The best telephoto lenses for Canon and Nikon DSLRs in 2017

Like Canon lenses, those designed for Nikons fall into two groups – most are designed for full frame Nikons and will also work on the smaller format APS-C models in the range, from the D500 down. But a few are designed solely for the smaller format, and these have 'DX' in the name.

You can use these DX lenses on a full frame Nikon, but the camera has to switch to a 'DX crop' mode that uses a smaller, APS-C size area of the sensor. This means you lose a lot of the sensor's native resolution, so that a Nikon D810 has 36 million pixels in its regular full frame mode, but this shrinks to just over 15 megapixels in DX crop mode. So although you can use smaller DX lenses on a full frame Nikon, it's a makeshift solution.

Nikon AF S 70 200mm f 2 8G ED VR II

1. Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II

It'll tick all the boxes on your wish list, and more

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: full frame | Focal length: 70-200mm | Maximum aperture: f/2.8 | Image stabiliser: 4 stops | Weather seals: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.4m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 87 x 209mm | Weight: 1,540g

Tough build, excellent features
Superb image quality
Heavier than the 70-200mm f/4 lens
Not cheap

This lens is enormously popular, and with good reason. AF performance is first class and there's a sophisticated VR system which works a treat and features both normal and active modes, plus automatic panning detection. The quality continues on the outside, with a tough, weather-sealed magnesium barrel and wonderfully refined handling. But it's the lens' image quality that ensures it comes out on top. Sharpness and contrast are excellent throughout the zoom range and at differing apertures, whilst the rounded nine-blade diaphragm maintains pleasant bokeh. A new version has just been announced, but this should make this lens even more competitively priced for such a quality optic, making it a winner in every respect.

Tamron SP 70 200mm f 2 8 Di VC USD

2. Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD for Nikon

A 'Super Performance' Tamron lens that certainly delivers

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: full frame | Focal length: 70-200mm | Maximum aperture: f/2.8 | Image stabiliser: 4 stops | Weather seals: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.3m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 86 x 197mm | Weight: 1470g

Build and weather sealing
Good sharpness
Stabilizer ineffective for panning
Fairly heavy

Can't quite stretch to our winner? Tamron's direct rival is very nearly as good, yet noticeably easier on your pocket. Four LD (Low Dispersion) and one XLD (Extra Low Dispersion) elements maximise image quality, as do multi-layer coatings and a nine-blade diaphragm. The magnesium alloy construction feels robust and is fully weather sealed. Extra attractions include a focus limiter switch and impressively fast, near-silent USD autofocus. There's also Tamron's high-performing four-stop Vibration Correction system, which helps ensure terrific sharpness throughout the zoom range, even at maximum aperture. Overall, a really excellent lens at a competitive price.

Sigma APO 7 200mm f 2 8 EX DG OS HSM

3. Sigma APO 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM for Nikon

Our third 70-200mm f/2.8 option is a real tempter for the money

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: full frame | Focal length: 70-200mm | Maximum aperture: f/2.8 | Image stabiliser: 4 stops | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 1.4m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 86 x 198mm | Weight: 1430g

Image quality and stabilization
Relatively accessible price
Plastic construction
No focus range limiter switch

Like the second place Tamron SP 70-200mm, this is another lens that's gunning for the winning Nikon optic, but ultimately it loses out to Tamron's superior build quality and weather sealing. Optical performance is almost as strong though, with five Low Dispersion elements and Sigma's Super Multi-Layer Coating to reduce ghosting and flare. It makes for respectable centre sharpness throughout most of the zoom range, but the Tamron lens edges ahead on corner sharpness and handles fringing and distortion marginally better. However, this Sigma still offers outstanding value thanks to its fast, super-smooth autofocus system and four-stop, dual-mode image stabiliser.

Nikon AF S 70 200mm f 4G ED VR

4. Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/4G ED VR

A lightweight lens with a lot to offer if you don't need f/2.8

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: full frame | Focal length: 70-200mm | Maximum aperture: f/4 | Image stabiliser: 4 stops | Weather seals: Lens mount gasket | Minimum focus distance: 1m | Filter size: 67mm | Dimensions: 78 x 179mm | Weight: 850g

Superb image quality
Super-fast autofocus
Quite pricey for a budget optic
Not fully weather sealed

This lens may be an f-stop slower than our top trio, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It means it's more compact and lightweight, improving comfort for long periods of handheld shooting. You won't need to worry much about camera shake, either, thanks to a particularly well implemented VR (Vibration Reduction) system that also features automatic panning detection. The lens isn't weather-sealed, but it does at least get a rubber ring on the mounting plate. Three ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements and one HRI (High Refractive Index) element, along with Nano-Crystal coatings, help deliver very good sharpness and contrast within negligible ghosting and flare.

