How well can telephoto zoom lenses magnify distant wildlife given their weight and price? For serious photography of wildlife and general travel subjects, my top pick is Sony RX10 IV:
- $1700: 37 oz for 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 zoom lens on 1″-Type sensor: Sony RX10 IV / RX10M4 (price at Amazon) (2018, 20 megapixels) is now my ultimate travel camera. This versatile wonder weighs just 37 ounces including battery and card (or 42 oz including the 5 ounces for strap, lens filter, cap & hood). This relatively compact camera includes a dust-sealed, bright f/2.4-4 lens with incredible 25x zoom, sharp across the frame from 24mm wide angle to 600mm wildlife telephoto. Its 1-inch-size sensor with stacked Exmor RS CMOS backside illumination BSI technology plus a big 72mm-diameter lens capture images that rival a flagship APS-C system, even in dim-light test comparisons. Read my RX10 IV review. [Capturing great depth of field, its lens has a “full-frame-equivalent” brightest aperture of f/6.5 at 24mm wide angle to f/10.8 at 100-600mm equivalent.]
Below, compare Sony RX10M4 and earlier RX10M3 with larger-sensor multiple-lens systems and cheaper fixed-lens megazoom cameras.
Larger-sensor, multiple-lens telephoto systems (APS-C, Micro Four Thirds)
Compared to Sony RX10M4, the following rival camera systems can potentially capture higher-quality images using a larger sensor and larger-diameter glass to collect more light; but they are much heavier, mostly pricier, and require swapping out the bulkier telephoto to reach normal angles of view with yet another lens:
- $1250-1450: 84+ oz for 225-900mm equivalent lens on a DSLR camera with APS-C sensor:
Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens for Nikon F (2015, 68 ounces, 4.1 x 10.2″) mounted on Nikon D3500 DSLR camera (2018, 13 oz body, 1550 shots battery life CIPA). Upgrading to Nikon D5600 DSLR (2016, 16.4 oz body, 970 shots battery life CIPA) or 15-oz D5500 adds $100-200. This Sigma lens gives the best telephoto quality & reach for the money, if you don’t mind bulky lens-swapping. Or for sharper center but softer edges, try Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD Model G2 (Generation 2, Model A022) for Nikon (2016, 70.2 oz); or save $200 on earlier, not as sharp Tamron Model A011 (2014, 69 oz/1951 g, 4.2 x 10.2″).
- $1660-1860: 83+ oz for same 225-900mm equiv. lens on MIRRORLESS camera with APS-C sensor:
Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens for Canon EF (2015, 68 ounces, 4.1 x 10.2″, 95mm filter size), mounted on Sigma Mount Converter MC-11 for Canon SGV lenses for Sony E (2016, ~3 oz, $250, for full stabilization and autofocus of Sigma’s Canon-mount lenses onto Sony E-Mount bodies) on Sony Alpha A6400 camera.
- $2020: 49+ oz for 200-800mm equivalent zoom lens mounted on Micro Four Thirds sensor:
Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3 Power OIS lens (2016, 35 oz, 72mm filter size, 3.3 x 6.8″) mounted on Panasonic DMC-GX9 mirrorless camera (2018, 14.4 oz body, 20mp, 260 shots per battery charge CIPA) both weather-sealed. Or save $200 on earlier GX8 bought used. This Micro 4/3 sensor has twice the light-gathering area compared to 1-inch type (but RX10 III somewhat compensates for its 1″ sensor with superior stacked Exmor RS CMOS backside illumination BSI technology, not found in GX9’s sensor; and their lenses have equal 72mm diameter). This “slower” Panasonic 200-800mm equivalent lens opens as bright as f/4 down to about f/5.6 within the 200-600mm equivalent range which overlaps with Sony RX10M4 or RX10M3. Within that 200-600mm range, the Sony has a faster f/4 constant real aperture, up to a full stop brighter at 600mm, possibly equalizing image quality. [This Panasonic lens has a “full-frame-equivalent” brightest aperture of f/8 at 200mm equivalent and f/12.6 at 800mm, meaning that within 200-400mm equivalent it can achieve shallower depth of field than RX10M4 or RX10M3, but the reverse is true higher than 400mm.]
- $4000+: 66+ oz for professional 750mm equivalent lens on DSLR camera with APS-C sensor:
Nikon 500mm AF-S NIKKOR f/5.6E PF ED VR (51 oz, 4.17 x 9.33″, 95 mm filter size) mounted on Nikon D3300 DSLR (2014, 16 oz body). Upgrading to Nikon D5500 DSLR (2015, 15 oz body) adds $100. Add $6600 for f/4E FL ED VR 500mm Nikkor lens; or add $8600 for f/4E FL ED VR 600mm Nikkor lens.
