SUPER-TELE ZOOMS – Upgrade your telephoto lens with one of these offerings for phenomenal reach and versatility
Photographers can be a greedy bunch. However much telephoto reach we have, we often hanker after a little more, and there are various ways of achieving this. The starting point for most of us is to buy either a 70-200mm f2.8 or 70-300mm f4-5.6 tele zoom. You can boost the former to 400mm with a 2x tele-converter, or gain an effective 450mm focal length by mounting the latter on an APS-C format body (480mm for Canon).
Another option is to buy a well- established super-tele zoom like the Canon 100-400mm or Nikon 80-400mm. However, if you are used to shooting with a 70-300mm lens on an APS-C format camera, and have moved up to full-frame, you might still feel a bit short-changed when it comes to outright reach. Next up are the Canon 200-400mm and Nikon 180- 400mm lenses which feature built-in 1.4x tele-converters, but they’re monstrously expensive at around £11,000/$12,000 apiece, and monster prime lenses also tend to be very pricey.
Offering a more manageable and affordable solution, Sigma and Tamron have pushed the boundaries with their recent 150-600mm super-tele zooms. Nikon has responded with a 200-500mm lens which, while it doesn’t quite match the others for zoom range or maximum reach, isn’t far off. And the Nikon is similarly competitive in terms of price.
One thing you won’t get with a zoom lens that’s sufficiently lightweight for handheld shooting, yet stretches to 500mm or 600mm, is a ‘fast’ aperture rating. This makes image stabilisation an absolute must. It’s featured in all of the lenses in this test group, apart from the Sony A-mount edition of the Tamron, which relies on in- camera stabilisation instead. Let’s take a closer look at what the current contenders have to offer.
Tamron SP 150-600mm f5-6.3 Di VC USD G2
Aiming to take everything to a whole new level, here’s Tamron – the next generation
As with the excellent 24-70mm and 70-200mm G2 zooms, this one boasts improvements in features, handling and performance. A revised optical layout includes three LD elements rather than just one, and a mixture of both conventional and nano-structured coatings. A full set of weather seals is added, plus a fluorine coating on the front element.
Useful features include a short/long- distance autofocus limiter, which can lock out the range either side of ten metres. The ring-type ultrasonic system has the same manual-priority override as in the Nikon lens, but lacks the Sigma lenses’ auto/manual-priority selection switch.
For stabilisation, the Tamron has a three- position VC (Vibration Compensation) switch. It covers all bases with static and panning modes, plus a mode for applying stabilisation only during the exposure.
This makes it easier to track erratically moving subjects through the viewfinder.
The system delivers 4.5-stop effectiveness, matching that of the Nikon lens and edging ahead of the Sigma lenses. And where you can lock the Sigma lenses’ zoom ring at any marked setting, the Tamron has a push-pull zoom ring enabling it to be locked at any focal length.
In a reversal of fortunes to the Sigma Contemporary lens, sharpness is very good at the long end of the zoom range but less impressive at short to medium focal lengths. Ultimately, if you want a lens that delivers excellent 400-600mm performance in a strong, weather-sealed yet reasonably lightweight build, all at a keen price, this Tamron is a smart buy.
Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 DG OSHSM|S
Big and heavy, Sigma’s mighty Sport lens literally puts all the other contenders in the shade
Physically longer, wider and heavier than other lenses on test, Sigma’s Sport lens is a bit of a beast. It tips the scales at 2,860g, which is good news if you enjoy a physical workout without paying gym fees. The front section of the lens is particularly large, and has a 105mm filter thread instead of the 95mm in the other lenses.
This lens comes closest of any in the group to the look and feel of a fully pro- grade optic. Unlike the Nikon and Sigma Contemporary lenses on test, it has a full set of weather seals, rather than just a sealed mounting plate. It also feels very sturdy and robust, from its brass mounting plate to its metal outer barrel and hood. The rear of the barrel also features strap lugs, so you can hang it from your neck without stressing your camera mount.
All of the attractions of the Sigma Contemporary lens are carried through, including an identical set of switches for auto/manual-priority autofocus, a short/ long autofocus range limiter, dual-mode stabilisation, and two custom modes. Both lenses are also supplied with padded soft cases, but the Sport lens also has a padded soft lens cap that encircles the hood when extended or inverted. Handling benefits from a much bigger focus ring than in the Contemporary lens.
The Sport also goes extra-large in terms of image quality and all-round performance. Autofocus is super fast and highly accurate, while sharpness and contrast are better than from any competing lens, throughout the entire zoom and aperture ranges. Colour fringing is minimal and pincushion distortion is fairly negligible.
Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 DGOSHSM|C
It’s a much more lightweight affair than Sigma’s Sport lens, in price as well as overall construction
This is the only lens on test that weighs in at under two kilos; in fact, it’s nearly a whole kilogram lighter than Sigma’s Sport lens. It still comes complete with a detachable tripod mounting collar, but it’s easier than most to use for prolonged periods of handheld shooting.
Despite costing considerably less than competing lenses, Sigma’s ‘Contemporary’ offering packs plenty of up-market features. It beats the Nikon by offering both auto- and manual-priority AF modes, and the ability to lock out the long and the short end of the autofocus range. There’s a dual-mode stabiliser for static and panning shots, which gave an effectiveness of just under four stops in our tests.
Further trickery includes two ‘custom’ modes which can be selected via a switch on the barrel, enabling you to alter autofocus and stabilisation parameters. You’ll need Sigma’s optional USB Dock to set up custom modes, and it can also be used for applying firmware updates.
The optical path includes three SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements and one top-grade FLD (Fluorite LD) element. The front and rear elements have a fluorine coating to repel water and grease and Far left to make cleaning easier, and the brass mounting plate has a weather-seal ring.
Sharpness and contrast are a close match to those of the bigger and pricier Sigma Sport lens, at least throughout most of the zoom range. However, sharpness isn’t retained so well at the long end of the zoom range, between 500mm and 600mm. At these focal lengths, it’s good rather than great.
Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f5.6E ED VR
Keenly priced for an own-brand Nikon lens, it leads the field in some ways but lags behind in others
Considering the price tags attached to some of Nikon’s recent lenses, this one looks a bit of a bargain. The constant- aperture design is unique in this test, and makes the Nikon a third of an f-stop faster at the long end of its zoom range. However, it has a smaller 2.5x rather than 4x zoom range, with focal lengths that don’t go as short or as long as in the competing lenses.
Build quality is good with a solid construction and weather-sealed mounting plate. The zoom mechanism can be locked at its shortest setting, while other switches are on hand for focusing modes, long-distance autofocus range limiting and VR (Vibration Reduction). The ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system is manual priority, in that it instantly swaps to manual focusing if you twist the focus ring while in autofocus mode. It therefore works in continuous AF mode, as well as enabling you to swap to manual if AF is struggling to lock onto a subject.
Like a number of recent Nikon lenses, this one has an electromagnetically controlled aperture. Compared with
Nikon’s more conventional mechanical lever, this enables greater exposure consistency when shooting in fast continuous drive mode. The downside is that it’s incompatible with older Nikon DSLRs, up to and including the D200, D3000 and D5000.
Autofocus is fast and accurate. Sharpness is mostly impressive but dips a bit in the middle sector of the zoom range. Colour fringing is slightly worse than with the other lenses on test at the long end, but image quality is good overall.