The Best 70-200mm Zoom Lenses

OP’s guide to the professional workhorse lens for nature photographers
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Mount Fitzroy, Patagonia, Argentina. Tom Bol used the Nikon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR on his full-frame (FX-format) Nikon D3 to capture this stunning scene.


AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II.

Everyone has a favorite lens. It’s usually in a focal length that matches the way the photographer sees in his or her mind’s eye. We’ve heard of studies that show a human’s vision to be roughly equivalent to a 40mm lens on a full-frame DSLR, but we all focus on things within our field of vision a little differently. Some see in 20mm, and some see in 200mm. In addition to “seeing” in a certain focal length, many of what we think of as traditional nature subjects seem to lend themselves to a particular range. At the confluence of these two phenomena is a lens that has become known as a workhorse for nature pros: the 70-200mm.

Of course, we’re not saying that this is the only lens the pros use, but it’s a lens that so many pros rely on for a considerable portion of their photography that the leading manufacturers of camera bags design their wares around it. As editors, we’ve seen countless demos by the bag makers who describe a pro-level case as being able to hold a DSLR with a 70-200mm. Why is the lens so popular with nature shooters? In a word, versatility.

Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 II EX DG Macro HSM.

At the 70mm end, it’s wide enough to take in a broad landscape or show an animal within its full surroundings. At the 200mm end, it’s telephoto enough to get in fairly tight on an animal or to create a foreshortened perspective on a landscape. If you’re using a DSLR with an APS-C-sized sensor, the telephoto end is even more dramatic at an equivalent of just over 300mm. Also, some of the 70-200mm models are designed to work with a 1.4x teleconverter, bringing the telephoto to about 450mm. The lens also hits a sweet spot in its size. While there are size and weight differences between ƒ/2.8 and ƒ/4 models, even the largest and heaviest 70-200mm is manageable when compared to a 300mm or 400mm telephoto.

On a recent expedition to Africa, Stephen Frink captured some incredible land-based wildlife. He used the Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM on a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV (with an APS-H-format image sensor) for this shot.

A Brief History Of The 70-200mm
Early zoom lenses weren’t very sharp, and serious photographers avoided them. But pro-oriented, manual-focus 80-200mm zooms appeared around 30 years ago and delivered good enough image quality that serious shooters started using them. Canon and Nikon introduced high-performance autofocusing 80-200mm ƒ/2.8s in the late 1980s, and these found favor with pro sports and wildlife photographers. Over the next few generations, these high-speed telezooms evolved into 70-200mm zooms as users requested a wider wide end and the technology was able to deliver it with pro performance. Today, a number of manufacturers offer pro-level 70-200mm zooms. And the old 80-200mm ƒ/2.8 isn’t quite dead yet: Nikon still offers one, at a considerably lower cost than its 70-200mm ƒ/2.8s.

In 1989, concurrent with the introduction of its first AF SLR, the EOS-1, Canon introduced its first AF pro zoom lenses: the EF 80-200mm ƒ/2.8L, EF 20-35mm ƒ/2.8L and EF 28-80mm ƒ/2.8-4L USM. This gave pros focal lengths from 20mm superwide to 200mm telephoto in just three lenses, with pro performance. In 1995, Canon replaced the 80-200mm with the EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM, which contained a quick, quiet USM focusing motor that also permitted manual focusing without leaving AF mode. In 1999, Canon introduced the EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L USM, in response to demand for a lighter, lower-priced high-performance telezoom. In 2001, Canon added IS image stabilization to create the EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM zoom, and five years later added IS to the slower lens to create the EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM. In 2010, Canon introduced the EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM II, with improved image stabilization and optical performance.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Daniel J. Cox photographed this pair of thick-billed murres in Svalbard, Norway. With the lens set at 130mm on his Nikon D300 (DX-format APS-C image sensor), he had latitude to zoom in or out as necessary. This shows how useful the lens is for wildlife photography.

