Best telephoto zoom lenses for Nikon and Canon

best telephoto lenses

Nikon and Canon are the top two DSLR camera brands worldwide, and with that popularity (and decades of making them) comes a wide selection of telephoto zoom lenses, some better than others. We’ve hand-picked the best offerings on the market for 70-200mm, 70-300mm, and superzoom. We considered all aspects of the lenses, but largely based our rankings on focus abilities, durability, style, and lens quality. 

What is a telephoto lens?

Imagine a telephoto lens as having the same effect as looking looking through binoculars – you’re getting close to a faraway subject or object. There are telephoto lenses that have a fixed distance to which you can focus, whereas a telephoto zoom allows you to adjust the focal length. Telephoto zoom lenses achieve this with a very complicated system of focus groups and variator groups and many other technical aspects that would take several pages to explain. There are long-zoom lenses that are small and easy to carry, and there are those that are bigger and heavier, depending on the construction and capabilities.

In this article, we’ll use the term “bokeh” here and there. In simplest laymen’s terms, bokeh is the effect of taking a picture out of focus (the background) in order to capture an abstract representation of the light present, but it can also just refer to how the lights and colors are represented in regions that are not part of the main focus. Lens creep will also be referred to which is the changing of lens focus because of significant tilt/angle.

Note: You should know by now that lenses from a particular brand won’t work with another, e.g. a Nikon lens won’t work with a Canon camera. There are adapters, but you won’t get full functionality of the lens nor is quality a guarantee.

Nikon

70-200mm

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II ($2,399)

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II

This is one of the best telephoto lenses you can get in this focus range. It has an effective autofocus (quiet and fast) and very clear image quality. The image quality is obviously partly due to the quality of the lens material itself, but it could also be attributed to the Nano Crystal Coat, which is a coating, developed by Nikon, that is based on the structure of moth eyes. This special coating design prevents glare and reflection from ruining your photos and may explain why this lens gets some of the best bokeh we’ve seen.

nano crystal
Whoa! Moth eye style!

70-300mm

Nikon AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED ($590)

Nikon AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED

This is a fast, consistent, and durable lens. It has great vibration reduction, is fairly lightweight, and produces sharp images. The vibration reduction allows you to shoot at slower speed than you usually could without a tripod, without the blur. It doesn’t have perfect performance in sharpness at its most extreme zoom, but it does maintain sharpness 97 percent of the way there. It’s also a hell of a lot cheaper than many long-zoom lenses, like the one above. One of the things we really like about this lens is its sturdiness. We’re pretty sure you could throw it at the bird you’re photographing and kill it without it breaking, and then you don’t have to worry about missing the shot (but don’t do that, please, only joking – we would never harm animals or lenses). It doesn’t have the Nano Crystals, but it does have ED glass. ED glass (Extra-low Dispersion Glass) in a lens prevents the color spectrum from dispersing too widely on the lens, which causes a less clear image.

Superzoom

Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM ($899)

Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM

This third-party lens is quick, durable, and pretty. It has an OS (optical stablizer) system that is really useful, and it works well when you don’t have a tripod to mount the camera on. If you do use this one on a tripod, you will notice it balances well. This is partially because it has a quality tripod mount. It produces a clear image using a Super Multi Layer coating that reduces the amount of light reflection the lens creates. There’s a little bit of lens creep, but its generally not noticeable. If you need a lens that can zoom hundreds of feet, this is a good one.

Canon

70-200mm

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM ($1,349)

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM

The Canon EF may look like something you would send up into space, but it’s actually a nice lens. If you watch sports on TV, you’ve probably seen photographers carrying many of these white lenses on the sidelines. It’s fairly light, durable, and sharp. It can also be loud while focusing, but besides that, it’s great. One of the best things about this lens, besides image quality, is the way it feels in your hands. When you grip the lens it does not feel like you’re going to drop it. It has a great image stabilizer for those no-tripod shots. This is also one of those lenses you can take out in the rain, because it’s sealed for moisture. It features great bokeh, thanks to its circular aperture. This means the hole the light comes through is circular, which is more natural for light to pass through than a pentagon or octagon. 

70-300mm

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM ($1,599)

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM

Fairly light, far-reaching, and sturdy – this is a great lens, albeit pretty expensive. It features a great image stabilizer, which works surprisingly well at far zooms,  and allows you to focus on your subject immediately, even if it’s 80 feet away. It’s not great in low-light settings, but it still manages to do pretty well with some tinkering. It also includes low dispersion features to help improve quality of image. Like the similar looking Canon lens above, it also does well in wet conditions. One of the great things this one has is a fluorine coating on the lens to prevent smudges and other kinds of markings. This is a versatile lens that is worth the money if you can afford it.

Superzoom

Tamron 18-270mm Di II VC PZD ($449)

Tamron 18-270mm Di II VC PZD

The Tamron is a surprisingly small lens for what is does. It’s important to note that you shouldn’t be using a superzoom unless you need to, but if zoom is what you need, then this will fit the bill. The autofocus is really fast, it’s quiet, and it has great range of focal length, which is essentially the range of magnification you can achieve, in simple terms. This lens is affordable in comparison to a lot of other superzoom lenses on the market. Tamron typically produces affordable lenses but has recently put out some very high-end and pricey ones too.

What do you think of our list of the best telephoto lenses for Canon and Nikon? Did we miss one of your favorites? Let us know in the comments below.

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