- Professional lenses like this are a heavy, bulky, and costly commitment for travelers and hikers like me.
- Legacy DSLR cameras use a bulky mirror box to bounce light from the lens into an optical viewfinder. The latest mirrorless cameras are more compact for travel and use an electronic viewfinder (EVF) to better realize the goal of “what you see is what you get.” The autofocusing speed of mirrorless now rivals DSLR cameras. The few remaining advantages of DSLRs include more legacy lenses, longer battery life and body durability. Further below, read more about wildlife telephoto lenses for legacy DSLR cameras, including acronyms explained (for image stabilization, ultrasonic focusing motors, and APS-C-only optimization) for major brands (Nikon, Canon, Sigma, Tamron, Sony).
Cheaper, fixed-lens wildlife telephoto cameras
The following good-value wildlife telephoto cameras are cheaper than Sony RX10 IV or III and likewise don’t interchange lenses:
- $850: 50 oz for 24–3000mm equivalent 125x zoom lens f/2.8–8.0 on 1/2.3″ sensor: Nikon COOLPIX P1000 (2018, 16mp) attracts dedicated birders and wildlife specialists. In comparison, no practical DSLR or mirrorless lens can reach 3000mm! The P1000 has 5-stop image stabilization and fully articulated LCD, but only gets 250 shots per charge. As in COOLPIX P950, its tiny 1/2.3″ sensor won’t beat the superior processing power of cellphone cameras unless shooting at telephoto greater than 50mm equivalent, in bright outdoor light. At this tiny sensor size, extra diffraction through the camera’s minuscule aperture degrades image quality. Based upon Nikon P1000 moon photos, compared to my own moon shots on Sony RX10M4, shooting the P1000 at 1500-3000mm equivalent may be sharper than digitally cropping Sony RX10M4’s 600mm-equivalent images to achieve the same angle of view. (Note that Nikon’s “Moon Shot Mode” is JPEG only, no raw.) This assumes bright light, as with the sunlit lunar surface. In dim light, RX10M4 will gain ground in the comparison.
- $800: 35 oz for 24–2000mm equivalent 83x zoom lens f/2.8–6.5 on 1/2.3″ sensor: Nikon COOLPIX P950 (2020, 16mp). Fully articulated LCD. 290 shots per charge. P950 adds a flash hot shoe and can record RAW files (whereas older P900 only captured JPEGs). Compare with P1000 above.
- $600-800: 29 oz for 25-400mm equivalent 16x zoom lens f/2.8-4 on 1″-Type sensor: Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ1000 camera (2014, 20mp) with fast autofocus, fully articulated LCD. For $200 more, FZ1000 II (2019, 28.5 oz) is worth the upgrade premium (for new lower-noise sensor and sharper LCD screen & EVF). The FZ1000 II or I is a great-value travel camera and practically antiquates DSLRs for the needs of travel photographers! These excellent 1″-type sensors let you crop down from 20mp to digitally extend telephoto reach.
- $1000: 33 oz for 24-480mm equivalent 20x zoom lens f/2.8–4.5 on 1″-Type sensor: Panasonic FZ2500 (2016, 20mp) with fully articulated LCD with touchscreen, great viewfinder magnification, best video specs (ND filter, Cine/UHD 4K). But FZ2500’s lens collects a half stop less light (slightly lowering image quality), its telephoto doesn’t reach long enough for birders, and its CIPA battery life of 350 shots is shorter than Sony RX10M3’s 420 shots. (FZ2500 is FZ2000 in some markets.)
The above prices date from April 2020 on Amazon.com, where as an Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. To support my work, use these links:
Buy any products at Amazon.com | Sign up for AirBnb.com
No longer is a DSLR camera with a mirror required for excellent birding and wildlife photography with quick autofocus. The following compact camera with excellent 20-megapixel 1″-Type sensor has a high-quality 25x zoom lens which reaches 600mm equivalent birding territory:
- Sony Cyber-shot RX10 III (read Tom’s review) or faster focusing RX10 IV (read Tom’s review).
Or for Sony 6400 or A6300 (read Tom’s review) or older A6000, NEX-6, and NEX-7 mirrorless E-mount APS-C-sensor cameras (read Tom’s NEX-7 review), one could mount the following telephoto lens:
- Sony FE 70-300mm F4.5-5.6 G OSS SEL70300G lens (buy at Amazon) (2016, 30 oz), which is 105-450mm equivalent in terms of angle of view.
