TELEPHOTO LENSES FOR EOS CAMERAS
This is an update (actually a total rewrite) of an article originally written in 1998. A lot has changed since then, so I though it was about time to bring thing up to date (March 2007)
Prices are typical NYC discount (from reputable stores), March 2007,
for US warranty lenses. Gray market prices for import lenses are usually 5-10% lower, depending on
the Yen/$ exchange rate at the time you read this. Canon also often offer rebates on US lenses, so
check for that too. Prices on used lenses are a best guess at a typical price. There isn't much of a downside to buying an import Canon lens from a reputable dealer as Canon are fairly liberal when it comes to warranty repair and don't normally care if the lens is import or US warranty. The main downside is that grey market import lenses don't qualify for Canon rebates - which can sometimes make them more expensive in the end than the US warranty version!
Reviews are based on both personal experience, published test data, talking with other photographers and wild guesses. Your mileage may differ. These are just opinions, not absolute facts.
For the purpose of this article, I've defined a telephoto lens as a prime lens having a maximum
focal length of 300mm or more or a zoom lens with a maximum focal length of over 300mm. There are just WAY too many x-300 slow consumer zooms out there to list (see this article on Canon x-300 zooms). I've included a few lenses which are not currently in
production, but can be found on the used market without too much difficulty. Given the high
cost of many telephoto lenses, buying used is often the only way some of these lenses may be affordable.
It's interesting that the once very popular 400/5.6 telephoto lens has been dropped by many manufacturers, including Sigma, Tokina, Tamron and Nikon. This used to be the cheapest route into a low cost, reasonable quality telephoto lens. Canon still make one though, so EOS users still do have that option!
WARNING Be aware of the incompatibility problems exhibited by many Sigma lenses for the EOS system.
Basically older lenses often need to be "rechipped" for use on newer EOS bodies, so, for example, while the 400/5.6 APO lens that was sold at the time of the EOS Elan worked just fine with the EOS Elan (and contemporary EOS bodies), it didn't work on the Elan II when it was introduced. Sigma can rechip lenses to work with more recent bodies, but they can't rechip many older, out of production lenses for current bodies. So if you buy a used Sigma lens, make SURE it works on the body you intend to use it with. This problem seems mainly to affect Sigma lenses, though I can't say it never happens with Tamron and Tokina lenses too.|
For used lenses you can check out the "Used" department at
ADORAMA or, of course, eBay
It's worth noting for those who don't know, ALL Canon EF series lenses work perfectly with ALL Canon EOS bodies, so you don't have to worry if a used Canon brand lens will be compatible with your current film or digital body (or future bodies).
Sigma 400/5.6 APO Macro - used - $300-$400
Probably the best of the old 3rd party 400/4.6 telephoto lenses, cost around $750 new.
Sharpness is good. Lots of reports of incompatibility with most recent EOS bodies. Out of production
and so cannot be "rechipped" for use with current DSLRs.
Sigma 400/5.6 APO - used - $250
Predecessor to the 400/5.6 APO Macro. Not quite as sharp, but cheaper (around
$560 when they were discontinued). Compatibility problems with many recent EOS
Tokina 400/5.6 ATX-APO - used - $250
Pretty similar to the Sigma 400/5.6 APO, but no reports of compatibility problems.
Tamron 200-400/5.6 APO - used - $300
The first of the 3rd party telephoto zooms.
Sharpness is good at the short end and still OK at 300mm but falls
off at 400mm. Not as sharp as the 3rd party prime 400mm/f5.6 lenses.
Sigma 135-400 ($540), 170-500 ($650), Tokina 80-400 ($470)
Attractive if you really want a zoom and you are not obsessed with
telephoto image quality. None of these lenses has a reputation for excessive
sharpness at their maximum focal length - not as good as the 400/5.6 primes which used
to be made by these manufacturers for example. You can't get something for nothing. These
lenses give you convenience but you pay in image quality at the telephoto
end of the range. Still, many users are happy with these lenses and they are
certainly very convenient. For photographers mostly making small prints or displaying their
images on a monitor, these lenses would be fine and represent good value for money.
Sigma 500/7.2 APO - used - $300
Fairly long but pretty slow and not all that sharp. Price around $600 new.
