The best telephoto lenses for Canon and Nikon DSLRs in 2018

The 10 best telephoto zoom lenses for Canon DSLRs

In terms of sheer quality and performance, the leading contenders are currently Canon and Tamron, battling it out for top spot in both the 70-200mm f/2.8 and 70-300mm categories. Sigma’s 70-200mm f/2.8 lens isn’t quite to the same standard but offers exceptional value for money. Sigma’s relatively antiquated 70-300mm is much less appealing. 

Canon markets two 70-300mm lenses in up-market L-series and more budget-friendly options. The latter is streets ahead of the previous version, and works well with both APS-C and full-frame cameras. Tamron’s competing lens is rather better value in the UK and Europe, where there’s a sting in the tail with the price of the Canon’s ‘optional’ lens hood. For APS-C format lenses, Canon makes a smart budget option whereas Sigma offers something rather more specialised.

1. Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 for Canon

Tamron’s next-generation 70-200mm lens is an absolute cracker

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: Full-frame | Focal length: 70-200mm | Maximum aperture: f/2.8 | Image stabilizer: 5 stops | Weather seals: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 0.95m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 88 x 194mm | Weight: 1,500g

Spectacular performance and IS
Metal barrelled, weather-sealed 
Pricier than Sigma, but worth extra
Hefty for a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens

A complete revamp of Tamron’s previous 70-200mm VC lens, the G2 (Generation 2) has upgraded optics, faster and more accurate autofocus, plus a new 5-stop, triple-mode stabilizer. Whereas the older lens’s stabilizer was only really effective for static shots, the new one has static and panning modes, plus a third option in which stabilization is only applied during the exposure. This makes it easier to track erratically moving objects. Build quality is excellent, featuring a weather-sealed metal barrel and mounting plate, and a keep-clean fluorine coating on the front element. A nice finishing touch is that the magnesium tripod mounting foot is Arca-Swiss compatible. Image quality is stunning in every respect and the lens is compatible with Tamron’s optional TAP-in Console, for applying customisation and firmware updates.

Read our in-depth Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 review

2. Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Excellent image quality, construction and versatility make this the top own-brand choice

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: Full-frame | Focal length: 70-200mm | Maximum aperture: f/2.8 | Image stabilizer: 4 stops | Weather seals: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.2m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 88.8 x 199mm | Weight: 1,490g

Excellent versatility
Top-notch performance
Pricier than rivals
Relatively heavy

A favourite with many pro shooters, this Canon features top-grade fluorite glass and five UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) elements, a virtually circular eight-blade diaphragm, and a dual-mode image stabilizer giving a four-stop advantage. However, stabilization loses out to the competing Tamron G2’s 5-stop, triple-mode system. An ultrasonic ring-type autofocus system provides super-fast focussing, even under dull lighting conditions. Everything's wrapped up in a tough, weather-sealed magnesium alloy shell, sporting control rings and switches which operate flawlessly. Image quality is excellent throughout the zoom range, but no better than from the less expensive Tamron G2 lens.

3. Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM

Often overlooked, this 70-300mm L-series lens delivers seriously strong performance

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: Full-frame | Focal length: 70-300mm | Maximum aperture: f/4-5.6 | Image stabilizer: 4 stops | Weather seals: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 1.2m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 89 x 143mm | Weight: 1,050g

Premium build and performance
Long zoom range
Pricey for a 70-300mm
Variable aperture rating

At a glance, this lens looks very overpriced for a 70-300mm with a typical ‘variable’ aperture rating of f/4-5.6. As such, it’s often overlooked by photographers wanting a high-performance zoom. However, it justifies the L-series marque, delivering superb image quality with exceptional sharpness and contrast, along with very fast autofocus and effective image stabilization. Naturally, it’s two f/stops slower than a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at its longest zoom setting, but the maximum focal length is 50 per cent longer, and this lens is only about two-thirds of the weight.

4. Sigma APO 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM for Canon

Something of an old favourite, it’s very tempting at the price

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: Full-frame | Focal length: 70-200mm | Maximum aperture: f/2.8 | Image stabilizer: 4 stops | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 1.4m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 86 x 198mm | Weight: 1,430g

Good image quality and IS
Relatively accessible price
No weather-seals
No focus range limiter

A relatively old design, this one harks back to the days before Sigma started making ‘Global Vision’ lenses in Art, Contemporary and Sport categories. Even so, it has fast and whisper-quiet ring-type ultrasonic autofocus, plus dual-mode stabilization that’s worth around three stops. Image quality is very good overall, but it’s not quite as sharp as the latest Canon and Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, especially when shooting wide-open at f/2.8. It’s also the only lens of the three to lack weather-seals. Even so, it’s capable of excellent results and is a bargain at the price.

5. Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM

Proof you can have premium quality and performance on a budget

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: Full-frame | Focal length: 70-200mm | Maximum aperture: f/4 | Image stabilizer: Yes | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 1.2m | Filter size: 67mm | Dimensions: 76 x 172mm | Weight: 760g

Excellent image quality
Robust but fairly lightweight build
Non-IS version even cheaper
Lacks weather-seals

Available with or without image stabilization, the stabilized ‘IS’ version is the better choice. It also adds weather-seals, omitted in the non-stabilized lens, although it does cost about twice the price. Even so, it’s still good value for an L-series lens with premium quality optics. The constant f/4 maximum aperture is a stop narrower than in f/2.8 zooms, but the upside is that this one’s only about half the weight, despite being very strongly built. The ring-type USM autofocus system is very fast and whisper quiet, whilst image quality is impressive with excellent sharpness and contrast, along with minimal distortion and fringing.

6. Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM

A massive improvement over Canon’s previous 70-300mm ‘budget’ lenses

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: Full-frame | Focal length: 70-300mm | Maximum aperture: f/4-5.6 | Image stabilizer: 4 stops | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 1.2m | Filter size: 67mm | Dimensions: 80 x 146mm | Weight: 710g

Rapid yet silent autofocus
LCD info display
Ridiculously expensive hood
No weather-seals

Unlike Canon’s L-series 70-300mm IS USM lens, the previous budget option had a mediocre image stabilizer and a sluggish autofocus system, based on an ultrasonic micro-motor rather than being ring-type ultrasonic. Handling was impaired by the focus ring and front element rotating during autofocus. The Mk II features upgraded optics, a new 4-stop stabilizer and a revolutionary Nano USM autofocus system, which is extremely rapid for stills, yet gives smooth focus transitions for movie capture. A neat LCD screen on the barrel gives display options for focus distance, depth of field, effective focal length when used on an APS-C format camera, and the current level of vibration. Apart from a drop in corner-sharpness at 70mm, performance is very good. However, this 70-300mm isn’t quite so budget-friendly once you add the ‘optional’ hood (sold separately).

7. Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD for Canon

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 stabilizer: 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
IS relatively ineffective for panning
Variable maximum aperture

If you'd rather have a bit more reach than a constant aperture, this 'Super Performance' Tamron is an excellent budget buy. There's an impressive ring-type autofocus motor which is fast and whisper-quiet, plus an advanced four-stop VC (Vibration Compensation) system that's a match for Canon's latest ‘IS’ offerings, at least for static shooting. However, it’s relatively ineffective for panning. At 765g, the Tamron is quite chunky and weighty for this class of lens, but feels solid and has refined handling. Image quality is impressive too, with very good sharpness and contrast throughout the zoom range. Color fringing is also well controlled, even into the extreme corners of images.

8. Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM

Inexpensive and lightweight but still a capable performer

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: APS-C | Focal length: 55-250mm | Maximum aperture: f/4-5.6 | Image stabilizer: 3.5 stops | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 0.85m | Filter size: 58mm | Dimensions: 70 x 111mm | Weight: 375g

Decent image quality
Nice handling, smooth autofocus
Not the cheapest
APS-C only

An ideal APS-C format telephoto zoom to compliment an 18-55mm standard kit lens, the EF-S 55-250mm extends your reach to an ‘effective’ 400mm. It’s well matched to Canon’s entry-level DSLRs and makes a good travel option, with a lightweight 375g build, due in part to having a plastic rather than metal mounting plate. Useful features include a 3.5-stop image stabiliser and an STM (Stepping Motor) autofocus system, which is virtually silent. It’s fairly fast for both stills and video shooting, yet enables smooth focus transitions when shooting video. There’s an improvement in image quality, compared with the previous non-STM version, thanks to a revised optical layout with additional elements.

9. Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8 DC HSM | A for Canon

Relatively short on telephoto reach but big on aperture

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: APS-C | Focal length: 50-100mm | Maximum aperture: f/1.8 | Image stabilizer: No | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 0.95m | Filter size: 82mm | Dimensions: 94 x 171mm | Weight: 1,490g

Super-wide f/1.8 aperture
Excellent build quality
Short maximum focal length
No stabilization

Picking up the focal length baton from Sigma’s unique 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM | A lens for APS-C format cameras, this one retains the extra-wide f/1.8 aperture rating while stretching into telephoto territory. To be fair, it doesn’t stretch that far, with an ‘effective’ zoom range of 80-160mm once you take Canon’s 1.6x crop factor into account. It’s also a relatively big and heavy lens, at about the same size and weight of a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, and is supplied complete with a tripod collar. Build quality and overall performance are excellent but the combination of relatively short telephoto reach and extra-wide aperture make it a rather specialised lens, arguably better suited to portraiture and still life than to sports and wildlife photography. 

10. Sigma APO 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG Macro for Canon

The best buy if you're on a shoestring budget

Type: Zoom | Sensor size: Full-frame | Focal length: 70-300mm | Maximum aperture: f/4-5.6 | Image stabilizer: 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

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 is some compensation.