History lesson: cropping a newer 24-megapixel camera beat a better lens mounted on older 12mp camera
In 2012, cropping my 24-megapixel Sony NEX-7 with all-in-one 18-200mm lens handily beat the real resolution formerly obtained from 70 to 250mm on Nikon’s good 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G VR lens used on my 12mp D5000 DSLR camera. But upgrading to a 24mp Nikon D3200 camera (2012) or Nikon D3300 camera (2014, 16 oz) would restore the advantage of Nikon VR 70-300mm lens. In 2016 came the excellent Sony FE 70-300mm F4.5-5.6 G OSS lens (30 oz, SEL70300G), great for use on Sony A6300 making 105-450mm equivalent. But I prefer the all-in-one 25x zoom Sony RX10 III, introduced around the same time.
Because the DSLR legacy still runs strongly among many professional photographers, the remainder of this article discusses suitable DSLR telephoto lenses…
Wildlife telephoto lenses for DSLR (mirror) cameras
DSLR wildlife telephoto lenses optimal for on-the-go travelers
An optimally “lightweight” wildlife lens for Nikon DSLRs is Nikkor AF-S VR Zoom 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G ED-IF lens (26 oz, 105-450mm angle of view equivalent), which resolves detail throughout its range 5 to 20% sharper (for bigger prints) than the versatile Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom (20 oz, 3 x 3.8″, 2009) travel lens. Alternatives:
- Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD MACRO lens for Nikon (2014, 19 oz) flexibly covers 19x zoom range while matching the quality of name-brand kit lenses. But Sony RX10 IV and III are significantly sharper, especially at ≥90mm equivalent. [Avoid the Tamron 18-400 25-oz lens, which is too soft beyond 50-100mm; and its Vibration Control (VC) only helps by up to 2.5 stops slower shutter speed.]
- Nikon DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens (29 oz, 3.3 x 4.7″, 2012) covers a 16x zoom range.
- Canon Rebel cameras can use the Tamron 16-300mm, or a lightweight Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS, or full frame conventional Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM lens.
A good DSLR camera is Sony Alpha SLT-A65V camera (buy at Amazon.com) (2012, 22 oz body with SteadyShot INSIDE Stabilization) with good travel lens Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 ZA DT lens for Sony Alpha (24-120mm equiv, 16 oz). For wildlife and sports, add an excellent Sony 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 SSM G A-mount lens. Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology speeds past very slow Live View autofocus of rival Nikon and Canon DSLRs (except the fast Canon 70D). The tilt/swivel 3.0-inch LCD aids hand-held macro and candid travel shots at arms length. Nikon or Canon lens-based image stabilization may beat Sony’s sensor-shift SteadyShot by up to a full stop of slower shutter speed.
For sharper handheld shots, get optical image stabilization built into the lens (Nikon VR, Canon IS) or body (Sony SteadyShot INSIDE). Superior lenses having fast f4 or f/2.8 brightest aperture excel for indoor action but are a heavy burden when traveling.
Newer DSLR lenses optimized for digital
Today, many lenses sold for DSLR cameras are still the older, heavier ones designed for full frame (35mm film size) cameras. By upgrading to newer lenses that are “Optimized For Digital APS-C”, you can save bulk and weight and enjoy comparable image quality with less vignetting.
A few newer lenses are “designed for APS-C only” and 250mm or longer, useful for a wide range of subjects including wildlife shots:
- Nikon AF-S DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens (29 oz, 3.3 x 4.7″, 2012)
- Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS (Image Stabilization): 2.8 x 4.3 in (70 x 108mm), 13.8 oz (390g). Canon Rebel APS-C crop factor of 1.6 gives it a field of view equivalent to a 88-400mm lens on 135 film.
- Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD MACRO lens for Nikon (2014, 19 oz) 18.8x zoom with splash-proof design for cameras with APS-C sensor, for Nikon F-mount, Canon EF-mount, or Sony A-mount.
- Tamron Di II VC AF 18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 LD Aspherical (IF) MACRO (2008, Model B003)
- 15x zoom lens for Canon mount and AF motor supporting Nikon.
- Lightweight 19.4 oz (550g), compact 101mm × 80mm (3.8″ × 3.1″).
- Di-II is Tamron’s lighter weight design exclusively for APS-C sensors.
- Minimum focus distance 19.3 inches throughout. Magnification ratio 1:3.5 at 270mm (74 x 49 mm coverage).
