Most photographers have zoom telephoto lenses in their kit bag, generally of the 70-300mm type or equivalent.
These are a great starting point for shooting wildlife, but if you want to get serious about the subject, their relatively short reach can quickly become limiting.
Fortunately, there are some great longer and affordable telephoto lenses on the market that won’t break the bank (or your back!) in the way large telephoto primes do. Here are some of our favourites.
Top 8 affordable telephoto lenses
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR AF-S
For Nikon DSLR shooters, the 200-500mm f/5.6 offers a unique option, being a relatively affordable telephoto lens, while offering a very useful long range – extending to fully 750mm equivalent on DX-format cameras such as the D500. Its f/5.6 maximum aperture means that it’s relatively portable considering its range, and not so heavy that it can’t be shot handheld. Focusing is snappy and accurate, thanks to the AF-S motor.
However, it’s not claimed to be weather-sealed, and being an E-type lens with an electromagnetic diaphragm, it’ll only work on relatively recent Nikon bodies – check compatibility with your camera before buying.
Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS
Perfectly matched to Sony’s high-speed Alpha 9 full-frame mirrorless camera, this stunning new telephoto lens combines fantastic image quality with super-fast, near silent autofocus and extremely effective image stabilisation.
While it’s full-frame compatible, it can also be used on APS-C bodies such as the Alpha 6500, giving a 600mm equivalent reach. It’s very pricey, though, so Sony mirrorless users on a tighter budget should also consider the FE 70-300mm f/4-5.6 G OSS telephoto lens – it’s a step above the typical consumer telezoom.
Sigma 100-1400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM|C
Many users can’t justify the cost of long zooms, and don’t want to cart around the weight, either. But Sigma’s latest telezoom addresses this: it’s a far more affordable telephoto lens, and noticeably smaller than other 100-400mm zooms.
This comes at the cost of maximum aperture, but with the high ISO performance of modern DSLRs, that’s of little concern. It’s a great choice for APS-C DSLR cameras in particular, but users should be aware that it’s not weather sealed.
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS II USM
Most of the camera makers produce high-end 400mm zooms, typically offering a decent range in a relatively portable package with fast, ultrasonic-type autofocus and optical image stabilisation.
Canon’s is a particularly fine example: a significant improvement on the firm’s older version, it’s impressively sharp at all focal lengths. On APS-C models such as the EOS 7D Mark II, it offers a 160-640mm equivalent range.
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300mm f/4-5.6 II OIS
If there’s one lens that epitomises the size advantages of Micro Four Thirds for telephoto work, it’s this hugely popular 100-300mm zoom. One of Panasonic’s earliest lenses for the Micro Four Thirds system in its original guise, it gives a 600mm equivalent range in a very compact package, with optical image stabilisation and fast, silent focusing.
More recently it’s been updated to a ‘II’ version that adds weather-resistant construction and compatibility with Panasonic’s Dual IS system, in a smart new black-barrel design. If you need more reach, then Panasonic’s Leica-branded 100-400mm f/4-6.3 OIS goes all the way to 800mm equivalent, although at a significant premium.
Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM|S
When Sigma announced two 150-600mm zooms with the same base specifications late in 2014, it looked like a strange decision, but on testing both we found that it does make sense. We especially like the Sport version – it’s huge and expensive, but seriously sharp, with impressively fast autofocus. It’s not so big that you can’t shoot it handheld at a pinch, although for extended sessions you’ll need a sturdy monopod at least.
The Contemporary version is smaller and easier to carry, and a much more affordable telephoto lens, but it doesn’t give quite the same image quality. Tamron’s similar 150-600mm zooms are very worthy alternatives, too.
Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD
All-in-one superzooms aren’t usually the first choice for wildlife, but they can be handy in situations where you need to travel light or don’t have time to change lenses. Tamron’s ground-breaking 18-400mm is the longest lens of its type, giving an impressive 600mm equivalent range. It’s also dust and splash resistant for outdoor shooting, which can be a boon when shooting wildlife.
You won’t get as sharp pictures as you would with premium telephoto lenses, but it’ll certainly be better than not getting the shot at all.
Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6R LM OIS WR
Fujifilm X-system users have but a single choice for long telephoto lenses work, but fortunately, it’s a very good one. With a lightweight build, highly effective image stabilisation and weather-sealed construction, it’s an affordable telephoto lens that you can happily shoot handheld all day.
It provides a 600mm-equivalent range, but if you need to go even longer, the lens is also sold in a package with Fujifilm’s 1.4x teleconverter for surprisingly little extra money. Better still, the teleconverter brings barely any penalty to the lens’s excellent autofocus performance.
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