Nikon’s first pro AF telezoom was the AF Zoom-Nikkor 80-200mm ƒ/2.8, introduced in 1987. It was followed by the AF Zoom-Nikkor 80-200mm ƒ/2.8D in 1992, which featured internal focusing and provided distance data to the then-new 3D Matrix metering systems in Nikon AF SLRs. In 1997, Nikon introduced a new version of the lens, with a twin-ring design (previous zooms had a single ring for zooming and focusing) and faster AF. The first AF-S 80-200mm ƒ/2.8D was introduced in 1999, with new optics and a quick, quiet AF-S focusing motor (previous lenses used the AF motor in the camera body). In 2002, Nikon introduced its first AF-S 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G zoom, with VR Vibration Reduction built-in, and in 2009 introduced the AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 VR II, a completely new design with Nano-Crystal coating and more effective VR.

Sony’s 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 pro zoom began life as the Konica Minolta AF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM, the G signifying a high-performance pro lens, the D that it provides distance data to the camera’s metering system for more accurate exposures, and the SSM that it contains a Super Sonic Wave focusing motor for quiet, accurate autofocusing. The lens now carries the Sony badge, Sony having taken over and built extensively on Konica Minolta’s camera program a few years back.

Art Wolfe took this stunning image near Yangon, Myanmar. The 70-200mm’s versatile range is perfect for travel photography. Wolfe had the Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR.

Pentax offered the SMC FA* 80-200mm ƒ/2.8 ED (IF) zoom, but it’s no longer in production. Currently, the DA* 60-250mm ƒ/4 ED (IF) SDM fills this focal-length niche in the Pentax line, with a quiet Supersonic Drive focusing motor.

Olympus’ Zuiko Digital 35-100mm ƒ/2.0 zoom for Four Thirds System cameras provides the same field of view as a 70-200mm zoom on a 35mm camera (or full-frame DSLR), thanks to the smaller Four Thirds image sensor’s 2x focal-length factor. The lens is a member of Olympus’ Super High Grade pro series.

Among the independent lens manufacturers, Sigma has produced a number of autofocus 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 zooms, starting in 1998. Currently, it offers two: the recently introduced 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG OS HSM with Optical Stabilizer and a Hyper Sonic focusing motor, and the earlier 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 ES DG APO Macro HSM II, without OS. Both are available in mounts for Sigma, Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony/Minolta SLRs, and the latter is also available on a Four Thirds System mount. Tamron (which offered a 95-205mm F/6.3 manual-focus zoom back in 1961) offers the SP AF70-200mm F/2.8 Di LD (IF) Macro zoom in mounts for Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony/Minolta SLRs, currently the lowest-priced 70-200mm ƒ/2.8. Tokina once offered the AT-X AF 80-200mm ƒ/2.8 PRO zoom, but it’s no longer in production.

This Article Features Photo Zoom
70-200mm ƒ/2.8 Or 70-200mm ƒ/4?

Canon EF70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM

Many pro 70-200mm zooms have a maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8. But there are also some with a maximum aperture of ƒ/4. Which is a better choice for you?

The slower ƒ/4 lenses offer the advantages of much lower price and much less bulk. For example, Canon’s new EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM zoom lists for $2,499 and weighs 52.6 ounces, while the EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM lists for $1,349 and weighs 26.8 ounces. The slower lens also takes 67mm filters vs. the faster lens’ larger and more costly 77mm filters. When bulk and budget are the main concerns, the ƒ/4 is the better choice.

Canon EF70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM

The main advantage of the ƒ/2.8 zooms is lens speed. The ƒ/2.8s are one stop faster than the ƒ/4s, providing twice the action-stopping power in any given light level: If the ƒ/4 lens requires a shutter speed of 1⁄30 sec. wide open, the ƒ/2.8 will let you shoot at 1⁄60 sec. The faster lens also provides a brighter viewfinder image for easier composing and manual focusing. Many pros find the speed and brightness advantages of the ƒ/2.8s worth the extra cost and weight.

In general, the faster lenses are a bit sharper and autofocus a bit more quickly than the slower ones, but not so much so that most photographers would notice. Lens speed (i.e., low-light and action capability), weight and cost are the main concerns when deciding between a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 and a 70-200mm ƒ/4.