Nikon AF S 70 300mm f 4 5 5 6G IF ED VR

5. Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR

The budget lens that gives Nikon's pro optics a run for their money

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: full frame | Focal length: 70-300mm | Maximum aperture: f4.5-5.6 | Image stabiliser: 4 stops | Weather seals: Lens mount gasket | Minimum focus distance: 1.5m | Filter size: 67mm | Dimensions: 80 x 144mm | Weight: 745g

Superb image quality
Fast and efficient autofocus
Costs more than 'budget' rivals
Indifferent sharpness at 300mm

Okay, so it's still not exactly cheap, but this lens does offer top quality build and plenty of high-tech finery for a relatively modest outlay. The ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system is super-fast, practically silent and comes complete with full-time manual override. You also get an impressive four-stop VR system with an Active setting designed for use when shooting from a vibrating platform like a car or helicopter. Focusing is fully internal, so the front element neither moves nor rotates during focusing. It all topped off with pin-sharp image quality and excellent contrast courtesy of two ED elements which also keep colour fringing to a minimum.

Tamron SP 70 300mm f 4 5 6 Di VC USD

6. Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD for Nikon

Serious tech and very good optics make this great value

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: full frame | Focal length: 70-300mm | Maximum aperture: f/4-5.6 | Image stabiliser: 4 stops | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 1.5m | Filter size: 62mm | Dimensions: 82 x 143mm | Weight: 765g

Performance and image quality
Bargain price
Heavy compared to budget rivals
Variable maximum aperture

Nikon's 70-300mm optic packs unbeatable punch for the money, but this Tamron alternative is almost as good thanks to its high-end feature set, quality optics and solid build. There's an impressive ring-type autofocus motor which is fast and whisper quiet, as well as an advanced four-stop VC (Vibration Compensation) system that's a match for Canon's latest IS offerings. At 765g, it's quite chunky and weighty for this class of lens, but feels solid with refined handling. Image quality doesn't disappoint either, as sharpness and contrast are very good throughout the zoom range. Colour fringing is also well controlled, even into the corners of images.

Nikon AF S DX 55 300mm f 4 5 5 6G ED VR

7. Nikon AF-S DX 55-300MM f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

A cost-effective and capable option for DX-format Nikons

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: APS-C | Focal length: 55-300mm | Maximum aperture: f/4.5-5.6 | Image stabiliser: 4 stops | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 1.4m | Filter size: 58mm | Dimensions: 77 x 123mm | Weight: 530g

Relatively large zoom range
Four-stop stabilisation
DX Nikons only
Noticeable distortion at mid zoom

Despite being the cheapest Nikon lens in our shortlist, it still sports Nikon's latest-generation Vibration Reduction system which gives a four-stop advantage in avoiding camera shake. There is some evidence of cost-cutting though, like the conventional autofocus motor that lacks the full-time manual override facility of ring-type ultrasonic systems. Even so, handling feels assured and, despite this being a budget lens, it still feels reassuringly robust. Image equality is another pleasant surprise, with very good sharpness throughout the zoom range and low levels of colour fringing. Our only slight criticism is the fairly large zoom range does seem to push distortions up a bit.

Sigma APO 70 300mm f 4 5 6 DG Macro

8. Sigma APO 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG Macro for Nikon

The best buy for those on a shoestring budget

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: full frame | Focal length: 70-300mm | Maximum aperture: f/4-5.6 | Image stabiliser: No | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 0.95m | Filter size: 58mm | Dimensions: 77 x 122mm | Weight: 550g

Respectable image quality
Very low price
Lacks image stabilisation
Slow and noisy autofocus system

It's not just distant objects that this Sigma can get you closer to, as it's also designed for close-up work, with a 95cm minimum focus distance and a 0.5x magnification factor in Macro mode. Other attractions include three SLD (Special Low Dispersion) lens elements to minimise chromatic aberrations, however you don't get optical stabilisation and the internal autofocus motor is fairly basic. There's little to complain about with image quality though, as sharpness is high, whilst distortion and fringing are low. The only noticeable issue is a lack of contrast in images taken under dull lighting, but the rock-bottom price easily compensates.

9. Nikon AF-P DX 70-300MM f/4.5-6.3G ED VR

Smoother autofocus with Pulse AF

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: full frame | Focal length: 70-300mm | Maximum aperture: f/4.5-6.3 | Image stabiliser: Yes | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 1.1m | Filter size: 58mm | Dimensions: 72 x 125mm | Weight: 415g

Sharpness is good
VR system works well
Limited compatibility
No body-mounted control

Nikon is the latest manufacturer to jump on the stepping motor bandwagon: it’s used for autofocus in this AF-P (Pulse) lens. It’s available with or without VR (Vibration Reduction); the edition without stabilisation is a little cheaper to buy. Both are fully compatible with D3300/D3400, D5300/D5500/D5600 and D500 bodies, but completely incompatible with many older Nikon cameras like the D7000, where autofocus and even manual focusing are unavailable. If you want to switch off VR, it relies on a camera menu to disable this, though it can’t be done in some ‘compatible’ Nikon cameras, even after a firmware update. In our tests, the non-VR version of the lens proved slightly sharper than the VR edition. However, the four-stop stabiliser is particularly effective in hand-held shooting, with the VR lens yielding more consistently sharp images.