- Tamron claims image sharpness similar to competitors (18-200mm Canon IS, Nikon VR, Sigma OS lenses) at same light weight, while zooming more, 15x versus 11x. Canon 18-200mm IS stabilizes images best of the bunch. Canon’s crop factor 1.6 makes 18-270mm equivalent to 29-432mm. Nikon’s 1.5 crop factor makes a 27-405mm equivalent.
- I didn’t like the Tamron 18-270mm VC lens (returned) and instead upgraded to Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom Lens. The Nikon 18-200 “VR I” focused more reliably in low indoors light on a tripod and cropping its 200mm images beat Tamron’s 270mm. The Tamron autofocuses slower and lens creeps badly when pointed up or down.
- Avoid older version which lacks VC: Tamron Di-II AF 18-250mm F/3.5-6.3 LD Aspherical (IF) Macro. 430g (15.2oz).
Brand terminology for image stabilization, APS-C-optimization, and fast ultrasonic focusing motors
Lighten your load by shopping for the new, smaller lens formats DX, EF-S, DC and Di II “designed for digital for APS-C size sensor cameras only“:
- Nikon/Nikkor DX format lenses for APS-C only (with “VR, Vibration Reduction” desired)
- Nikon DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens (29 oz, 3.3 x 4.7″, 2012) all-in-one travel lens
- Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom Lens (new in 2006 with VR I) is great for travel because its size and weight are optimized for Nikon cameras with DX sensors (APS-C size, as in Nikon D3300, D3200, D3100, D5100, D60, & D40X cameras). The DX lens design eliminates the extra glass which would have been required to cover a full 35mm size frame. Nikon DX format cameras have a “field of view crop factor” of 1.5, so this lens labeled 18-200mm can be thought of as a 27-300mm in 135 film terms.
- Canon EF-S lenses for APS-C only (with “IS, Image Stabilization” desired)
- Sigma DC lenses for APS-C only (with “OS, Optical Stabilization” desired)
- Tamron Di II lenses for APS-C only (with “VC, Vibration Compensation” desired).
- Note: Because the above DX, EF-S, DC and Di II lenses are designed for cameras with APS-C size sensor only, they will cause vignetting (darkened corners) at the wide angle end of their zoom if used on “full frame sensor” SLR cameras, such as on the expensive Nikon D3 (FX format), Nikon D700, Canon EOS 5D, or pricier Canon EOS 1D camera.
- For sharper handheld shooting in significantly dimmer lighting situations without a tripod, insist on lenses designed with image stabilization (VR, IS, OS or VC above). By eliminating much time formerly spent setting up a tripod, I can better keep pace with non-photographers on group treks.
- Note that the Sony Alpha (A-series) builds the image stabilization into the camera body with sensor-shift technology, which is a fine idea, except that comparable Nikon D60 and Canon Rebel cameras of 2009 gain back Sony’s handheld advantage through lower noise at a higher ISO settings. Then using a Nikon VR or Canon IS lens beats Sony’s handheld low light performance.
- Also look for the fastest focusing lenses with ultrasonic motors to capture flighty animals, a feature branded as follows:
- Canon – USM, UltraSonic Motor
- Nikon – SWM, Silent Wave Motor
- Sigma – HSM, Hyper Sonic Motor
- Tamron – PZD, Piezo Drive autofocus system powered by a fast and quiet standing-wave ultrasonic motor
- Olympus – SWD, Supersonic Wave Drive
- Panasonic – XSM, Extra Silent Motor
- Pentax – SDM, Supersonic Drive Motor
- Sony & Minolta – SSM, SuperSonic Motor
- The quality of new lenses usually equals or exceeds comparable past models.
Wildlife and birding lenses for APS-C cameras
For serious photography of wildlife or birds using an an APS-C size sensor camera, use telephoto lens labeled at least 300mm (angle of view equivalent to 450mm lens on 135 film or 35mm sensor). If your telephoto lens falls short of this, then you can crop to enlarge, at the cost of fuzzier images due to lowered resolution. A maximum aperture of f/5.6 or f/6.3 saves money and weight, yet can take decent images in good daylight (usually sharpest if stopped down one or two stops from wide open). Professional wildlife and bird photographers can sharpen image quality with heavier, more expensive lenses with brightest aperture f/4 in a 500mm or longer conventional lens (equivalent in terms of 135 film or 35mm sensor), possibly using a full frame 35mm-sensor camera.
