The Telephoto Lens

They Can Cost The Earth! Are There Good Alternatives?

The Telephoto Lens

When choosing a telephoto lens, there is probably more to consider than with any other type of lens. The cost of a good quality telephoto can be quite literally astronomical! You need to make sure that you are getting what you need and what will do the jobs that you have in mind.

A fixed focal length or "prime" lens can give outstanding results in terms of quality if you get a quality telephoto lens! Settle for low quality and your photography will suffer as a result, why?

As you magnify the image you are photographing, you are also magnifying the imperfections in the glass or lens. These can really stand out. Things such as "chromatic aberration" or poor edge focusing will destroy good images. You really do get what you pay for!

The longer the telephoto lens, the more glass is needed. If you have for example, a 500mm telephoto lens, the chances are it will be quite long:

  • The longer it is, the more light is needed to get through the barrel.
  • The more light that is needed, the bigger the front elements of glass need to be. Quality glass costs money.

"I don’t understand!" Ok, look at these 2 photos.

Telephoto Lens Quality Shootout 50mm vs 70 to 200

The smaller lens is the Canon EF 50mm F1.4 and the larger lens is the Canon EF 70-200mm L F2.8. Now in theory, as the smaller lens has a maximum aperture of F1.4, it lets in more light, therefore it should have larger elements right?

Wrong. It is actually the rear element that needs to be bigger, where the aperture is. Also, the larger telephoto (zoom) lens is normally much longer. Therefore to allow more light to pass through, the front elements of glass need to be bigger, a lot bigger!

Canon XL1 prime 1200mm f5.6 lens

To really ram this point home. This next "nutter" of a lens (follow link below for more info) is the Canon XL1 Prime 1200mm F5.6! Note that, I said F5.6, but look at the front element! I could ice-skate on that!!! By the way, I don’t own this lens. They are individually "hand-milled" and cost in the region of $80,000 (£50,000)! For more info on this beauty, go to and see more of this telephoto lens.

Extreme Telephoto Lens 1200mm

When looking at buying a telephoto lens, pay attention to the quality of the glass. Look at the front elements and check for the coatings. If you look at it from certain angles it should reflect a spectrum of colours. Also, make sure that the maximum aperture is no smaller that F5.6. Otherwise you will rarely be able to use the lens in anything but bright sunlight.

If it has a maximum aperture of F.8 for example, it will need extremely bright conditions or a slow shutter speed. A slow shutter speed when hand-holding a telephoto lens is not good.

Unfortunately, the "faster" a lens is the more expensive it is. The 70-200mm F2.8 shown above is around £1,500 - £1,950 new. However, it does have Image stabilisation and Ultra Sonic Motor too, but this is a zoom lens.

Fixed focal length lenses

A quality, fast 500mm F2.8 or 600mm F2.8 fixed prime lens can cost as much as £4,000 or more. If budget is an issue (isn’t it for most of us?), I would suggest going for the Sigma range of telephoto lenses. The quality is superb, they are fast and a fraction of the cost of brand lenses.

These are very expensive so what telephoto lens would I recommend?

If money is an issue I would go for a telephoto zoom lens like the 70-200mm. If you can’t afford the Canon or Nikon versions, again, the Sigma range is excellent. But for my recommendation of the day, I would look at the Sigma (or "Bigma" as it is known) 50-500mm F4-6.3 EX RF HSM. What a range and it is only around $999 from Amazon!

It has quality glass and a fast, silent ultra-sonic motor. The reviews that I have read, rate this lens quite highly.

Telephoto Lens: Macro

Also consider macro possibilities when looking at telephoto lenses. This enables you to take ultra close-up shots of small objects, and if you look at say, a 100mm macro, this means you don’t have to get too close. Handy if you are photographing close-ups of butterflies or other insects. You shouldn’t scare too many off with this lens!

Look at the Canon 100mm f2.8 Macro or the Sigma 105mm F2.8 Macro. From the Nikon camp, the 105mm F2.8 Micro-Nikkor is a good buy.

The following photographs were all taken with the Canon EF 70-200L IS F2.8 @ 200mm (click for larger images).

Please note: All images below are strictly copyrighted to All Things Photography:

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