I think a used 400/5.6 APO is a better buy.
500/8 Mirror lenses - $100-$460 Check ADORAMA price on Samyang 500/8
There are a few manual focus mirror lenses which will mount directly on
an EOS body (Sigma 600/8 - $400) or via adaptors (Tamron or T-mount). Prices run
from $110 for the Vivitar 500/8 to $460 for the Tamron 500/8. As in all things, the more you pay, the more you get,
so don't expect high quality images from a $100 500mm lens. They suffer all the problems of mirror lenses (fixed
aperture, slow [usually at least 1/2 stop slower than marked] and an odd
look to out of focus areas of the image). If, above all, you want a small,
light telephoto and don't care too much about image quality or ease
of use, a mirror lens might be an OK buy. I've done some work with the Tamron 500/8, which is
one of the better mirror lenses, and image quality isn't at all bad but the background distortion - due to the obstructed design of mirror lenses - can be annoying. Note that to mount the Tamron on an EOS body you need a Tamron adaptall mount for Pentax screw thread, and a Pentax screw thread to EOS adapter. Tamron adaptall EOS mounts do exist, but haven't been made in a long while and can be hard to find.
Generic 100-500 and 100-400 zooms
There are a few 100-500 zooms floating around (Cambron, Samyang, Vivitar, Phoenix etc.).
Nice range but none of them are very good. Really not worth
considering unless you don't demand much in the way of optical performance.
Telescopes - $200-$950 (though you can pay $3000+ for a really good scope!)
Typically too long (1000mm+) and too slow (f16 and slower) to be of much
serious use. Fine if you want a telescope and possibly fun to experiment
with (use fast film), but not a serious alternative to a telephoto lens
for those who want a lens more then a telescope. If you must have a long
lens and you have no money, this is about your only option though! Stick
to small prints if you take this route. Some telescopes at the upper end of this
price range can be OK optically, but still usually too slow and too long for
general use as a telephoto lens.
Sigma 50-500/4-6.3 EX APO RF - $950
- Check ADORAMA price
Despite the fact it's a zoom, and an extreme 10x zoom at that, it actually gets pretty good reviews. It's a fairly
heavy lens (4lbs) so bear that in mind if you anticipate using it as a "do everything, carry it around all day, one lens solution". At f6.3 it's not fast, but it is a 500mm lens (and a zoom as well) for under $1000. Note that it takes 86mm filters - which can be expensive. Note: as of 07/04 the Amazon price quoted is wrong and they're actually selling it for $989. Of all the 3rd party extreme zooms, it looks like this one might be the best buy - as long as you don't mind carrying a 4lb+ lens around.|
Tamron SP 200-500mm F/5-6.3 DI - $860 - Check ADORAMA price
A new lens from Tamron in their "DI" series, optimized for digital SLRs (but it has full frame coverage). I've reviewed this lens and it's not bad. See the Tamron SP 200-500/5-6.3 Di Review for full details. The range, 200mm to 500mm is useful though the lens is a little slow at f5.6 to f6.3, but then for under $900 you aren't going to get a fast 500mm lens!
Sigma 80-400/4.5-5.6 OS - $970 - Check ADORAMA price
- Sigma's answer to the Canon 100-400IS lens and even has their own optical stabilization system (OS). The only problem is that it's not much cheaper then the Canon lens and I've read no reports that it's any better. Given past experience of Sigma lenses and their compatibility problems when new EOS bodies are introduced, I'm not sure I'd buy Sigma unless I was saving a significant amount or gaining optical quality, neither of which seems to be true in this case.
Canon EF 300/4L - used - $600-$700 - Check eBay
Saving the best for last! I love this lens. Small, light, cheap, very sharp. Still sharp and excellent AF with a 1.4x TC (420/5.6). Replaced by the Image Stabilized version now. It's maybe a touch sharper and suffers from a touch less flare than the IS version, but it doesn't focus quite so close and it's obviously more difficult to shoot hand held. Still, I think it's a bargain lens and the best cheap telephoto lens for EOS you can buy - if you can find one!