CROP FACTOR: Cameras with APS-C size sensors have an “angle of view crop factor” that extends the telephoto by 1.5x for Nikon (or 1.6x for Canon) cameras, when compared to using the same lens on 135 film or 35mm sensor. For example, a favorite travel lens labeled “18-200mm” focal length has the angle of view of a “27-300mm” in terms of 135 film or 35mm sensor, on a Nikon DX format camera such as the Nikon D5100, D5000, D3300, or D60. A Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom Lens makes a great all-around travel lens, with a big 11x zoom that minimizes lens changes so that you don’t miss a shot. However, this 200mm telephoto is too short for serious wildlife photo enlargements, unless you are satisfied with web display or small 4×6 prints of animals. A Nikon DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens would better reach distant birds.
Photo: In Sagarmatha National Park near Mount Everest, that flash of iridescent blue, orange and green is a Danfe or Danphe Pheasant, the national bird of Nepal. Telephoto tips:
- On APS-C size sensor cameras (such as Nikon DX format), for bigger prints of wildlife or birds, use a lens focal length of at least 300mm (which has an angle of view equivalent to a 450mm lens on 135 film or a 35mm-size sensor, a diagonally field of view of 8 degrees & 15 minutes).
- An editor can act as a digital zoom: In Adobe Lightroom editor, I cropped to 10% of the original image to make an acceptable 4×6-inch bird print (but any larger print would look fuzzy at reading distance). The pheasant, 70 feet away in fog, would have been sharper if I had used a telephoto longer than 200mm on my APS-C sensor camera.
[2007 photo: Nikon D40X DSLR, 10mp 3872 x 2592, cropped to 858 x 1002 pixels; published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. ]
Full-frame conventional lenses are bigger and heavier
The expensive “full frame” DSLR cameras (such as Nikon D600 camera, Nikon D700, or Nikon D3 with FX format; Canon EOS 6D, 5D or pricier Canon EOS 1D) require the conventional lens size which focuses sharply to the area of 35mm film, about 36 x 24 mm. Many new lenses are “optimized for digital” to work with both conventional and APS-C size sensors, to reduce vignetting (darkening at corners). For example, Sigma brand lenses labelled DG and Tamron Di lenses are the conventional size, optimized for both full frame and APS-C sensor cameras (though sometimes working better for one particular format).
Using these large, conventional lenses on APS-C size cameras can have some plus and minuses:
- Advantages of conventional size lenses: The small APS-C size sensor (measuring about 22 x 15 mm) uses just the central area of the conventional 35mm lens, or the “sweet spot”, where images are usually sharpest, with lowest distortion (by not using the outside edges). Also, older lenses may be cheaper, easier to obtain, or already owned in your kit. And if you upgrade from an APS-C camera to a full frame DSLR, the conventional lens may stay compatible.
- Disadvantages: Conventional size lenses are bigger and heavier (versus the newer Nikon DX, Canon EF-S, Sigma DC, and Tamron Di II lenses “for APS-C size sensor cameras only”), and most people won’t eke an advantage from conventional lenses versus the APS-C-only lenses.
In the lens brand list below, Popular Photography magazine October 2008 rates the following excellent travel lenses as roughly equal in image quality: Nikon 70-300mm 4.5-5.6G VR (which I’ve enjoyed using); Canon 70-300mm DO IS USM; and Sigma 120-400mm 4.5-5.6DG APO OS HSM AF:
Canon full-frame (EF-mount) conventional lenses with IS (Image Stabilization) for wildlife & travel images:
- Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM. 3.2 x 3.9 in., 25.4 oz (82.4 x 99.9 mm, 720g), makes a great extension to the IS kit lens sold with the Canon EOS 450D / Rebel XSi
- Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens (new December 2014, 55.3 oz) 3.7 x 7.6″, 77mm filter, 4 stops image stabilization, L-series weather resistance, reduced ghosting and flaring, 3.2-foot closest focus, new Rotation-Type Zoom Ring prevents dust sucking.
- 1998 version: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM Lens. 48.0 oz (1380g), 3.6 x 7.4″ (92 x 189mm), 77mm filter, 1.5 stops image stabilization, 6.5 feet closest focus, push-pull zoom (sucks dust)
- plus bigger professional lenses with wider maximum aperture
Nikon/Nikkor full frame (F Mount) conventional lenses with VR (highly desirable Vibration Reduction) for wildlife & travel photography, in order of increasing price:
- Nikkor AF-S VR Zoom 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G ED-IF lens (equivalent to 105-450mm angle of view in terms of 135 film). 26 ounces; 5.6″ length; 4.9 foot minimum focus. Compatible with full frame Nikon D3 DSLR. Lens size and price point attract sports and wildlife/birder photographers. Nikkor 70-300mm is sharper than Nikkor 18-200mm VR.
- Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED Autofocus VR Zoom Nikkor Lens: (120-600mm equivalent angle of view when used on a Nikon DX mount/APS-C camera) 3.6 x 6.7 inches; 48.0 oz (1360 g). Ken Rockwell says “This lens is a miracle…to shoot still subjects with long exposures without needing a tripod…but for sports you may want the 70-300 AF-S VR.” One reader complained that this lens “does not have AF-S, so I found the focusing too slow for moving birds…and it didn’t bring birds in close enough”.
- Nikkor AF-S VR Zoom 200-400mm f/4G IF-ED lens: 4.9 x 14.4 inches; 115.5 oz (3275 g). One of my readers was “impressed with the speed of its AF and the quality of the pictures, but the lens is awfully large and heavy”. About $5500.
- Nikon 500mm f/4G ED AF-S Vibration Reduction (VR II) Nikkor Lens: 5.5 x 15.4 inches; 137 oz/8.54 pounds.
- plus bigger professional lenses with wider maximum aperture
Sony Alpha DSLR full frame conventional lenses:
- Sony SteadyShot INSIDE Stabilization (the sensor-shift built into Sony Alpha DSLR camera bodies) is a half or full stop of shutter speed worse than Nikon or Canon lens-based image stabilization, but Sony lenses may cost less for similar quality.
- Sony A-mount 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 SSM G (SAL-70300G) lens for Alpha DSLR (27 oz/760g), 1.2m minimum focus distance, filter size 62mm. Tip: for sharpest images, set aperture at f/8 to f/11 at zoom settings 70 to 300mm.
- Older, cheaper version without SSM: Sony 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 Compact Super Telephoto Zoom Lens for Sony Alpha
- Sony A-mount 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM II lens (53 oz/3.3 lb/1500g, 3.7 x 7.7 inches, SAL-70400G2, 2013) (or SAL-70400G lens, both for Alpha DSLRs) can be adapted onto a NEX camera using Sony LA-EA2 mount adaptor (7 oz, with translucent mirror for fast phase detection autofocus) but lacks OSS, thereby limiting hand-held photography and increasing tripod usage. Minimum focus distance 1.5m, filter size 77mm. This SAL-70400G2 SSM II lens is very sharp wide open at 400mm, has 4x faster autofocus, less flare/ghosting, and higher contrast images than previous version. As with comparable rival lenses, they have poor bokeh >250mm compared to prime lenses.
By the way, I don’t recommend using Sony A-mount lenses (such as 70-300mm or -400mm) on E-mount bodies (such as A6400, A6300, A6000). Designed for in-body stabilization for Sony Alpha DSLRs, A-mount lenses all lack OSS (thereby requiring more tripod use on E-mount bodies). A-mount lenses also require a hefty A-mount adapter on E-mount bodies:
- Sony LA-EA2 adaptor (7 oz, with translucent mirror for fast phase detection autofocus)
- Sony LA-EA1 adapter (with Manual focus only, NO AUTOFOCUS).
- You’d be better off using E-mount lenses on Sony A6400, A6300, or A6000.
Tamron and Sigma make good value full-frame conventional zoom lenses suitable for shooting birds and wildlife plus a wide range of other subjects, fitting many different brand camera bodies:
- Tamron 28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 Di VC PZD Zoom Lens (2014, 19 oz) for Canon EF, Nikon F (FX), Sony Alpha mounts: attractive for wildlife/travel photography with ultrasonic PZD motor. Tamron “Di” lens designed for both full frame and APS-C sensor cameras. 42-450mm equivalent lens on Nikon DX format cameras (APS-C with 1.5x field of view multiplier), where the angle of view zooms from 75°23′ to 8°15′. Close focus 19 inches. Internal Focus (IF).
- Older: Tamron AF 28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 XR Di VC (Vibration Compensation) LD Aspherical (IF) Macro lens (19.4 oz, 3.06 x 3.9 inches): Close focus to 16 inches. Low Dispersion (LD) and Aspherical glass elements.
- Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD (2014, 69 oz/4.30 lb/1951 g, 4.2 x 10.2″) for Canon EF mount, Nikon F mount, and Sony Alpha A-mount: 225-900mm equivalent on APS-C. UltraSonic Drive autofocus motor. Shoot at around f/8 for sharpest results (given sufficient tripod use and/or shutter speed). Excellent dollar value. Comparisons:
- The 2008 Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM is no sharper at 500mm than the Tamron is at 600mm.
- This Tamron 150-600mm matches image quality at half the price of Nikon AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR.
- The Tamron’s modern optics easily beat the 1999 Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM.
- Tamron AF 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di LD Macro lens. 3.0 x 4.6 in. 435g (15.3 oz). Not image stabilized.
