not a cheap lens. Still, our recommendation is to buy. This is such a versatile lens that you’ll be able to use it often and for years to come.
Canon/Nikon 135mm f/2 (and Sigma 135mm f/1.8)
If you don’t need the zoom of the 70-200mm lens and want something right down the middle that’s perfect for portrait photography, look no further than the 135mm f/2 lens. Both Canon and Nikon make their own versions of this lens, while Sigma also makes a 135mm lens (pictured above), although it’s a bit faster with a maximum f/1.8 aperture. This focal length combines with the shallow depth of field makes for absolutely wonderful portraits and a perfect companion for low-light environments, such as many wedding venues.
Buy or rent?
With prices from $1,000 to $1,400, this is a good one to buy if you’re into portrait or low light photography. One caveat: The Nikon version is an older design that won’t autofocus on many newer camera bodies, so Nikon shooters may want to opt for the Sigma version.
Canon/Nikon 200mm f/2
This lens might not be as popular as others on the list, but it’s a sleeper well worth taking a look at — if you can afford it. Canon and Nikon both offer this lens with image stabilization, and Sigma has filed a patent for an equivalent lens to presumably add to its lineup of “Sports” lenses. This is anything but a compact lens, but the low-light capabilities and 200mm focal length make it fantastic for indoor or nighttime sporting events. Just be sure you bring along a monopod so you don’t have to handhold it the entire time.
Buy or rent?
With prices starting around $5,700, we strongly suggest renting this lens. Professionals who depend on it will likely choose to buy, but the specialized nature of this lens make it a rare treat for the rest of us.
Canon/Nikon 400mm f/2.8
Seen on the sidelines of all major sporting events, the 400mm f/2.8 (and maybe its smaller f/4 cousin) is a workhorse lens for sports and wildlife photographers. Canon and Nikon offer versions of this lens, and Sigma has a patent for one, as well. The 400mm focal length is fantastic for sports where the action is across the field of play and the f/2.8 aperture not only makes for creamy smooth bokeh, but also makes it easier to keep shooting even when the sun starts to drop.
Buy or rent?
This behemoth lens is accompanied by an equally large price. Depending on what version you go with, it may cost upwards of $12,000, so this is certainly an investment typically reserved for professional photographers and news or stock agencies. For the rest of us, the 400mm f/2.8 is a good option as a rental.
Sigma 60-600mm f/4.5-6.3
If it’s range you need, it’s range you’ll get with Sigma’s ridiculous 60-600mm f/4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens. Claimed to be the world’s first 10x optical zoom telephoto lens with a tele end of 600mm, this lens uses Sigma’s latest technology to cover almost every focal length imaginable. It isn’t the fastest lens, with a maximum aperture of f/4.5-6.3 depending on the focal length, but you won’t find a lens with more range than this.
Buy or rent?
At $2,000, the 60-600mm isn’t what we’d call cheap, but it still offers a dizzying amount of zoom flexibility for that price. If you can afford it, we say buy it — you can use it in a variety of situations as an outdoor workhorse lens.
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