Canon EF 300/4L IS - $1150
- Check ADORAMA price
A very sharp lens with Image Stabilization. Works as a 420/5.6 with the 1.4x TC and still gives excellent images. I've always thought the 300/4L was one of Canon's best lenses. Fairly small, fairly light, fairly fast, excellent AF, very sharp and affordable (at least when compared to the other telephotos!). Can even be pushed to 600/8 with a 2x TC and yield acceptable results. Focuses closer than the older non-IS version for better "macro" shots. The IS is type II, which allows for horizontal stabilization to be switched off to enable panning the lens with moving subjects. Takes a 77mm filter.|
Canon EF 400/5.6L - $1100 Check ADORAMA price for Import version or US version
Despite an initial less than positive review by Popular Photography, user reports say this is in
fact a good lens. For example George Lepp gave it a very positive review. Others
think it's not bad, but not as good as Lepp's review suggests. Cost is
around $1100. You can add a 1.4x to get you to 560/8, but
you lose AF with lower end EOS bodies and f8 can a bit slow for telephoto work. Art Morris
recommends this over a 300/4L + 1.4xTC for tracking moving birds since AF is faster
Canon EF35-350/3.5-5.6L - used - $1000-$1200 - Check eBay
It's a good lens for a 10x zoom
but really not all that hot at 350mm. Maybe somewhere around the image quality
of the 100-300mm zooms at 300mm, maybe a little better - but not up to the quality of the EF 300/4L prime. It's a versatile lens for many situations,
but not really a "telephoto" lens.
Canon EF100-400/4.5-5.6L IS - $1400 - Check ADORAMA price for Import version or US version
Probably the best
telephoto zoom lens currently available, based on published data. It even
has IS (image stabilization) for better performance when hand held. It
takes both the 1.4x and 2x Canon TCs, though AF will be lost (except for
the 1.4x when used with the EOS-3) and the resulting f8 and f11 apertures
are pretty slow. Suffers some sharpness loss at the long end. The 300/4L, even with the 1.4x TC added
(420/5.6) is sharper
Canon EF 500/4.5L - used - $2500-$3000+ - Check eBay
- The 500/4.5L is a superb lens, sharp, relatively small, relatively light and relatively cheap!
The downside is that it is f4.5, so it won't AF with a 1.4xTC (700/6.3) on anything but an EOS-1 series body or an EOS-3, and it won't AF with a 2xTC (1000/9)on any EOS body. It's my main telephoto lens and image quality is very good indeed. It's also, I think, under valued since it was replaced by the 500/4L IS.
Canon EF 300/2.8L - used - $2200-$2500 - Check eBay
- The 300/2.8L (non-IS) is a wonderful lens, very sharp (tested as maybe the sharpest 300/2.8 from any manufacturer), fairly small and light and relatively cheap for a fast telephoto, especially used. Good performance and full AF with both 1.4x and 2X TCs.
Sigma 120-300/2.8 APO - $2600
- Check ADORAMA price
- The only 300mm f2.8 zoom currently available. The zoom is attractive but I don't know how good it is optically. User reports tend to be pretty favorable, but I'm not sure I'd take one over a used Canon 300/2.8L which can be found at a similar price and which certainly has better optics, focus and compatibility with future EOS bodies. Whether to pick this lens over a fixed 300/2.8 would depend on how often you anticipated using the zoom function. In reality most telephoto zooms end up being used at the long end most of the time - though sometimes it's nice to be able to zoom out for a more general shot.
Sigma 300/2.8 EX APO - $2600
I'd rather have a used Canon EF 300/2.8L, but if you want a new lens the Sigma does save you around $1700 compared to the new Canon EF 300/2.8L IS.
Tamron 300/2.8 LD - $2500 Check ADORAMA price
- Again, I'd rather have a used Canon EF 300/2.8L, but if you want a new lens (and it comes with a 6 year warranty, the Tamron isn't bad.
Tokina 300/2.8 Pro ATX - $2100 Check ADORAMA price
- I'd rather have a used Canon EF 300/2.8L. I'm not even sure if this lens is still available. As of 03/07 most stores don't seem to have stock and aren't saying if or when they will get any.