- Tamron SP AF200-500mm F/5-6.3 Di LD (IF) lens. 3.7 x 8.9 in. 1237g (43.6 oz). Not image stabilized.
The following full-frame conventional zoom lenses by Sigma are a good price-value, fitting several different brand camera bodies:
- Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens (2015, 68 ounces, 4.1 x 10.2 in). Note: Sigma’s heavier, professional 150-600mm Sports version (2015, 101 ounces, 11.5-inches long) is splash and dust-resistant, focuses as close as 102-inches, and has 24 elements in 16 groups.
- Sigma APO 150-500mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens (2008, 67.4 oz, 3.7 in. x 9.9 in.) filter diameter 86mm.
- Sigma APO 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM lens: (61.7 oz/1750g, 3.6 in. x 8 in)
- Sigma APO 80-400mm F4.5-5.6 EX DG OS lens: Optical Stabilization helps by about 2 stops or so. Does not have HSM and may be slow to focus. 1750g/61.9 oz, 3.7 x 7.6 in.
- Sigma APO 50-500mm F4-6.3 EX DG HSM lens: 1,840g/64.9 oz; 3.7 in. x 8.6 in. It has no optical stabilization; but good DSLR cameras can compensate by a few stops using high ISO settings.
- plus bigger professional lenses with wider maximum aperture.
- Sigma glossary of terms: DG = Sigma’s conventional full-size lens. In the future, look for newer, smaller 300mm and longer Sigma “DC” lenses for APS-C only. OS = Optical Stabilization, very desireable. HSM = Hyper Sonic Motor for quiet and high-speed AF (Auto Focus), very desirable.
Tokina full-frame conventional lens for wildlife:
- Tokina 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 ATX 840 AF D: Angle of view 29° 50’ to 6°13’ on APS-C camera; Minimum focus distance 2.5m (8.2 ft.); dimensions 3.1 in. (79mm) X 136.5 mm (5.4in.); 1020 g (35.9 oz); introduced June 2006, for Canon EOS and Nikon D. Unfortunately no image stabilization.
Check prices at Amazon.com. — buying at the links on this page supports Tom Dempsey’s work.
TELEPHOTO TIPS: How to avoid out-of-focus shots on any camera
- Make sure image stabilization (IS, VR, OS, VC, or OIS) is turned on for all hand held shots (especially when using telephoto), to counteract blurring due to hand shake at slower shutter speeds.
- Focus will be most difficult towards longest telephoto end of the zoom, due to hand shake and lens limitations, especially in low light. At 400mm using Canon IS or Nikon VR on an APS-C sensor, shoot at about 1/125th second or faster for sharper shots. For APS-C cameras in general, divide the lens mm by two, and the inverse is near the slowest possible sharp shutter speed when image stabilization is turned on. Raising ISO will help achieve faster shutter speeds.
- Most DSLR lenses are sharpest stopped down by one or two stops from wide open: f/8 is easiest to remember as a good optimum that reduces the chromatic aberrations of wide open and prevents the light diffraction of small openings at high aperture numbers such as f/22.
- Automatic multi-point focus usually hunts for the closest, brightest object, and is often not what you wanted to focus on, but can react faster than your fingers for capturing wildlife, sports, and action.
- For shooting non-moving subjects on most cameras, a single AF point in the center (not multi point automatic) is more accurate. Lock focus, recompose, then release the shutter. On many cameras, when using single AF point, it’s easy to accidently press the “AF point selection” off center or forget that it’s off center, focusing on a location different than you thought. Some of the heavier, pricier DSLR models can lock AF point selection to avoid the common problem.
Terminology and metric conversions
- oz = ounces. Above camera weights in ounces (oz) include battery and memory card.
- g = grams. Multiple ounces by 28.35 to get grams.
- sec = second.
- mm = millimeters. A centimeter (cm) equals 10 millimeters. Multiply centimeters (cm) by 0.3937 to get inches.
- ILC = Interchangeable Lens Compact = “midsize mirrorless camera” term used above
- DSLR = Digital Single Lens Reflex = a traditional camera where an optical viewfinder uses a mirror to see through the interchangeable lens.
- EVF = Electronic Viewfinder.
- LCD = Liquid Crystal Display.
- OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) beats an LCD in dynamic range from darkest to brightest and consumes less power.
- “equivalent“ lens = To compare lenses on cameras having different sensor sizes, equiv or equivalent lens refers to what would be the lens focal length (measured in mm or millimeters) that would give the same angle of view on a “full frame” 35mm-size sensor (or 35mm film camera, using 135 film cartridge).