It’s Not For Everyone

Tamron SP AF70-200mm F/2.8 Di LD (IF) Macro; Sony SAL-70200G Zoom AF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 APO G(D) SSM

Despite its usefulness, the 70-200mm isn’t every pro’s first choice. George Lepp describes why he finds the 100-400mm zoom range more to his liking. “Every outdoor photographer has a favorite set of lenses. With pros, it’s not just about using our faithful favorites, but also being efficient, reliable and adaptable. Way back in the old film days, I established my typical range of lenses to include the 28-135mm mid-range zoom as my “normal” lens (this has now changed to a 24-105mm) and the 100-400mm as the middle-range telephoto; the latter lens has been a workhorse for my wildlife photography for more than 12 years. When you’re trying to capture fast action in the field, there isn’t time to change lenses constantly, alternating among a large set of fixed-focal-length lenses or short-range zooms. Most of my field photography happens in the 100mm to 400mm range. That said, if Canon offered a new high-quality 200-400mm ƒ/4 lens, I’d probably adopt that along with the 70-200mm (I’d opt for the ƒ/4) for most of my field photography. My fondest wish, however, is for a new, sharper, ring-focus 100-400mm lens, and I hope the folks at Canon are listening!”



    “If you?۪re using a DSLR with an APS-C-sized sensor, the telephoto end is even more dramatic at an equivalent of just over 300mm. Also, some of the 70-200mm models are designed to work with a 1.4x teleconverter, bringing the telephoto to about 450mm.”

    Sounds pretty cut and dry to me…

    Hi, I’m an italian reader/photographer. Sometimes I don’t understand. Shouldn’t a magazine be educative? Why being so hard on Mr Jensen? Fact is that no crop sensor can alter the focal lenght of a lens. A 200mm with a 1.4 teleconverter is and we’ll always be a 280mm. Than, when you mount it on an APS-X sensor, you’ll crop the image letting it to be equivalent to the one you would have on a full frame camera with a 450mm. I repeat, the focal length stays untouched.

    My compliment to the author, this was a well written article. I own the Nikon 70-200 2.8 and love it. Regarding the other comments, I don’t understand why so much time/focus is wasted talking about the focal length math. When I read the article I knew immediately knew the author considered an APS-C sensor in order to arrive at the stated focal length when using a 1.4 teleconverter. I trust we all agree that experienced photographers, especially those shooting full frame) understand the central message in the article and related the math.

    I for one certainnly appreciate the article and found it to be instructive and clear. I also understand how to frame a question in a civil manner, to AID discussion rather than derail it. On that note…can you all comment on which of the lenses are more suited for the teleconverter, as was suggested in Justin’s comment of october last?

    Which Lens are more suited for teleconverters? Well it depends but the short answer is “the expensive ones”. While I can’t speak for second party lens or teleconverters, the Nikon teleconverters are primarily limited to only their F2.8 or F4 glass. Also, because of the reduction in image quality a 1.4 teleconverter is often better than a 2X. In addition, the auto focus is less reliable when shooting with an aperture beyond F5.6. Of course manual focus is an option in the case where you need to stop down. Your lens manufacture technical data is a good source for information. I get goo results with my Nikon 1.7X on a 70-200 F2.8 and plan to purchase a 200-400 F4 and a 1.4X to use together.

    In general, if you want optimum image results, use a smaller teleconverter versus a larger one.

    Of course, a good tripod and camera technique is essential as well.

    I have had a Nikkor 70-200mm 1:2.8 VR II for over a year. I bought it before a whale watching opportunity last year in Alaska. It rarely comes off my camera if I am shooting outdoors. When it does it for a Nikkor MIcro 105mm 1:2.8 or the Nikkor Micro 60mm 1:2.8. As far as teleconverts goes, I’ll, on a rare occasion, put on a Nikkor AF-S 1.7. I just sold my D90 and got a D7000. They make a great combination at dawn and dusk.

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