$3000 - $4000
Canon EF 400/2.8L II - used - $3500
- The 400/2.8L II is a very heavy lens (14lbs), but a sharp lens. It uses a fluorite element which the mark I version of this lens lacked. Good if you anticipate shooting in low light and popular for sports work. Not too popular for wildlife work though due to its (relatively!) short focal length and heavy weight.
Canon EF 300/2.8L IS - $3900
Check ADORAMA price for Import version or US version
- Maybe the best 300/2.8 available. Hand holdable with the IS system, small, fast and fairly light. Maintains AF with all EOS bodies with both the 1.4x and 2x TCs. A very popular lens. The only strike against it is the excellent 300/4L is less than 1/3 of the price and very nearly optically equal. If you need the speed though, this is a wonderful lens if you can afford it.
$4000 - $5000
Canon EF 600/4L - used - $4000? - Check eBay
- Excellent, very sharp, very heavy lens. The "ultimate" focal length for most shooters. Doesn't have the Image stabilization present on the current version, but you can save $3000 or more by giving that up. The newer lens is also a couple of lbs lighter. If weight and lack of IS don't worry you, save $3000 and get a used EF 600/4L. I used to own one and was very pleased with it, except when I had to carry it!
Sigma 500/4.5 EX APO - $4200
Not a bad lens, but I'd rather have a used Canon 500/4.5L than a new Sigma 500/4.5L for the same price. In fact the Canon lens could be cheaper- if you can find one. The Sigma isn't quite as sharp and carries the usual worries about compatibility with future EOS bodies, but it is smaller and lighter than the Canon lens, which is a plus, and a new lens carries a warranty which a used lens doesn't. |
$5000 - $6000
Canon EF 400/4 DO IS - $5300 Check ADORAMA price for Import version or US version
Canon's first lens to use Diffractive Optics (DO). The use of DO enables the lens to be shorter and lighter than a conventional design, but there are reports that the DO lens causes some flare in backlight situations. If you need a small, light, fairly fast telephoto, this is it. Again though, for about 1/5th of the cost of the 400/4 DO IS you can get a 300/4 L IS lens, which is only 100mm shorter in focal length and is 1.7lbs ligher. Is it worth $4000 for those extra 100mm?
Canon 500/4L IS - $5500 Check ADORAMA price for Import version or US version
Canon's replacement for the excellent 500/4.5L. It's 1/3 stop faster and adds image stabilization. It's slightly larger and heavier than the 500/4.5L, but does have the advantage of maintaining AF with the 1.4xTC on all EOS bodies and with the 2x TC on the EOS-1 series and EOS-3. It's actually cheaper than the 500/4.5L was when it was available!
$6000 - $7000
Sigma 300-800/5.6 APO EX IF HSM - $6000 - Check ADORAMA price
- On paper a very interesting lens, the only current "fast" (f5.6) 800mm zoom. User reports are generally favorable, but this is a big lens. Weight around 13lbs and over 21" long. Bear that in mind if you anticipate carrying it far.
Canon EF400/2.8L IS - $6500 - Check ADORAMA price for Import version or US version
Replacement for the EF 400/2.8L. Lighter and with Image stabilization added it's an easier lens to use. Excellent optical quality and maintains full AF with both the 1.4x and 2x TCs
$7000 - $8000
Canon EF 600/4L IS - Check ADORAMA price for Import version or US version
A lighter version of the EF 600/4L with Image Stabilization added. Canon's longest production telephoto lens (a 1200/5.6L is probably still available on special order at a price around $75,000!). The ultimate wildlife lens if you can handle the size and weight. Many wildlife photographers choose the 500/4L IS instead since it's easier to haul into the field and only 100mm shorter in focal length (not to mention $1800 or so cheaper).
So there you have it. A wide range of focal lengths, apertures and prices. What's
best for you may be different than what's best for me. Once I had a 600/4L and 300/2.8L, but now I have a 500/4.5L and a 300/4L. I traded the bigger lenses for smaller ones and I have not regretted it. Much easier to carry, significantly cheaper and 90% of the time just as useful. Sure there's the odd occasion on which I wish the 500 was a 600 or I wish I had another stop on the 300, but those times are pretty rare. Even if I had the 600, sometimes I'd want more, and even if I had the 300/2.8 there would be times I'd wish I had a 300/2. Bigger isn't always better, especially if you have to carry it!