- Compared lenses are “equivalent” only in terms of angle of view. (To determine sharpness or quality, read lens reviews which analyze at 100% pixel views.)
- “Crop factor” = how many times smaller is the diagonal measurement of a small sensor than a “full frame” 35-mm size sensor. For example, the 1.5x crop factor for Nikon DX format (APS-C size sensor) makes a lens labeled 18-200mm to be equivalent in angle of view to a 27-300mm focal length lens used on a 35mm film camera. The 2x crop factor for Micro Four Thirds sensors makes a lens labeled 14-140mm to be equivalent in angle of view to a 28-280mm lens used on a 35mm film camera.
- Superzoom lenses
- In 2013, superzoom often refers to lenses of about 15x zoom range or larger. Steady quality improvements in the resolving power of sensors has made possible superzoom cameras in ever smaller sizes. As superzoom range increases, laws of physics require lenses to focus upon smaller sensors (light detectors) or else to increase lens size. For a given level (most recent year) of technological advancement, a camera with physically larger sensor (bigger light detecting area) should capture better quality for a given zoom lens range.
- “10x zoom” = zoom lens telephoto divided by wide angle focal length. For example, a 14-140mm focal length zoom has a 10x zoom range (140 divided by 14). An 18-200mm zoom has an 11x zoom range (200 divided by 18).
- “equivalent” F-stop = refers to the F-stop (F-number) on a full-frame-sensor camera which has the same hole diameter as the F-stop of the camera lens being compared. The concept of “equivalent” F-stop lets you compare capabilities for creating shallow depth of field on cameras with different-size sensors. Smaller-sensor cameras use shorter focal lengths for the same field of view, so at a given F-stop they have a smaller physical aperture size, meaning more depth of field (with less blur in front of and behind the focused subject). Formula: F Number (or Relative Aperture) = actual focal length of lens divided by diameter of the entrance pupil.
Buying anything at the above Amazon.com links supports my work.
Regarding smartphones — with great power comes great responsibility (as says the Greek “Sword of Damocles” anecdote, and more recently, Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man). Sadly, monetized social media has enabled extreme memes to shout-down both civility and reality itself. To my relief, Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker restores our faith in the triumph of public good in his important books:
- Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018)
- Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (2021)
Good stuff, Tom. After decades of hauling a bagful of film SLR equipment all over the world, I swore I never wanted to change lenses again in my life. So the last decade I’ve been happily using a Panasonic 24X FZ150 that has finally died from overuse. For my next camera, I wouldn’t mind a bit better IQ so I was looking at the Panasonic FZ1000 ii (I need at least 400 mm in reach) but based on your advice, am now considering the RX10 iv as well. My other thought is an APS-C camera, say the Nikon D5600, with an all-in-one lens that I would never need to change, say the Nikon 18-300 (27-450 ff equiv.). I’m wondering what you thoughts would be on that? In terms of overall weight, price, sensor size, and resolution, it would outscore the RX10 iv, but would lose out on brightness and presumably lens softness.
Good question. My last camera with APS-C was Sony A6300 with 18-200mm lens which, according to my field tests, Sony RX10 III easily beat at almost every angle of view, despite the significantly smaller sensor. The 18-300mm lenses available for APS-C are softer than the 18-200mm lenses, especially near the edges, away from the center. So ever since 2016, I have given up on APS-C sensors and use the greater zoom reach possible with a sharp Sony lens shining on a 1-inch type BSI sensor (same as the efficient BSI sensor in Panasonic FZ1000 versions I and II). In 2018, I upgraded to the faster-focusing Sony RX10M4 (RX10 version IV), the world’s most versatile travel camera in its weight class, 39 ounces.
Compare with Nikon D5600, which is 16.4 oz with battery, mounted with Nikon 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6 (29 oz) making a total of 45.4 ounces. This is 6.4 ounces heavier than Sony RX10M4’s 39 ounces. Notice that 300mm on APS-C sensor only reaches “450mm equivalent” angle of view (in terms of full frame), a minimum for wildlife, whereas the Sony goes to 600mm at f/4. Compared to Nikon’s 18-300mm lens (17x zoom), RX10M4’s 24-600mm f/2.4-4 lens is a full stop faster throughout its 25x zoom (in terms of brightest aperture), with a more-efficient BSI sensor, and with sharper optics edge-to-edge in most shooting situations (often resolving more edge detail, despite capturing only 20 megapixels, versus 24 mp on APS-C).
If you want to save 10 ounces of weight and shave off $800 compared to Sony’s RX10M4, Panasonic’s FZ1000 version II is a great price value, still reasonably sharp for most practical purposes.